I often get questions from students and parents who wonder why a strong personal statement is so important. After all, their students have good grades in solid courses (that is, academic core courses such as math, science, English, foreign language, social studies). They probably have AP or IB courses or took some classes at the community college.
The essay is important for at least two reasons.
First, students self-select what schools to apply to. They apply to those schools that interest them for any number of reasons and those schools where they have a chance, even a small one, of getting accepted. If your student with great grades and solid classes is applying to University Z, that means many other students, with similar grades, test scores and classes, are applying there as well. The competition then, is strong. What makes a student stand out is what they show the admissions committee about themselves – and that comes from the essay and the activities list.
Second, colleges have merit scholarships they offer to their best and brightest incoming freshman. The competition for those dollars is fierce. If everyone who is eligible has a 4.0 GPA, 2000 combined or better on the SAT or 31 or better on the ACT, how do they choose who will receive the scholarship? That’s right, they look at the other qualities a student has that makes them stand out among their peers.
Sometimes those other qualities may be so compelling and well-told that they can make a difference for a student with slightly lower scores or grades. (More so for admissions than for merit scholarships.)
So, when your student (or you!) sit down to write your college essays and activities list, take the time to make it the best you can.
If you want helpful tips, join one of my webinars for students or parents. Details can be found here.
Admissions is far more complex now than it ever was. After 10+ years of experience as one of the “gatekeepers” for university admissions, I have insight into what college admissions officers are looking for in the application process. I’m now offering online webinars to help students better understand how to bring out their best on the application.
Learning how to write about yourself is a skill you can learn. College and scholarship applications are your first chance to put this skill to use. After that, you’ll be writing resumes, cover letters, and statements of purpose for graduate school. These webinars will help you select a topic to write on and assist you in telling your story to the admissions committee.
If you want to learn more about the admissions process and how you can put your best self on paper for the college essay and activities list, I hope you’ll join me for one of the webinars. Just head to www.zinjenzo.com.
It’s started – that crazy time of year when seniors like you begin applying for college, or for those who started this summer, complete their college application.
Why do I say it’s a crazy time? Because senior year is typically (and hopefully) filled with difficult classes, leadership in clubs and organizations both in and outside of high school, and writing essays about yourself for college and scholarship applications. If a student (you!) are trying to do all of those things well, it takes a lot of time.
My recommendation to stay sane: stay organized! It’s likely you are applying to several colleges. (I recommend applying to three to five.) Create a space in your room to hold all of your college materials. It could be one file drawer, a box with folders, a color-coded notebook. I like to call this “area” your App HQ.
On your computer, create an electronic App HQ, a folder clearly marked “college applications” with separate folders for each college with all of your essay drafts and student activities’ lists inside. This way, when you are inspired to write, you’ll know exactly where to find your materials.
Many colleges also have application checklists to make sure you send in a completed application. Print those out and/or download them and keep them in App HQ.
You can repeat this for all of the scholarship applications you’re going to send in too.
By starting off well-organized, you’ll save yourself valuable time over the next few months. And who knows, you might squeeze in time for fun!
There are acceptance letters from colleges and denial letters and everyone knows what those are. But what’s this “wait list” thing about? What does that mean?
The wait list is a way for colleges to make sure they have the right class size they are looking for. It’s their way of saying to you, “we know you can succeed here, but there are other students we think are better except we’re not sure how many of them will choose to come here.” They know that most students they accept off the wait list will take them up on their offer.
If you are put on the wait list, here’s what you want to do:
Read the letter carefully.
Follow the directions. Some colleges may ask you to send back a card or go online and confirm that you do want to be on their wait list. If you don’t confirm, then you are removed from the wait list.
Work hard your senior year. Colleges may ask to see your senior year grades to decide who are the best candidates to come off the wait list.
The wait list may not be a list at all! Colleges organize wait lists in many different ways. Some may be able to tell you “You’re in the top ten on our wait list.” Others, may have a their list “grouped,” based on how students scored in the admissions process based on academic and personal scores. They’ll accept students in groups based on what they need to make a balanced class. They won’t be able to tell you where you are on the wait list because they don’t know.
Consider putting a deposit in to reserve your place in the freshman class at another college where you’ve been accepted. You’ll take a risk of not going to any college if you put all of your eggs in the wait list basket and then don’t get accepted off the list. You are likely to lose your deposit at the at the other college if you do come off the wait list and don’t go where you paid your deposit, but that might be a risk worth taking.
My nephew just received news he didn’t get into his first choice college. (I say that’s their loss!) Is it because he isn’t smart enough or didn’t get great test scores? Nope. It’s a matter of competition to get in, what that college is looking for, and how well he presented himself and his accomplishments. And the last item is the only one in his (and your) control.
How do you deal with denial letters (which is what we call them in admissions because “rejection letter” sounds too harsh)? Here are some suggestions I have:
Read the letter thoroughly to see what it says.
Mope for 12-24 hours, but no longer. (I did this. Everyone was extra nice to me for one day then I had to get over it.)
Celebrate the acceptance letters again and think about how smart those colleges are to accept you and how much those other colleges are missing.
Have a chocolate bar.
Reflect on what you might have done differently (if anything) to get into your first choice college. Did you work as hard as you could have in classes or did you just coast through school? Did you spend time writing an essay that really talked about what you would bring to the campus? What was your work ethic?
Build on what you learned during your reflection time. Reflection time is not idle time thinking “what if.” It’s time for you to learn how to take something that didn’t work for you and make it better the next time. For example: Let’s say you are a smart person but you didn’t work as hard as you could have studying. It was easy to get a B so that’s what you got – though hard work would have given you an A grade. (Personal experience talking here.) You reflect and realize you could have been far more competitive in the college admissions process had you put in the effort in high school. Now you have the opportunity in college to work harder, and get better grades. And what will that lead to? Better internship opportunities, job offers during and after college, and I’d bet you’d have more confidence the better you did in classes. You’d probably have more faculty contacts who could write you letters of recommendation for graduate school if that was your goal.
Realize that you can only control some things. You can control how hard you work and the choices you make. You can control how you react to the denial letter. You can’t control how college’s make decisions or how much competition there was for admission to the colleges where you applied.
Make plans to visit the colleges you were accepted to. If you go in with the attitude that you have made good decisions about all the schools you applied to, and that you have good options on where to attend, be happy and get ready for an amazing experience at college.
Good luck to you in making decisions about where to attend college! There are many options out there that will suit you. Starting at community college and transferring to your dream school is one idea among many others that will get you to your Bachelors degree. You can get there and have a fulfilling experience on the way.
Students like you are getting the good news about acceptance to college. Like you, they run to the mailbox for “the big envelope” – because congratulation letters come with tons of information about orientation, housing, and the very important new student enrollment/deposit fee.
What do you do with all this information? Here are my suggestions:
After you open the envelope and you read “Congratulations!” – I recommend jumping up and down and being very excited.
Share the news via any method you can: facebook, phone, text, tweet, sky writing…
Sit down after celebrating and read everything that came in the envelope. Twice.
Share the information with a trusted adult – parent, guardian, foster parent, case worker, grandparent. Someone you can review the information with.
Make a checklist of all the things you need to do. Include fees that need to be paid and deadlines for paying them. You don’t want to be late!
Make a date to visit the campuses you’ve been accepted to if at all possible. In your packet or in your email you may find information on accepted student open houses/preview days held by the colleges. These are only for the students who have been accepted and are designed to get all your questions answered before you make the decision on where to get your education.
Whether you visit a campus or not, talk to students who attend the college. It’s easy if you’re there for a visit, but colleges may also have online chat opportunities, congratulatory phone calls from students attending the school, or you can just ask the admissions counselor to connect you to a current student.
Compare information from the colleges you’ve been accepted to including what seems to be the best fit for YOU as well as what you and your family can afford. (You may have to wait for your financial aid packages to come in for this.)
It’s very important for get your fees in on time, especially to reserve your place in the freshman class and in the residence halls. If paying the fees will be a hardship for you and your family, you can ask for the fees to be deferred (meaning you pay the fees later with the payment coming out of your financial aid). Read the information you receive to see how to do that and what deferment means to that specific college. For many schools, if you defer the deposit and later decide not to attend that college, you still owe them that deposit money. Other colleges may waive the enrollment and/or housing fees based on your financial aid information. This means you don’t have to pay those fees at all.
Ask questions. Read carefully. And choose your college based on what fits you – there may be more than one.
Proofeading: a lost art? A waste of time now that there’s spell check? No – I say! Proofreading essays (reports, papers, any written communication) is important.
First, let me say that as an English major, I have a hard time using text lingo, the small “i,” no capitals, and other language shortcuts for quick communication. I will adjust, but for now I will spell things out. (OMG!) I do proofread my emails, professional communication always and personal most times, because I want to be clear about what I say. I may think I have the most interesting story to tell, but if no one can understand it, what good is the telling?
I have found that humans make the best proofreaders. Spell check is a useful tool, absolutely, but it can be dangerous if used on its own. I have read essays from people I thought were pirates based on their writing. They had sentences everywhere talking about “packing me bags for an adventure,” and “going to me friends house.” Thought they didn’t add the words “Aaaarrrrr matey,” I read the sentence with those words tacked on the end and pictured the writer sitting, typing along with a parrot on his shoulder. Why do they talk like pirates (when they are not – I checked the application)? It’s because they relied on spell check to catch their errors.
Spell check skips “pirate talk” because me is a word. Sure you’re supposed to type in “my” but spell check doesn’t care. In another essay a student thought they wrote about how their mom “puts in many hours at work.” But instead, she wrote that her mom “put sin…“!! I don’t know about you, but when I read the words, mom, sin and work in the same sentence, I do wonder what the subject of the essay is going to be!
Another issue I’ve noticed in my own writing is the auto-correct feature. Have you ever had a word automatically corrected to another word that isn’t a thing like what you were trying to write? Imagine writing to your friend, Heike, and it changes her name to Heifer. Not good! I wrote something to my sister about my mother having ice cream anemia! What is that?
So, ask people who you trust and who write well to take a look at your essays and proofread them. And if you want one final check, ask a friend to read your essay aloud to you. That way you can hear if you’re talking like a pirate!
Good writing to you!
Zinjenzo – The College (And Scholarship!) Application Guru
I just read a great blog post by Katherine Price on application stress. Students question if they’ve taken the “right” courses, if all AP or IB classes are enough to get them admitted.
What I thought about is “are students learning in high school” and “are they having any fun?”
First, the pressure to take the most rigorous courses to be considered for admission to highly selective colleges cannot be underestimated. But it begs the question are students learning in those courses? Are they leaning to communicate, to write clearly, to think critically, to understand how one discipline approaches a problem or question differently from another? Or are they gathering facts designed to give them high scores on standardze tests or the AP tests that can get them college credit? Does the learning stick or does it disappear after the test is done?
I also wonder if we in admissions push students to take those AP courses in calculus and physics, chemistry and statistics and value them more than classes in the humanities and social sciences, as if those fields are less important to learning and academic advancement.
Finally, students need to have fun and not study every minute of every day. There is a great deal to be said about social and emotional maturity helping students make the most out college when they get there. If they don’t get that through high school experiences, through clubs and organizations (that they enjoy participating in rather than calculated resume building) or by hanging out with friends, when and where will they safely learn those skills. Plus fun and time away from studying rejuvenates and helps in learning (just like exercise gets blood literally flowing to your brain).
I wonder what can be done to lessen the stress to reasonable amounts for students who want to go to college, to encourage them to be great at something they love to learn about. What do you suggest?
Ever have to start a paper and the cursor on the blank computer screen blinks at you tauntingly, “ha, ha – you can’t start, neener, neener!” Here are some ways to stop the taunting!
First of all, make sure you have the right attitude when you sit down to write, whether you type on the computer or write the old-fashioned way of taking pen to paper. Don’t add pressure when writing your college or scholarship application essays by thinking that you will sit down and write the best essay in the history of the world on your first try. Say to yourself, “I will now write a crappy first draft” and feel the stress leave you. Even the greatest writers have editors and have to do rewrites. Expect that you’ll have to do a few yourself.
Brainstorm, mind-map, make an outline, use bullet points. You can sit down and use any of these techniques to get your ideas down quickly without worrying about grammar, spelling or punctuation. Brainstorming about a topic you can write about is especially helpful because sometimes your first idea for a topic is not your best idea.
You can’t do anything with a blank page. You have to write something, anything, before you can add, delete, spell check, or proofread. Even if you sit down and free-write or stream of consciousness write (writing everything in your head, even if you start with “I don’t know what to write but I’m supposed to be thinking about…,”) that will get something on the paper. Set a timer and plan to write for just 5 minutes. You may find that once you get going, the words will flow.
Leave time for multiple drafts. Good essays, those that win scholarships, take some time to write. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird By Bird, says that “your first draft is your down draft; write it down. Your second draft is your up draft; fix it up.” Then you’ll need time to get the help of others to proofread your work. Of course, you wouldn’t give your essay to someone the night before it’s due, right? You want to show them respect and give them a few days to look it over.
These are just a few ideas to get started on your essay with the right attitude. If you have tricks that help you, let me know. I’d love to learn from you.
Good writing to you!
Zinjenzo – The College (and Scholarship) Application Guru
Yes, grammar, punctuation and spelling all count in your college and scholarship essays. But it’s even more important to talk about yourself. Often when I proofread essays for clients, I have to remind them to add “more YOU!”
To make sure you are writing about yourself, use “I” statements. Don’t write about how “one” might do something, or “you” should know something. We, the essay readers, are looking for information on who you are, what’s meaningful to you, what makes you tick.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to write about a person who is very important to you. That’s a good topic to select (provided you are following the directions and answering the essay prompt). But I don’t want to know all about this special person, I want to know about you! I’ve read too many essays about how incredible someone’s mom is – working two jobs, going back to school, raising three kids as a single mom – and at the end of the essay, I’m ready to give the scholarship to mom! Not the student who wrote the essay. The key is to tell the reader a little bit about what makes this person important to you, and then to write about what you learned from that person, why they are special to you, and then how you took what you learned from him/herand applied it to your life.
Another great way to tell your story and make your essay unique is to give specific details from your experiences to illustrate your story. How many high school grads applying to college could write “I am a leader,” then talk about what leadership means to them using words like organization, communication, and responsibility?? I would say thousands of students could!!
But let’s say you talk about leadership and give examples from your experience. “I am a leader. As captain of the football team I knew what it meant to motivate my teammates at practice and games. But then I tore my ACL in the second game of the year, and I couldn’t practice or play. I was still the captain but I had no idea how to help the team now. I discovered that being with the team was important and helping the new guy who took my position learn all my tricks was the way to lead. Bruce, my backup, was just a freshman and he was so nervous taking over my spot. I wanted to teach him what I knew and had learned for the last four years so our quarterback could stay upright and not be sacked. (I’m an offensive lineman and my main job is blocking.) So whenever Bruce came to me, I’d talk about the next team we were playing and the opposing player’s strengths and weaknesses….”
Or perhaps you are a leader within your family. “I am a leader. It’s my responsibility to get my brother and sister to day care and school every weekday. Let me tell you, that’s no walk in the park! One day, my brother the kindergartner is trying to be helpful by making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and so there’s peanut butter all over the kitchen and all over him. My sister, who is supposed to be in her room, is wandering around the house naked with a box of Cheerios, leaving a trail for the dog to follow. But my mom works hard, goes to work by 6am, and is studying for her college classes, so the least I can do is help her out in the mornings. Besides, as crazy as it is, I enjoy watching my brother and sister grow up….”
Both students are writing about leadership, but the examples they give allow me, the reader, to see a snapshot of their lives. The stories they tell also show me what is unique about them and their lives. When you are competing for admission to college and scholarship dollars, you want to send in an essay that only you could write. Your personal examples make the essay unique to you.
Those are my tips for now! Good writing and good luck with admissions and scholarship essays!
Zinjenzo – The College (and Scholarship) Application Guru