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.
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!
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.
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
I’ve been meeting a lot of great students and parents as I travel and do presentations on writing a great college (and scholarship) essay. So many have questions about what admission committees look for and how they can put their best selves on paper.
I have four tips I’d like to share over the next few blogs to help you write well. My first tip: Follow the directions!
One size does not fit all college essays so the most important thing you can do is answer the actual question the college asks. Some essay questions will be very broad: “Tell us a story that helps demonstrate your character.” Others more specific, like this one from the Common Application: “Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.” There are Christian colleges that may ask you to “describe your relationship to God” and write about why a Christian education is important to you. Stanford asks simply, “Why Stanford?”
Be sure to cover the question that you are asked!
Another caution I have is to carefully proofread if you use the same essay for multiple schools because the questions they ask are so alike. Be sure to proofread to make sure you’re not writing “…and I’ve always wanted to be a Michigan Wolverine” when you’re sending that application to Ohio State! I see that happen quite often in essays and don’t want you making that embarrassing mistake.
Another part of following directions is when it comes to page and word count for your essays. For some colleges, this number will be a guideline. If you’re completing your application online, the computer will likely cut you off when you get to a certain word count. Other colleges may have the guideline but no computer cut-off. It’s up to you to get as close as you can to the number of words, pages or characters that the college recommends. The last thing you want to do is stand out by sending a 5-page essay when they asked for 2 pages. But don’t stress out too much if you are a few words over. Just stay as close as possible to the requested numbers.
Finally, if you are sending in a hard copy of your application and essays (nothing wrong with that), keep your formats and fonts simple. Never use smaller than a 10-point font (and this goes for resumes and job applications as well as scholarship essays) and always have margins of at least one inch on all sides. Also, use an easily readable font. Don’t try to stand out by writing your essay in wingdings font and sending a decoder ring. That’s a bad idea!
I hear people say, too often for my liking, that some people just aren’t college material. (Interestingly, the people who say this are rarely talking about their own children.) These particular students aren’t “meant” to go on to do any schooling after high school. In many cases, this decision is made for these students as early as 7th grade, sometimes even earlier.
I wonder if you are one of those people not meant for college? If not you, then who are “these people?” Your neighbors’ kids? Your friends’ children? The children of people you don’t know? What would it be like if we sat down with these kids and their parents in middle school or high school and the principal said,
“You are here because you are not college material. What that means for your future is that you are highly likely to receive public assistance and not have any healthcare. You are more also more likely to be among the working poo, live below the poverty level, and to have a higher rate of obesity. You will also be disengaged from the political process – your voice will not be heard or counted.”
This is what research shows has been happening to the majority of people who don’t continue their education beyond high school. Now, I’m not talking about success only for those going to a four-year school and getting a bachelor’s degree. Students who have 2-year degrees or certificates in various specialties, or who apprentice in the trades (like plumbing, carpentry, construction, electrical work) also are far less likely to experience poverty.
If we know the outcomes of students not continuing their education beyond high school, and the group of folks who are “not college material” have just been told this, do you think anyone would choose that path? Why then are some educators (and others) choosing that path for people? Is this the kind of future we want for our children or for other children?
I saw a graph the other day at a national conference of educators working on increasing college access and success for first generation, low-income students and those students who are youth and alumni of foster care (often classified as “those people who are not college material”). The graph showed that the United States is the only first world nation whose youth are not outpacing their parents in receiving any kind of college degree. We are stagnant. This means that as the baby boomers retire, we won’t have the educated population to replace them or to take on the jobs and careers that we can’t even imagine right now!
Here’s one thing we can all do to help everyone be prepared for college and all kinds of education after high school: we can ask (legislators, high school officials, colleges in our state) to push for high school graduation requirements to match college entrance requirements. In my state, Washington, they don’t match and that’s a shame. A high school diploma on it’s own doesn’t qualify you for the next step. This means that when you attend a community college or a four-year school with the promise to take those “remedial” courses, you have to pay for them. Take them in high school and they’re free! And those “remedial” classes don’t even count toward college graduation – they are there to get you up to the college level.
This is how I look at it: how can an 18 year old (or any of us!) know what’s going to happen 10, 20, 30 years from now and the skills needed to be successful? I didn’t know during my college years that I’d have to use a computer, email, the internet, cell phones and texting to communicate with people . This is why getting the foundational skills in high school are important: math through at least Algebra II, 4 years of English and writing, Social Studies to understand the world and our history, world language to help us understand and communicate with people from other cultures, and at least 2 years of science with labs. Even if you don’t use these skills in your career (and I do wish I paid far more attention in Algebra II), you have a base knowledge to make sense of the world – to understand articles in the paper and news reports to say the least. The high school courses I mentioned provide foundational knowledge that can be built upon and help us understand our world intelligently. And they help us prepare for continued learning and success as adults.
It is important to me that students receive a good education. That they graduate high school prepared for a good-paying job, further education of any kind, and to contribute to their world. That’s why stereotyping some people as not college material by middle school upsets me. I hope you don’t mind that I took some time to write down my thoughts!
Zinjenzo – The College Application Guru (and advocate for education after high school!)
What is your GPA? Is that weighted or unweighted? Does it include all the classes you’ve taken in high school? What GPA is considered by the colleges you are considering?
I’d bet money that any high school junior or senior could tell you what their GPA is in a split second. We’re trained to keep track of that number. The important question is – how was that GPA calculated? I want you to know your “real” GPA, the one that colleges are going to look at when they consider your admissions application.
So – what’s a real GPA, you ask. It’s your GPA for all of your academic courses – English, math, science, world language, social studies. It doesn’t include PE or band, TA or yearbook, leadership class or religious studies (like the kind you’d take in a Catholic high school, for example). It’s simply for your academic courses.
I worked with Mark, a student who believed his GPA was a 3.8, and he was right when you account for all his A grades in gym and in band. But take those grades out and his GPA dropped to a 3.3. He was surprised by this and it made him consider how likely he was to be admitted to some of his college choices. It also made him work harder on his essays and activities lists as he knew these things would be more important. He didn’t change his mind about where to apply, but where he previously thought he was a shoe-in for admission with his high GPA, he now knew he had to spend more time on the rest of his application.
Something else to consider – not all schools look at weighted GPAs. They want your GPA unweighted. Yes, taking AP and IB classes matter to admissions committees as they know you have been challenged to think critically and write well. Knowing your unweighted GPA helps to put things in perspective for you.
One more tidbit I want to share: while honors courses look good on your transcript, many colleges won’t give those classes extra weight in your GPA calculation. The reason for that – colleges don’t know how individual high schools decide what an honors course is. They do know that AP and IB classes use specific curriculum that goes through a rigorous process before it’s decided. That’s why some colleges will only give weighted GPA values to AP and IB courses.
Admissions is answering one very important question when they look at your GPA and test scores: can this student succeed at this university? If you know your unweighted GPA (as well as your weighted GPA for colleges who consider it), you’re increasing your knowledge about yourself as a student. And it helps you see your own application a little more like the admissions committee does.
There are many GPA calculators online. Here’s one that calculates unweighted grades. Ask your guidance counselor for an unofficial copy of your high school transcript and just plug in the information at http://www.college-scholarships.com/online_college_gpa_calculator.htm. Feel free to look at other GPA calculators that can help you figure your weighted grades, too.
Good luck to you! And remember to breathe as you prepare for college admissions!
Those acceptance letters are pouring in and you now have to make a tough decision: where do you want to spend the next 4-5 years studying? (And living and having fun!)
I recommend that you and your family consider three questions.
What college is the right academic fit? What you want to determine here is if the options for your major (or majors) are offered at the college you want to attend. (A major is an academic area that you emphasize in college by taking many courses in that one subject.) If you are considering a major in broadcast journalism, for example, you want to be sure your first choice college has that particular major. It may have journalism in general, or print journalism, or communication as a major, so you’ll need to decide if that’s good enough.
What college is the right social fit? This is the time for you to consider the atmosphere of the college – highly intellectual, laid back and relaxed, party central. Do you want to be in an urban environment, rural or someplace in between? Do some research on the amount and types of clubs and organizations that are there and think about what you’d like to be doing outside the classroom. The university where I work has over 600 clubs - groups that are serious about politics, groups that get together and knit, cinema groups, fraternities and sororities, ethnically diverse groups like MECHA and Unidas Seremos, the Black Student Union and Sisterhood, the Polynesian Student Association, and the Cambodian Student Association, just to name a few. As you can see there are many different clubs on campus to choose from – but are there some that YOU are interested in?
What college is a good financial fit? Yes, you do have to decide what you and your family can afford. Make sure you understand your financial aid package and if you don’t, ask questions until it’s clear. At some schools, public and private, you have some negotiating room to request more aid or a different type of aid (for example, “Hello, Financial Aid Office. I’d really like to go to X College, but Y College offered me $2000 less in loans and more in scholarship money. Is there any way you can increase my scholarship award?”). It doesn’t hurt to ask, but that doesn’t mean they’ll say yes. And there are some colleges that have no wiggle room. What your financial aid package says is the final word. Doesn’t hurt to ask, though. (When thinking of finances, you might also want to think about how far away from family you want to be. If it’s too expensive for you to come home for every break, are you okay with that? Are your parents or guardians okay with that?)
So what does all this mean? If you can find a college that has everything you are looking for and a financial aid package that works for you, you are all set – send in your enrollment deposit to hold your place in the class.
If, however, the college that’s your top choice only offers some of what you really want (and can’t live without), then you have to decide what’s most important to you and examine your expectations of college.
Once you make the decision about where you want to go, send in your deposit to ensure your place in the freshman class. Then make sure you plan to attend orientation and get any on-campus housing information in by the college’s deadline, if you decide to live on campus, to be sure you have a place to live.
After that, it’s all about your attitude. Maybe the college you end up selecting isn’t your first choice or your dream college. You can cry and moan over the place where you couldn’t go, or you can decide to make the most of the opportunities offered at the college you ARE going to. Take it from me, who went to her second choice college – I had an amazing college experience and have no regrets about where I went to school!
What do you think? What else should be included when you consider which college to select? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Good luck! Make the most of your college experience. And congratulations on your acceptance to college!
I don’t know about you, but I love that 80’s song “We are Family.” Perhaps it’s because I’m visiting my family in Wisconsin that has me thinking of it.
I am a lucky person – I am close to my family, my parents and my sister, which is my immediate family. I even have a great relationship with my brother-in-law and the kids. (My nephew actually asked me for advice on what classes to take in high school. And he listened!)
I wanted to talk about the powerful impact adults have, and especially family members on college aspirations. I’m not going to quote studies and research, but just what I know. I know my parents made it clear early (like 7th grade) that I was going to go to college and that my grades in high school were important. They also made it clear they would have a say in where I went to college based on the financial aid package offered to me and what they could afford. Then they pushed and prodded me to get good grades, get my college applications completed (especially the essays) and get them in on time.
Recently I did a small study of students on my campus who were formerly in foster care. Now you may think, “but foster youth don’t have family by definition!?” Suprisingly, the nine youth who responded to the survey indicated that family support was one of the MOST important factors in their success - success in getting into college and in persisting to graduation. Who are their families? They identified their families as their foster parents, social workers, their grandparents, relatives, siblings, and other positive and caring adults in their lives. The older adults they trusted and who were consistently there for them were the ones to whom they listened and turned to for support. These folks were their families.
So, if you are an adult reading this, especially a parent, know that your support has a huge impact on your kids and their college and career goals. You can make their life hard by choosing for them where they should go (and what they should study) or you can help them figure out what’s best for them and talk honestly about the places you can afford once you see the financial aid packages. Practice your relentless optimism with a little badgering thrown in to motivate them.
If you’re a student reading this, know that there are many adults in the world who are positive and ready and willing to listen and give you advice about college and careers. You have a lot of support if you ask around and connect to people around you. Sometimes, you may just connect with one person; other students may find many willing helpers. If you look, you can find them. Ask for their help, listen to what they say, and then filter it through the question “What’s best for me and for my future?”
In my 23 years of working with college students from a wide variety of backgrounds, I have heard many stories of positive adults, or just that one person who believed in the student. And that made all the difference in the world.
Be positive and surround yourself with positive people.