Friday, June 24, 2016

Military Service Men & Women Applying with GI Bill - Help with College Application Essays

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When I taught creative writing at Columbia University several years ago, I met a fascinating group of students who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and were attending Columbia on the GI Bill. 

I recently found this Veterans Administration website urging service members to write about their wartime experiences in their university application essays.

From the website:

"Here are a couple of tips for how best to use your military experience in your application essay—and (perhaps more importantly) some thoughts on what not to do.

"DO mention your leadership ability

"Leadership potential might be the number one character trait that schools are looking for in applicants. Proof that you've taken on serious responsibility and have a high level of maturity is a good indication for those in admissions that you will take your education seriously and will go on to do great work post-graduation (and then make millions and donate back to the school, of course). As a Veteran, it is likely you have led a command of some kind—make sure this is touched on in your essay piece.

"DO NOT tell this boring story: I went to teach them… but it turned out to be they who taught ME

"There's a particular essay that all adjudicators and admissions committees dread. It goes like this… I was employed to teach people/children in a remote village/urban center/small rural area. I went into it thinking I would be educating them, but in the end it was I who learned from them.
"Admissions officers hate this essay. Why? Because it doesn't really say anything about you as a person, and the story is not as original as you might think. Careful of this theme… it's deadly.

"DO talk about challenges you faced

It's very likely you have dealt with questions and situations that most people have not. Illustrate how you used quick thinking and skills to overcome problems, and how you became more mature because of these decisions.

"DO NOT get too dark. Leave out deep personal tragedy

"Of course it's good to talk meaningfully about your experience, but this can go too far. Abuse, depression and death are striking subjects and therefore you might think they are good fodder for an essay. After all, the idea is to provoke a response, to make sure you are memorable. Unfortunately, an essay that focuses on these topics does not serve you well. Similarly, psychological trauma that may have been suffered during military service is not great for your essay, not because it's not important to your character, but because it tends to take the reader out of the narrative and usually doesn't connect very effectively to why you'll be a good candidate for college. So often essays that focus on dark subjects go down a trajectory that leads away from your achievements, which is what these pieces should highlight. Never stray from a path that keeps you talking about why you are an IDEAL candidate.

"DO tell your specific story

It's important to tell your story—not just one of general military life. Your narrative may seem relatively commonplace to you because it was spent in the company of people who were participating in similar activities, but the details of your service are unique and interesting to admissions officers."  READ THE REST

If you're applying U.S. colleges or universities on the GI Bill and you would like help with your application essays, I would be happy to give you a special discount on doing the Common App essay and the supplements. Please shoot me an email and visit my website:   Don't Sweat The Essay


New University of California Application Essay Prompts Stressing Students

Colleges and universities rarely do radical changes to their application essay prompts, but this year, the entire University of California did exactly that. The system went from requiring two long essays to four shorter essays, asking students to choose from a list of eight prompts. Each of the four pieces has a maximum length of 350 words. 

This recent radio segment on Southern California's Public Station KPCC 89.3 focuses on the stress the new prompts are causing. I prefer to take this news story with a grain of salt. Cranking out high-stakes essays - old or new - causes stress. And the students doing the essays this year didn't do them last year; they have no basis for comparison. They're stressed, period. And I sympathize. 

It's useful to keep many things in mind as you do the essays - here's a list of ten to get you going - but most important is this: The essays themselves will not earn you admission to the UC university of your dreams/choice. You need the grades and scores to make the first cut, and those numbers vary from institution to institution.

For the top ranking students applying to the most competitive universities - Berkeley and UCLA - the essays needs to confirm your grades and scores; they need to show that you're as thoughtful and insightful as your grades suggest you are. Ideally, they'll show that even in this very competitive pool, you stand out by virtue of your accomplishments, leadership skills, way of seeing the world and expressing yourself. At each level, the essays must either confirm your record or add something to a record that might have some weakness in it. If your grades have fluctuated, your essays can show your other attributes and your understanding of what you need to do to perform better. 

For a list of the prompts, check out my May blog post right here

Here are some more nuts and bolt advice to students confronting these four short pieces:

1.  Put aside a good bit of time every few days for a good many weeks to work on the essays. 

2.  Don't feel you need to do them all at once. You can't, and you shouldn't.

3.  It might be easier to print out the prompts on paper and look at them that way, so you don't feel the pressure to be writing on the computer while brainstorming. 

4.  In your first few read-throughs, pick out only one prompt that you like more than the others and take some notes about what you might write. Do not attempt to write the entire essay. Take as many notes as you can. Think of stories and anecdotes that illustrate your choices. 

5.  Then pick out another prompt, and take more notes. Again, do not attempt to write the essays. Free associate with a pen in your hand and see what thoughts come out.

6. Guess what? Do the same for the other two pieces you like most. In the early stages, just take notes. They don't have to be complete sentences. This is an effort to get in touch with your material. That's all you're trying to do. If you end up with five or six lines of notes for each essay, you're in great shape.

7. Don't repeat yourself from prompt to prompt. Pick prompts that focus on different parts of your life and your perspective. 

8: When you start writing, keep the tone conversational. Use lines of dialogue that are memorable. Pick specific details that locate you in time and space. 

9. It's hard to make the switch from writing academically, as you've been expected to do for ten years, and this kind of more personal, informal writing. You're not writing an academic paper or an encyclopedia listing. This is personal. Use the voice you would use to talk about yourself. That's where you're headed. 

10. There aren't many times or places where you're asked to reflect on your own life - and to know that people are really interested in what you have to say. My point: enjoy the opportunity. Don't be afraid to sparkle. Don't be afraid to be yourself.  

From the KPCC segment:

"“We’ve had a lot of people say that [the old prompt was] too general, it doesn’t allow students to have a more focused platform, it doesn’t allow them to express themselves," [UC spokesperson] Doan said. "In certain ways, it felt like it was more of a struggle."
"Students will now choose among eight prompts designed to allow the students to portray the aspects of their life they feel are most relevant: they can write about how they've showed creativity or leadership skills, a favorite class or academic subject, or a challenge in life or educational barrier they've overcome. 
"“It’s less quantitative and [gets at] more of who they are, and it provides context for the entire application so you can explain what you’ve been through, what you’ve accomplished, why your grades were a certain way, or what you’re amazing at that isn’t reflected in other parts of the application,” Doan said.
"The changes come at a time when admission to California's public colleges and universities is more competitive than ever. The UC system received over 206,000 applications for undergraduate admission in the most recent cycle – a record." READ THE REST 
Writing college application essays IS stressful - but so are nearly all of the interesting, important aspects of our lives. 
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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Dozen Do's and Dont's: 2016 Common App College Essay Prompts

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Here's the opening of my latest Huffington Post College page blog, which you can read in its entirety right here.

"Alongside my college counseling work, I’ve written six novels and taught creative writing to college students and adults for decades. You don’t need to write a novel to get into college, but you do need to adopt some of the essentials of writing creatively to make your application essays sing. Since most of the supplements are not yet on line, I’ll focus on the Common Application essay for now.

1. Get personal. Find a topic that makes your heart beat a little faster than usual - a topic with some energy and even tension in it: A piece of your personal story that’s essential to who you are and not reflected in your activities list, a talent, a hardship, a moment you took a risk and spoke out to defend a position, or a problem you solved, even if it was putting together a trampoline in your backyard. These are personal essays, not academic paper or speeches.
2. Before you start writing, do some free writing on your topic. Scribble down what comes to you without thinking about organization, voice or structure. This is a great way to find your voice and your material. Put your notes aside for a day or two, and when you come back to them, see which passages stand out.
Time - and time away from what you’re writing - is a great editor. Every writer I know has the experience that we write something we think is terrific and look at it in the morning and want to cry. The writing that holds up a week later is the good stuff.
3. Speaking of time: Don’t save this essay or any of the others for the last minute. Think of the essay as a work-in-progress, and set aside time to do it over a period of weeks.
4. Write informally and write long. Don’t stick to the 650-word limit as you begin. Again, you’re looking for material, energy, what matters. Once you have that down, you can edit out everything that isn’t essential.
5. College admissions officers often report that they want to be entertained and engaged by your essay. I’d say it’s more important to go for “engaged” than “entertained,” but the message is clear. The first sentence needs to be a grabber. You may end up writing the first terrific sentence once you’re done with the third draft. It doesn’t need to be acrobatic or pyrotechnic, and it doesn’t need to be one for the ages (“Call me Ishmael” - opening of Moby Dick), but a little pizazz goes a long way, at the beginning and throughout.  READ THE REST
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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Amherst: College App Admissions Essays That Worked

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I'm lucky enough to see the Amherst College Alumni magazine regularly. A recent issue featured four of the application essays that got these students into Amherst Class of 2019. If you click on these screen shots and hit the + sign on your keyboard, they should get big enough to read. I think they show a wonderful variety of stories, interests, and voices. For more about that issue of the magazine, click here 

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Passion, Creativity, Taking a Stand - on a Floating Stage in Norway

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I don't usually blog about matters unrelated to college admissions, but this Huffington Post piece about Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi playing his composition "Elegy for the Arctic" on a floating platform amidst a crumbling glacier in Norway has knocked me out this morning. Having just returned from Norway - though I didn't make anywhere this far north - it caught my attention, and of course the content did too: climate change, what we can do to call attention to it, and how we might arrest it. 

Many of the students I work with want to pursue fields related to the environment because they understand the realities of climate change. 

From the article:
“Being here has been a great experience. I could see the purity and fragility of this area with my own eyes and interpret a song I wrote to be played upon the best stage in the world,” Einaudi said in a news release from Greenpeace. “It is important that we understand the importance of the Arctic, stop the process of destruction and protect it.”
"Greenpeace had the piano shipped from Germany to Norway, where it traveled on the Arctic Sunrise, one of the organization’s ships, to the glacier."
I hope that you take a few minutes to watch this tremendously moving video and read the article. If you're as moved by it as I am, please post a comment or drop me a line. 

10 Tips: Stay Sane While Preparing to Write College Application Admissions Essays

You can always read my latest blogpost here.

These are general guidelines, not rules. Not every applicant will be able to do these in this order and some may be more relevant than others.

1. No magic bullet:
There’s no getting around it. The essays are a slog, and if you’re applying to schools with many supplements or several schools not on the Common Application, it’s a lot of work. But – the good news! – doing the work is a way to focus your experience, your perceptions, your goals, and your sense of yourself as a soon-to-be college student. Finding your voice and your story will help you make that transition. The essays will help you learn how to present yourself, how to talk about your interests, talents and accomplishments - without bragging. 

2. Ask for help – from people and online:
Writers (and doctors and engineers and parents) ask for help all the time. Just because writing is a solitary activity doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek advice and reactions from teachers, guidance counselors, family friends, parents, or the abundant information online. Ask for help brainstorming. Read online posts about how to tackle various questions. And be prepared to rewrite. And rewrite.

3. There are no formulas and no right answers.
Students often ask me: What does the school want me to write? The school wants to know what YOU think and what your experience is. The essay is a kind of interview. Reveal yourself. Make sure you essay tells us what it is that you want the colleges to know about you: Your passions, your talents, your ambitions, the qualities that make you who you are.

4. Choose colleges before you begin writing.
Make a chart of what essays are required for each college: 1. The topic. 2. The length. 3. The due dates. Have a sense in advance how many essays you might have to do – whether it’s 3 or 15 or even 20. Some colleges/universities have 2, 3, 4, or even more essays. Though the essays may only be 100, 250 or 500 words, they must be well-considered words. Some of the essays are creative (“What makes you happy?” "What's the sweetest sound you've ever heard?"), others are more straightforward (why this college/why your major).

5.  If you are applying mostly to schools using the Common Application, it’s almost always best to start writing that essay first.
It’s critical to know which universities use which essays or groups of essays. 700+ colleges use the Common Application and many have supplements in addition to the core Common App essay (1 essay chosen from 5 prompts, 650 words). Other universities have their own essays entirely, among them: MIT, Georgetown, UTexas, and Universities of California (1 application for all 9 branches). If you are doing Common App schools, plus MIT, plus Georgetown and UCalifornia schools, that is about 15 essays (from 100 to 500 or 650 words) right there. Once you see the essay requirements all together – whether they are core essays or supplements – you might change your mind about your college selections.

6. Recycle essays or passages where you can. 
Once you have your list with all the topics and lengths, you can start to see what topics and pieces of essays you might be able to “recycle” and use multiple times. It is NOT cheating to use the same passages in multiple essays. What you DO NOT want to do is write a generic “Why I Want to Go to X College.” If your WHY THIS COLLEGE can be used multiple places, it needs work: specificity, detail, and homework: study the college, the curriculum and what makes it stand out to you.

7. Which essay should you do next? It depends on deadlines, recycling, and other factors, such as where you might be applying early action/decision (usually Nov. 1 deadlines).  There are no hard and fast rules. If you’re applying to the University of California system, you must submit applications during the month of November – and that’s it.  A number of big universities are not Common Application schools. If these are top choice universities, you might want to do these first – even before the Common App essay, as long as you’re not applying early elsewhere.

8. Getting down to it.
There are dozens of websites that give advice about the nitty gritty of writing the essays. There are also many sites that publish college essays. DO take a look at these if you need help getting started or getting ideas, but don’t feel you must write essays like the ones you’re reading. There is a huge variety in college application essays.  And keep in mind that the essays you’re reading online have been through many drafts. You are not going to turn out a terrific essay in one or two sittings. Don’t be discouraged! Prepare to do 3 or 4 or more drafts.

9. The writing and language, in a nutshell:
Much of the advice comes down to: write in your own voice, as though you are talking more than writing an academic paper. The tone should be more informal than the stiff, academic language you would use when writing a history paper. It’s sometimes helpful to write the essay as though you’re writing a letter to someone – a friend or mentor.

SS language, word choices and other writing tips:
The essay is not a place to show off your SAT vocabulary or your penchant for writing poetry. Use SS language: Simple and Straightforward. But though it’s SS, it must be precise, detailed, and specific. For instance: “My parents are in the military and we moved a lot. “ vs: “My parents are medics in the Army, and we’ve lived in five countries since I was born, including Poland, Germany, and Botswana.” Specific details are always more memorable, and forcing yourself to focus on detail focuses your brain and your powers of perception.

10. It’s often great to start an essay with an active example of what you’ll be writing about. Put us in the middle of the action and then step back and explain how you got there and how it relates to the essay prompt.

            “The conductor pointed his baton to the string section, and we began the fugue that ends the second movement of Brahms’ Requiem. My fingers responded to the building excitement of the rapid tempo, and I was enveloped by the sweep of sound.
            “I fell in love with the violin when I was six, and music has been the center of my life since then. I felt joy every Saturday morning when I began my weekly lesson with Mrs. Jones and later that day when I played in our town’s youth orchestra….” 

            OR: A very different sort of story:

            “The policeman grabbed me by the arm and demanded I show him my ID.  I had no idea what I had done wrong, and I didn’t have my wallet with me. I was just riding my bike in San Diego. I didn’t think it was a crime to ride on the sidewalk.”
            “This was my first experience of discrimination in the United States, where we moved from Algeria when I was ten years. It would be the first of many times that I would encounter….”
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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

You Don't Have to Do Them Alone

You don't have to do your college application essays alone, whether you want help brainstorming, outlining, editing or putting the whole package together - I'm available. Visit my website for information about my services or shoot me an email:
Don't Sweat The Essay

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