Monday, September 29, 2014

Common App Prompt: Share Your Story

This article first appeared in GoLocalPDX on September 24, 2014

The intention of this series is to show readers a sample of a good essay in response to each of the Common Application  prompts. This essay is an actual college admission essay, written and submitted by a real student. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective.

Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. Share your story.
“GIVE ME MY CHICKEN!” screams the rebel child. My hands strangle the blue and red chicken, and I sprint out of the safe box. “Catch me if you can,” I yell as an onslaught of children run after me. Always the chivalrous staff member, I slow down and let them catch me. But as the rival red team will soon discover, I am a mere diversion so that my teammates can steal the enemy’s remaining two fowl hostages. I walk myself back to the “jail,” where I proceed to bawk like a chicken until one of my teammates rescues me. Success! Our raid is triumphant. The bell rings, and the blue team finishes the game with six chickens to the red team’s two.

The game is called "Bawk Bawk Chicken." Its rules mimic Capture the Flag, but with a twist: instead of flags we use rubber chickens, and instead of each team having one chicken, they have four.  I invented this game to reinvigorate our typically subdued evening activities. My invention is a hit in the eyes of the 214 nine-to-fourteen-year-old campers and fellow staff members responsible for their entertainment.

Six years ago at the age of 11, I was not the vocal, charismatic character I am today. Introverted and skeptical, I dreaded my first day of summer camp.

I had just endured a five-hour car ride followed by a three-hour ferry ride from Portland, Oregon to remote Orcas Island.  At first glimpse, I realized this was no ordinary summer camp. All the girls wore middies and bloomers. The boys wore navy polos with matching shorts. A strange man hollered my name and hugged me as if I were his long-lost brother. As he walked with me and four other equally confused tweens, he revealed that in addition to having to give up our clothing, we would also be turning in all electronics and candy. What had I gotten myself into? Upon arrival at my home for the next month, my faith in this place reached rock bottom. A 30-year-old, dilapidated elk tent resting on a splintering wooden platform loomed before me.  No way was this going to work.

That day six years ago offered me a snapshot of what every first year camper goes through: fear. I thought that my clothes and belongings constituted my identity, and I feared there would be nothing now to distinguish me from my peers. That month forced me to be introspective and figure out who I was without the trappings of “stuff.” Now in my sixth year at camp, my role has flipped.  As a counselor, I guide campers past fear to a place where they can safely demonstrate their unique self.

After the rousing game of “Bawk Bawk Chicken,” my five-camper power squad silently walks back from the lodge to prepare for bed. When Alex finally gets back from tooth brushing, we start our nightly reflection process of Rose, Thorn, Bud.  Each camper emphasizes an event from the day they enjoyed (rose), deemed unpleasant (thorn), and something they look forward to (bud).  Gavin is happy that his tent was able to prank their rival tent at dinner, Jimmy is embarrassed he fell off a donkey, and Ryan looks forward to the folk dance tomorrow night.  My rose: everyone got goofy and had fun playing my game—success. My thorn: a group of children stepped on a hornet’s nest—terrible.  My bud: we get to spend two more weeks together—can't wait.  (Cole J., University of Notre Dame, Class of 2018)

Charlie’s feedback: Wonderfully written, creative, and clearly relates overcoming fear and growing up. The author wraps his journey of confronting personal angst with wanting to help others. Pleasure to read.

Andrea’s feedback: This student is clearly self-aware, creative, has already blossomed (ha!) a great deal, and is not afraid to grow some more. All of these attributes bode well for the college experience because you will be challenged over and over again to examine who you are. Camp counseling is one of the handful of oft-used essay topics, and it’s difficult for students to make that fresh; the chicken does it.

Jodi’s feedback: Wow! This student is really a creative thinker, charismatic and works to build relationships and community. I’d want him in my dorm or class.

Charles S. Nolan, Ph.D. is the Vice President and Dean of Admission at Olin College ofEngineering . He previously served in similar roles at BostonCollege , Santa Clara University and Washington University in St. Louis .

Andrea Hendrickson is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at Reed College , and previously worked in admissions at LawrenceUniversity .

Jodi Walder-Biesanz is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. Contact her at: jodi.walder@comcast.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

College Admission Essays: Tips for Telling a Compelling Story

You have probably heard the standard advice before:

"Show, don't tell."

"Choose a story only you can tell."

As a former English teacher and magazine editor, I love to work with students on their writing. College essays are "personal narrative", which is way different from the expository essays or research papers most students are used to creating for high school assignments.

I know people love lists, so for my GoLocalPDX column this week I created a bullet list of tips that will help any student improve his or her application essay.

Writing skills stick with you. Any techniques you learn now and use regularly will help you be a better writer throughout college and into your career.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

6 Tips for Writing Compelling College Application Essays

This article first appeared in on September 17, 2014.

The college admissions essay (also known as your personal statement) is your chance to show who you are beyond your grades and test scores.
Embrace the opportunity to give the reader a sense of your personality.
Decide what characteristics you want an admissions officer to remember before you brainstorm and choose your essay topics.
Remember, this is a personal narrative—not the sort of expository essay you write for a class assignment, and definitely not a restatement of your activities and accomplishments in paragraph format.

Tip #1: Learn by Example
Read a lot of examples of well-done college essays. You will get that chance to do so if you follow this column for the next five weeks.

Tip #2: Avoid These Overused Topics
  • The Trip and/or Outward Bound (how I broadened my horizons)
  • My Favorite Things (a list of fluffy things that tell you I’m nice)
  • Miss America (how I will work for world peace)
  • The Jock (how I learned the noble value, the great lesson)
  • The Three D’s (discipline, determination, diversity)
  • Tales of My Success (how I overcame adversity to win the day)
  • Pet or Relative Death (how I learned to value life)
  • The Autobiography (I was born at a young age).

Tip #3: Drafting Do’s
  • Tell a story only you can tell
  • Write in first person, present tense
  • Make it a slice of life – a moment in time
  • Show, rather than tell
  • Provide rich sensory detail
  • Use metaphors
  • Be very selective with adjectives
  • Get the story on paper without editing (that comes later).

Tip #4: Hook the Reader with a Good Lead
Here are a few options:
  • The Anecdote (dive into the story, almost mid-stream)
  • The Why? (make the reader ask the question)
  • The Shocker (takes the reader off balance)
  • The Curmudgeon (refutes conventional wisdom)
  • The Split (there are two types of people…)
  • The Confession (become the reader’s confidant)
  • Stating the Obvious (that was hidden).

Tip #5: A Good Ending
  • Ties to the lead – but adds a deeper insight
  • Is not “moral of the story-ish”

Tip #6: Revising
  • Make sure the tone sounds like you (read aloud)
  • Cut weak and waffle words (clearly, somewhat, rather, kind of)
  • Cut (who, what, which, that, thing)
  • Cut needless restatements
  • Swap lazy uses of “to be”
  • Swap vague verbs - become, get, do, have
  • Swap passive verbs – use active voice
  • Prefer punch over perfect grammar.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What Do You Want Colleges to Know About You?

The college exploration and application process requires you to learn about yourself—who you are, what you want out of your college experience, and how you can contribute to the college community. To do a great job throughout the application process, you need to share what you have discovered and be clear what you want colleges to know about you. This column explains a technique for describing those characteristics that make you special.

Off to College: Student-Parent Agreements

I am now a weekly columnist for In my first column I talk about Student-Parent Agreements. It covers the topics of communication, money, grades, health and coming home for the holidays and summer. Most importantly, it explains why parents with college students need a signed FERPA Release, HIPPA Authorization Form, and Advance Care Directive for Health Care. Read the full story here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Request and Get Fabulous Recommendation Letters

This article first appeared in on September 10, 2014.

Yikes! Colleges will see a letter about you that you didn’t get to see. You won’t know what it says and you have to trust the writer to help you put your best self forward. How can you increase the odds that your recommender will write a detail-rich letter that reinforces the characteristics you want colleges to know about you
Follow this step-by-step process
Many colleges and scholarships require or allow letters of recommendation. They help the application reader paint a mental picture of you beyond your grades and test scores. Since they are an important component of the college application process, help your recommenders write the best possible letter by making it easy for them.
You may request up to five letters. One will definitely be from your high school counselor. Two will be from academic subject teachers. Ideally one academic letter will come from a humanities teacher (English or social studies) and one from a math or science teacher.
These need to be teachers from high school, and preferably they will have had you in multiple classes. You may additionally request letters from two outside recommenders such as your art, drama, or Spanish teacher, a sports coach, your boss at work, a mentor under whom you did research, your Scoutmaster, your church/synagogue youth group leader or a college professor from whom you took a class.
Each person should know you well and have specific examples/stories they can tell about you.
Only school counselors are required as part of their job description to write you a letter. Everyone else is doing you a favor.
Step 1:
Decide whom to ask. A class in which you got an A but did not have much teacher interaction might not be as strong a choice as a class in which you struggled, went for before or after-school tutoring, and really got to know the teacher.
Remember, you are looking for someone who can tell detailed stories about you. Verbally ask the person if he/she feels comfortable writing a letter for you. If the answer is no, do not press. This is an indication that the person doesn't feel they have enough to say and you will be better off with an alternate choice. If the person does say yes, you will give him/her your prepared letter.
Step 2:
Compose a letter to each teacher and outside recommender that contains the following components:
  • A request for a college admission letter of recommendation
  • Three extremely specific examples that you remember from your time in that teacher's classes, or your time with that adult. For example, you might describe the carton you built for your physics egg drop, the Lincoln/Douglas debate in which you came in costume and argued against slavery, or the class talk you gave explaining that some infinities were larger than others. If you are sports team captain you could remind the coach about the creative team warm-ups you led or the time you had a heart-to-heart with a team member who was rude to a competitor in the locker room.
  • Tell the recommender what characteristics you are hoping to highlight in your essays. These are the three words or phrases you landed on such as "creative problem-solver, analytical and reliable."
  • Find out if your recommendations are sent electronically by your school counselor or if they have to be snail-mailed. If they are going via the US Postal Service provide a list of schools, due dates, address labels and stamps.
  • Ask the person to save the completed letter electronically in case you have additional places (such as scholarship opportunities) that come up later.
  • Thank the person for his/her time and effort.

Step 3:
Without being obnoxious or pushy, check in with your recommenders at least two weeks before the earliest due date to be sure your letters will be sent on time.