Writing supplements: how important are they?

HarvardWomanArchIMG_3790In September many high school seniors focus intently on writing their personal essays—and rightly so. A strong essay is a crucial component of your college application package. If you haven’t completed a personal essay you’re proud of yet, you should do so…pronto.

But amidst the hubbub, it’s easy to lose sight of the other writing challenges you’re about to face.

Known variously as “writing supplements,” “supplemental essays,” “college-specific essays,” “individualized essays” or simply “supplements,” these little essay assignments can be found at different locations on the Common Application—or on the Universal College Application, if you’re using that system. In some cases, the writing supplements pop up as surprises, just when a student believes he or she is almost finished. This is not the best time to have your first encounter with a probing admissions question.

The most selective colleges

Are you applying to the most selective colleges? If so, you’ll probably be asked to write supplemental essays for most of the schools on your list. These colleges all have their own questions they’ve labored over… and they are very interested to hear your response.

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How to write well: three indispensable steps

zadie-smith-at-work ospite-a-santa-maddalena-89264_0x440-1What does it take to become a good writer? Many think it’s all a matter of talent. Some say inspiration is the primary thing. Others believe that, as long as you know the rules of grammar and punctuation, you’ll do fine.

The truth is that becoming a good writer is both simpler and harder than any of that. The ability to write well is not encoded on a gene you’re born with. Nor is it something you can learn in a flash or get from one book. Instead, it takes a lot of time and work.

Becoming a writer is much like becoming a musician. Practice is the key. You have to invest many hours, over a long period of time. That’s the only way to develop facility and technique. If you don’t have those things, inspiration won’t be much help.

Nobody expects a beginner to pick up a violin for the first time and be able play a Bach partita. With music, we all know it doesn’t work that way. But somehow, when it comes to writing, people tend to think that anyone can do it. You just need to follow a set of rules—rules that the mythical English teacher was supposed to have handed out on a sheet to everyone’s 7th grade class.

In fact, there is nothing as easy as a sheet of rules to tell you how to do it. Instead, there’s just a lot of work. In psychological terms, writing often requires blood, sweat and tears.

Why should writing be so hard? After all, everyone can talk. And writing is pretty much like talking… right? Actually, it’s not. Writing is to talking what violin playing is to humming. There’s a connection, but it’s slight.

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The new Common App has launched

work desk with a cup of coffee computer laptop, notebook, penAttention seniors!  The 2014-2015 Common Application has launched. That means you can start filing your college applications now… if you’re ready.

The Common Application (known as the Common App) is a portal for more than 500 colleges and universities, that allows students to complete multiple applications electronically. Not every college uses the Common App, but many—including some of the most selective schools—do.

A few colleges use alternatives, such as the Universal College Application or their own websites. And some schools, including Harvard and Princeton, allow students to apply using either the Common App or the Universal.

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How to get into Harvard… or any other great college

HarvardSo you think you know what it takes to get into Harvard? There’s the perfect 4.0 GPA, the 800 SAT scores, the long list of AP and honors classes and the resume packed with leadership positions such as head of the debate team, the lacrosse team and the school newspaper. To top it off, there’s that classic crowning achievement…being named the class valedictorian.

That’s more-or-less what it takes, right? Well, not exactly.

As a college admissions counselor and the mother of a Harvard student, I am here to tell you that gaining admission to Harvard—or any number of other highly selective colleges—is at once easier and harder than you might think.

It’s easier because a 4.0 GPA and perfect SAT scores are not required. (Although, if you have them, it certainly doesn’t hurt.) Nor must you flaunt a five-page resume with an array of stunning achievements, covering the gambit from mental gymnastics to third world philanthropy to impressive sports. The truth is you really don’t have to be superhuman. You just have to be an excellent student and … interesting.

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Why use a private college counselor?

A high school counselor speaks with a student in school

A high school counselor speaks with a student in school

Why would a parent hire a private counselor to help their teenager through the college admissions process? Many are puzzled by this question. I once wondered the same thing. After all, every high school worth its salt has a college counselor on staff—sometimes several of them. Can’t these professionals help their students ace the process without outside assistance? In theory, yes. In reality, it’s not that simple.

A high school counselor—whether at a private or public school—must represent the interests of the entire school, not just those of an individual student. That means getting the largest possible number of graduating seniors into college. The school’s success or failure is judged in the aggregate, not by one, two or even a handful of seniors.

Playing the numbers game

In part, it’s a numbers game—a matter of probabilities. To succeed, a high school counselor needs to prod each student toward the schools where he or she is most likely to be admitted. And that depends in part on where their classmates are applying. Colleges try to build a freshman class with regional diversity. Even at the best private schools, there’s a limit to how many qualified applicants can be accepted at each college. That means the counselor must distribute their student applicants over a large number of colleges. It won’t do to encourage 25 seniors to apply to Yale, as qualified as every one of those students might be. That would set up too many teenagers and their parents for disappointment. And that’s bad for a school’s reputation. Better to manage expectations by lowering them at the beginning.

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Five steps to writing a great college essay

Boy with Laptop Dollar Photo ClubThe summer before senior year is a great time to write your college essay. This project may seem daunting at first, since nobody has asked you to write anything quite like it before. But do not fear.

I’ve worked with many students who have developed the germ of an idea into an engaging essay that opened the doors to the college of their choice. Here are five basic steps that can help you to get into a good college, too.

1. The place to start: find your subject

So, you’ve read the essay prompts and maybe you’ve chosen one. Perhaps you’ve even found a narrative you’d like to tell. If so, you’re one of the more well-prepared students.

But to find your real subject, you’ll need to dig deeper. You must figure out what you want to reveal about yourself in your essay. Begin by asking yourself what makes you different from other applicants. What do you have to offer the colleges that you have in mind? If you take the time to work this out, the rest will come more easily.

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A high school student’s guide to summer planning

Three Columbia StudentsIMG_4905Just when it’s spring and the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful” as the poet e.e. cummings would say, it’s time for high school students to start planning their summer activities.

Gone are the days when a kid could spend all July and August under a shady tree, with a thermos of lemonade and stacks of books. Technically, it could still happen, of course. But somehow it rarely does.

Maybe too many parents are determined to prevent “laziness.” Maybe too many teachers and guidance counselors are warning about resumes and college applications. Or maybe there are just too many iPads, smartphones and apps—too many mental distractions and virtual pitfalls that beckon.

“Idleness warps the mind,” said Henry Ford, that captain of American industry. Sometimes it seems that everyone over the age of 21—or almost everyone—agrees with Ford. Isn’t it safer and wiser to make plans—and lots of them? Busy yourself; that is the general consensus.

What’s summer without a daydream?

Artists, however, have long-argued against an over-structured and unimaginative approach to life. “Nothing happens unless first in a dream,” said poet Carl Sandburg.

His use of “first” flips Henry Ford’s maxim on its hard, pragmatic head. Sandburg makes an argument for those idle moments when watching the slowly morphing shapes of clouds in the sky may trigger lines of poetry, religious wisdom or new takes on the theory of relativity.

So … when it comes to college readiness and summer plans, what is a high school student to do? Should you go for the action-packed, busy schedule? Or opt for cloud-gazing? In my capacity as the College Strategist, I’m often asked my position on this.

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Making financial aid part of your college admissions strategy

PrincetonWhen it comes to seeking financial aid for college, many students and their parents feel at the mercy of the process. Actually, you can improve your chances of success—if you consider this issue from the very start. That means finding out about a school’s aid policies before you even think of applying there.

Some colleges provide excellent financial aid; some provide very little. Some offer generous grants only to the low-income students they admit, a few are able to give generous help to middle-class applicants, too.

If you just concentrate on the admissions process, with the hope of dealing with the cost of college later, you run the risk of being accepted at schools you can’t afford. Even worse, you might miss an opportunity at a great school because you didn’t realize how large its financial aid packages are.

Contrary to popular belief, the time to start thinking about financial aid issues is not during the winter of 12th grade. By then, all you can do is fill out the financial aid forms, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Instead, take at look at your financial aid prospects at least a year or two before that.

This is a guide to how to integrate financial aid planning into your college admissions process. To help you do that, here is an explanation of the many different forms financial aid can take.  Understanding the interlocking issues can make all the difference to you and your family.

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What are colleges really looking for?

ColumbiaLowStepsSnowIMG_3975What are colleges really looking for?

“What did he do wrong?” asked an unhappy mother who’d begged me for insights after her son was rejected by the top five colleges on his list. This boy had not been one of my clients, so his mother summarized his profile: straight As at a fine high school, impressive SAT scores, glowing letters of recommendations and several summers devoted to foreign travel and academic challenge. She showed me a photo and told me anecdotes. I could tell he was a bright and charming boy, beloved by family and friends.

“What did he do wrong?” she repeated. She was not the first disappointed parent to ask me this question. I know she won’t be the last. But the fact is, it’s the wrong question. And it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the college admissions process.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” I assured her. “It’s just that there are thousands of excellent students, and they’re all competing for a small number of spots. The numbers were against him. They’re against everyone.”

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The time to file the FAFSA is now

ColumbiaWalkSnowIMG_3970High school seniors: after getting your college applications in on deadline, you probably feel you deserve at least a month’s vacation.  In principle, I agree.

But in the real world, now is the time to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This is the basic form that must be completed by students (or their parents) who hope to receive need-based federal student aid, including Pell Grants, federal loans and work-study jobs. It’s also used by many colleges to help determine how much non-federal aid to give you.

Most colleges that offer aid require you to file the FAFSA. Some also ask for an additional form, such as the CSS Profile. And a few have their very own financial aid forms you will be required to fill out. The FAFSA, however, is the generally the first and most important one. January is the time to start working on it.

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