College Admissions, Educators, Teacher Resources, Teachers

How to Write A Great Teacher Recommendation Letter

Fall is the season for college applications and teacher recommendations. While students are snowed under the back-to-school course load, extracurriculars, and senior activities, teachers are slammed with parent communications, lunch-hall-carline-whatever duties, lesson plans, in-class engagement, and grading.

Adding a stack of college recommendations to a teacher’s otherwise overstuffed life is a necessary burden. Most teachers who have been around the block a time or two have a go-to formula to help save time and still write insightful information that is helpful to the admissions offices.

For those teachers who are new to the teacher rec-writing game, here are a few suggestions to help develop guidelines for writing college recommendations that give admissions readers crucial information in their decision-making process and also save the teacher a little time in completing this added blessing on the fall to-do list.

1. Be sincere. Your personal integrity with colleges and universities is riding on your honesty and authenticity. Not every student you teach is in the top one-to-two percent of your career or the top ten percent either. Overestimating a student’s ability or character could get that student into a college that is not a good fit. Moderate your language and try not to write everything as a superlative. On the other hand, if a student is at the top of all the students you have taught through the years, break out your strongest endorsements and superlative statements for them.

2. Be up-front. In everyone’s best interest, if you feel like what you can sincerely say about a student will not help their chances of getting into a college or university, let them know so they can ask a different teacher to write the recommendation. One year, I agreed to write recommendation letters for two editors on our student magazine staff. Shortly after, these two students started showing up for class a few minutes after the tardy bell a couple of times a week. Each time, they would apologize profusely and say it was because they were coming from an AP lab course and their lab ran long. When I began to doubt that their AP science class would be doing labs that often, I pulled them aside and told them I could no longer excuse their tardies. They apologized, as usual, and started getting to class on time for about a week. The next time the students were tardy, they came wandering into class halfway through the period, without excuse notes. I asked them where they had been and one student said, “Well, you know, boy problems. We had to have a little girl talk.” I looked at the other student and she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell her no.” Nope. That moment was not one of my better teaching moments, but ultimately, I let both students know that, in their own best interest, they should probably find a different teacher to write their recommendations. Nothing I could say about their character would be helpful in their college admissions process.

3. Be concrete. Open the letter with a significant narrative. Explaining the situation that first made the student stand out to you is a good way to start. Maybe it was a class discussion. Or maybe that student stepped in to defend another student who was being bullied. Or maybe the student routinely spends all of lunch hour tutoring a friend who is struggling to understand a complex concept. Maybe the student’s research project was so well-researched and written that it had an impact on your personal beliefs about the topic. Whatever the story is, tell it. Let your opening paragraph be a verbal “video” of what you remember as most remarkable about this student.

4. Be thorough. Follow your opening narrative with a discussion of one or two character traits that best describe the student. Again, the strength of your own writing will come in your ability to help the reader “see” the student’s character by sharing narrative examples. Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Don’t shy away from sharing examples of growth… situations in which you’ve seen a student become more confident, kind, or hard-working. While it is easy in the body of the letter to recite the student’s resume, that information is already on the application. What is most helpful for the admissions team is knowing the person behind the accomplishment. Therefore, if an honor or award has a story behind it that shows the student’s character, then tell the backstory. The journey to success is always more interesting than simply knowing there was a success. While most teachers want to paint a picture of perfection, the authenticity of a struggle that leads to growth is often more valuable in identifying whether a prospective student is a good fit with the university’s culture.

5. Be clear about what you see for the student’s future. Try not to end the recommendation letter with something like this: “Therefore, I highly recommend this student for admission to this university.” If you can see that student spending summers as an undergrad volunteering as an office assistant for a pro bono legal services agency near campus in preparation for law school where you are confident they will become a civil rights attorney, then say that. If you believe that the student will be more successful in college than high school because your school has few technology course options, and the student spends every free moment reading coding books and just needs an environment rich in technology to thrive, say that. Get into the specifics of why this student is a good fit for this college and this college is a perfect environment for this student.

Once you get a few teacher recommendation letters written, you will develop your own style and rhythm. Be careful not to slip into autopilot, though. Make sure your recommendations are genuine and thorough.

Free Resource

If your school’s college counseling office does not provide students with a personal information form to give you the details you need to write a spectacular personalized recommendation letter, you can use this one. Feel free to copy, modify, and share. Use these resources in whatever way makes your life a little easier.

Do you have a particular way you prefer to write college recommendations? Please share in the comments below. The more people who jump into the conversation, the better we all become.

College Admissions, College Essays, Supplemental Essays

Strategies for writing supplemental essays

Supplemental essays are matchmaker essays.

Let me explain.

Personal statements focus on YOU, the applicant. When you write your personal statement, the trick is to narrow all the things you could possibly say to the narrative that gives the clearest view of who you are and what you hope to accomplish.

In contrast, supplemental essays help universities select the students who are the best “fit.” Yes, your story is still essential, but telling your story as it relates to a specific school is what lands you in the sweet spot.

These school-specific essays help admissions readers determine which applicants are the most compatible with their campus’s programs, character, philosophy, values, and goals. And they ask you to get the point by limiting the word count, so there’s not enough space to hedge your bets by saying a little of everything.

Most supplemental essays have somewhere in the neighborhood of a 250-word maximum. Some counts run as low as 50 words per question. You have to be precise, concise, and convincing.

The best strategy for writing attention-grabbing supplemental essays is to put in extra work on the front end to make sure you know what you need to say before you begin drafting.

Analyze the prompt

Read each essay prompt closely. Understanding what information the university is asking you to address is crucial. Don’t just skim the first few sentences and go straight to the action item at the end.

Get out your highlighters and colored pens, and annotate all the sentences. Break down each prompt into the background of the concept, the information it asks you to give, and the mode of writing it requests (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository). Circle and define any words you couldn’t explain to a five-year-old without hesitation. Once you are confident you know what the prompt is asking you to do, it’s time to do some homework.

Investigate the school

To write the most effective supplemental essay, you need to do a little research about the university. Determine the values the school promotes in its portrayal of life on campus and in the surrounding community. What is its cultural vision?

For example, if a school-specific essay topic asks you to talk about your experience with diversity, begin by defining the term in light of the school’s commitment to it. By diversity, does the school mean racial diversity? Economic diversity? Diversity in core beliefs? Is diversity centered around geography, education, age, or social status? How inclusive is the campus? Do they celebrate different styles of learning? Multiple intelligences?

You need insight. To find it, you can survey a range of resources to discover a university’s stance on any culturally relevant topic. Here are three solid places to start:

  • Visit the website. Look at the articles the school has recently posted about its programs, students, and faculty. Discover what’s new and what’s evolving. What changes are happening? What accomplishments do they celebrate? What visionary statements do they make? When they feature an individual student’s story, what do they praise? What partnerships do they have locally, nationally, and globally? What are the notable areas of research? Which programs produce thought-leaders? What opportunities do students have to make professional connections beyond the classroom?
  • Check out social media. Social media marketing highlights the best of a college’s programs and people. Often it is a tool that draws readers to the information posted on the website, but it also highlights campus life and community impact. Find those locally relevant gems. What coverage does the school give to cultural events? How do they promote sports? What happens when there’s extreme weather or a global health crisis? How does the university support students during challenging times? How does the campus interact with its neighbors? What are the school’s treasured traditions?
  • Search the news. Find recent media reports about the school—its administration, faculty, student body, employees, organizations, etc. While the website and social media give you the polished version of the university, the nitty-gritty details appear in the news. What issues face the Board of Trustees? How do the employees view working conditions? What opinions do the students have about how the school advocates for their best interests? How does the university foster campus safety and accessibility?

Researching culture and values requires efforts in discovery and analysis, but it is a critical part of preparing to write supplemental essays.

Make your match in 250ish words

Supplemental essays are short.

You have to hit the nail on the head and drive it into the wood in just a couple of hammer strokes.

I know it’s a little cliche, but honestly, the nail analogy works perfectly here. If you’ve even tried to hammer a nail, you know that you have to hold the nail at the correct angle and press it firmly against the wood. How securely you grip the nail and how accurately you hit it with the hammer combine to accomplish one of four things: you join one piece of wood to another, you smash your fingers, you dent the wood, or you bend the nail. Three out of four are negative outcomes. You have a narrow opportunity to achieve your goal. To protect yourself and your building materials, you need to hit the nail precisely, forcefully, and repeatedly.

So it goes with writing short essays.

To hit the one-out-of-four good outcome, you need to plan. You’ve already analyzed the prompt, so you know precisely the topic and approach the admissions department wants. You’ve researched the school’s culture and values as presented in intentional branded marketing, incidental campus snapshots, and external critical commentary. Now it’s time to figure out the sweet spot where your values intersect with the school’s values in light of the supplemental prompt’s topic.

To discover this connection, try using a graphic organizer like a three-column chart (Headers: School’s values, My values, Experiences that show where we connect). Once you identify the connection and the story that supports it, then you can start drafting.

I’ve found the most successful supplemental essays have the following structure.

First, identify your thesis precisely and immediately. Don’t even try to inject suspense. Supplemental essays are not the venue for a delayed opening. Second, present concrete details that prove your thesis to be true. Show first, then tell. Analyze after you’ve given concrete information. Finally, convince the reader that your presence at the university benefits both you and the school. Present an undeniable collision between your experience and the school’s values. Conclude by telling how your presence will reinforce the university’s cultural values and how your time at the university will equip you to achieve your goals.

It’s a proverbial “match made in heaven.”


Rethink your options

What happens when you’ve done all the research, and you realize there are things about the school’s culture and values that are incompatible with your values and goals? What if they aren’t supportive of your lifestyle or identity? What if they don’t embrace the free expression of your faith or political views? What if you realize they don’t have the major you need to accomplish your long-term goals?

During the writing process, you may realize a university you always thought you’d want to attend is just not a good fit. Congratulations!!! You just saved yourself (and possibly your parents) a lot of time and money.

Unless there is another reason that outweighs the mismatch, you will do best to cross this option off your list and direct your energy toward writing supplemental essays for schools that are a better fit.

Save time to revise

For many schools, supplemental essays are higher stakes than the personal statement. These school-specific essays often factor into scholarship consideration and honors college invitations. So don’t wait until the last minute to write your supplement essays just because they’re short and specific.

Save time to let your draft age just a little bit. Once you finish the initial writing, don’t look at it again for a week or two. Then, when you come back to revise it, begin by reading the prompt aloud, followed by reading your response aloud. Your ear will let you know where your transitions need work. Your eyes will find grammatical and mechanical errors too. You become your own best editor when you read your essay aloud.

As you finish your essay journey, tie up any loose ends. Check your word count. Make sure you give the admissions readers the information the prompt requests. Simplify your verbs. Vary your sentences. Persuade your audience.

Make your match.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

When should I write my college essays?

Write your college essays during the summer between your junior and senior years.

Give yourself a little time to recover from the academic season. Get some sleep. Unpack your backpack, and clean your room. Enjoy hanging out with your people.

In a couple of weeks, jump on the Common App or Coalition website or both and read the prompts. Begin thinking about which one resonates with you. If you have access to a local college essay draft workshop, sign up. If not, search the internet for virtual college essay workshops. You can never go wrong with the College Essay Guy.

By late July or early August, you should access the supplemental essay options for your narrowed list of schools. Start analyzing the prompts and researching each school’s stated values. Figure out how your values and vision intersect with theirs.

If you would like to work with a college essay coach and have not yet contacted one, you should make sure to reserve a spot on their schedule as soon as possible. Your coach can help guide you to the best approach for both the personal statement and the supplemental essays. The one thing you want to avoid is covering similar details in multiple essays. Each prompt gives you a chance to share a different aspect of your story and build a stronger case for admission.

Hold on, why should I wait that late to start?

You need the most perspective you can get before you start writing, so give yourself time to develop it.

Usually, it’s the parents who approach me and ask, “Should my ninth-grader start working on the college essay now?” Um. No.

I mean, journal? Absolutely!

Start a blog to record high school adventures? That’ll be so fun to look over in the future!

Both a private journal and a public blog will be helpful in a couple of years when you start the college essay-writing process. You’ll have a record of impressions and events and feelings that shaped you. As for actually brainstorming and organizing a personal statement, though, you’ll need to wait until the end of your junior year.

Junior year of high school tends to have a refining effect on many students. Whether it’s a result of the higher-level thinking that happens as you advance through the typical secondary curriculum or the social and cognitive leaps that take place in this stage of adolescence, by the end of your junior year, you are better able to figure out who you are, what path you’ve traveled to get there, and where you aim to go in the future. And those are the elements essential to writing memorable college admissions essays.

But summer is when I take a break!

Exactly. That’s why you should rest before you write. A Huffington Post article quotes “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda on the link between rest and creativity:

“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” Miranda said.

“When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” he continued. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”

The Huffington Post

And so it goes for you. Yes, you need to get started on your college essays relatively early in the summer and definitely before you head back to school for senior year, but you also need to take a break. So take a short break, and then get to work.

Save time to procrastinate

Are you kidding? No, I am not.

One step of the writing process that many people discount is the thinking stage—letting those ideas bounce around your subconscious as you go through daily life. You know how sometimes you obsess over a problem, and you can’t figure out a solution? And then you decide to forget about it and do something else, and while you’re doing something else, you figure out the problem?

That works for essay-writing too.

I recommend that students look over the essay prompts and then take a little time to let the ideas that follow float in and out of your mind. Organizational psychologist and Wharton School professor Adam Grant did a TED Talk in which he explored the benefits of moderate procrastination. His cautionary tale of what happens when you “precrastinate” is worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch the video.

The point is that you need to introduce your brain to the prompts and then give it a little time to work out content. But not too much time.

Also, save time to revise

Before I retired from the classroom, I used to teach an honors-level writing course. One of the exercises we did from time to time involved a heinous-looking resin vase packed with quotes about the writing process. In choosing inspirational words for young authors, I selected heavily from revision-related words of wisdom.

Once writers get the words out, they usually feel a sense of relief. I can’t think of anyone I know who says, “Oh yay! I just spent a ton of time brainstorming and organizing and drafting, and now I get to revise! Woo Hoo!!!”

But revision is where the magic happens. So if you want your essay to be obviously muggle-written, then stop with a rough draft that has minimal proofreading. However, if you want to be an essay wizard, leave time to put your draft on the shelf for a bit and come back to it with a fresh, critical eye.

Try to have your essay on the shelf for at least two weeks before your final read-through and submission. Then make your final tweaks a week before you submit your application. Once you hit “submit,” you’re done. Go celebrate!

And then get back to your senior studies and scholarship essays.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

Essays are likely to be more important as SAT and ACT requirements disappear

Raise your hand if you thought the impact of COVID-19 on the college admissions process would be pretty much over by the time the application season rolled around for the class of 2022 seniors.

The general uncertainty about the pandemic that pushed a substantial number of colleges and universities to make standardized test scores optional for students applying for fall 2021 admission continues to bolster the number the SAT/ACT-optional and SAT/ACT-blind schools into 2022.

This spring, FairTest reported that over 1,400 accredited four-year universities have stated they will not require SAT/ACT scores from students applying to college for the fall of 2022. As FairTest pointed out in the article, “That’s more than 60% of the 2,330 undergraduate institutions in the United States.”

No one knows whether this trend is a temporary blip in admissions procedures or whether it represents a long-term trek away from relying heavily on testing data. Many colleges had begun the shift to test-optional in the interest of equity prior to the emergence of COVID-19, but that number skyrocketed with the virus.

Application elements such as GPA, class rank, and standardized test scores give university officials quantitative metrics for admissions. Activities and honors resumes, teacher recommendations, and personal statements complete the application with qualitative information.

The increase of SAT/ACT-optional schools and the cloud of uncertainty surrounding grades earned during remote learning experiences limit the amount of reliable quantitative information available. As a result, more and more experts speculate that the essays will assume a larger role in the admissions packet.

For students applying to top-tier colleges and universities, submitting spectacular admissions essays has long been essential. With a significant number of applicants having perfect GPAs, elite class ranking, and near-perfect standardized test scores, the tipping point for getting in moves from the quantitative to the qualitative. Qualitative elements breathe life into the application by giving dimension and detail to the human beings behind the data. With quantitative data being virtually the same, qualitative details allow admissions officials to select students who best fit the university’s values and vision.

California-based education media outlet EdSource examined the likely outcome of optional SAT/ACT exams in the state and concluded that the loss of standardized test scores places more weight on the college essays in the admissions process.

This shift humanizes the admissions process at all levels of competitiveness, giving applicants the chance to share their personal stories and, interestingly, proving that students are more than just scores. It also places personal statements and supplemental essays in a higher stakes category for a much larger group of students.

College admissions advisors and essay coaches are encouraging applicants to place a higher priority on the writing process. For the Common App essay, students should be intentional and start their work early to allow maximum time for reflection and revision. For the supplemental essays, students should put in time researching the school’s current focus for its campus community and academic programs. These school-specific essays should show that individuals share the school’s vision for higher learning and post-graduation impact.

The more time students give themselves to write, discover, refine, and revise, the better the chance that their essays will help win a spot in the college or university that will best shape them into the global community members they hope to become.

College Admissions, College Essays, Educators, English/ELA, Personal Statements, Students, Teachers

The New Prompts are Here!

That’s right. The Common App announced the 2021-2022 prompts this week, and this year there is a NEW option in the lineup.

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

The Common App Blog

The new prompt replaces the problem-solving prompt for two reasons. First, the option to write about a problem you would solve was one of the least selected choices. And second, the Common App cites research demonstrating the benefits of writing about the positive influence of others on our lives. And who couldn’t use some positivity?!

The rest of the prompts remain the same as 2020-2021. The optional COVID-19 question remains in the Additional Information section, which makes sense since the pandemic is still having a significant impact on the planet.

To read more about the 2021-2022 Common App essay changes, click here.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements

The Common App Essay Prompts Are the Same in 2020-2021

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Dear Common App Prompt Committee Folks,

OMG y’all are just the BEST!!! For the fourth year in a row, you are keeping the Common App essay writing prompts the same. THANK YOU! 

Do you have any idea how wonderful that is for English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches throughout the land? After all, we’ve got a lot to deal with in light of the pandemic and being caught in the middle of a game of science versus politics. 

But really though, your prompts are pretty great. We’re thrilled the colleges say the prompts give them the information they look for. That’s especially helpful since so many of them are dropping their standardized testing requirements for this year’s applicants. IMHO standardized test scores are overrated anyway.

We’re out here betting that essays are going to get a bump in importance in the admissions process this fall. If your friends in the member schools are a little nervous about plagiarism, y’all can get together and add a little statement about how select students will receive video interviews based on their essay responses. Then you can figure out a random (or not random) way of selecting which students to interview about their essays. 

Do you have a plagiarism filter yet? (You don’t have to answer that right now in front of everybody, but just in case you don’t, you might want to get on that. What an AWESOME feature it would be for current and prospective member schools if you would help them filter out applicants who aren’t all that into honor codes.)

Back to us—the English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches. For years, we’ve been working with students in school and out of school to help them write essays well. We have presentations and videos and assignments and coaching methods designed to make students, especially those without strong support systems away from school, comfortable in approaching college essays. And we hardly have words to tell you how grateful we are that all those resources and approaches can remain stable this year so that we can focus on making sure our students are doing OK in the middle of all this uncertainty. 

So, yeah. Thank you, Common App Prompt Committee. Y’all freakin’ rock. 


P.S. To anyone who is reading my thank-you note to the Common App Prompt Committee Folks but actually isn’t one of the Common App Prompt Committee Folks, for your convenience, I’m going to leave the 2020-2021 prompts right here. See the Common App blog for more information. 

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
College Admissions, Educators, Parents, Students, Teachers, Uncategorized

Choosing a Common App Essay Prompt

Photo Credit: Pixabay via Pexels

A quick visit to the Common Application website reveals that over 800 colleges and universities now accept the Common App. From years in the teacher-trenches during college application season, I can attest that the Common App is one of the biggest timesavers to come along in… well, ever.

Along with the one-shot input of name, address, and other vital information comes the opportunity for students to put all their energy into writing one spectacular college essay. While many colleges and universities have additional essays to complete, the supplemental essays are focused on specifics the university wants to know. Quite often supplemental essays also help filter students for honors programs, scholarship consideration, or specific learning communities. As far as essays go, however, the Common App essay factors heaviest in helping admissions readers see the human being behind the stats and scores on the rest of the application.

By nature, the Common App essay is a personal narrative. On the bottom of the 2018-2019 essay prompts announcement page, the organization included the following paragraph:

“Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants – regardless of background or access to counseling – the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life,” said Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.

Your voice. Your story. Personal Narrative.

Seven essay prompts appear on the Common App website again this year. Breaking it into broad categories, three lead students to reveal an area of passion, and three ask for examples of personal growth. The final prompt knocks the essay topic wide open and tells students to write absolutely anything. Below is a list of the prompts, broken down into their broad categories:

[Passion] 1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

[Growth] 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

[Growth] 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

[Passion] 4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

[Growth] 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

[Passion] 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

[Open] 7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common App essay prompts for 2018-2019 remain the same as in 2017-2018, largely because they are well-written prompts that give excellent direction while preserving the student’s ability to share a unique story told in an authentic voice.

How does a student choose which prompt to write? Ideally, students select the prompt that “connects” with them the most. The prompt response should include a narrative element (a story, as in a chronological sequence of events). It should also have an analytical component that reveals self-awareness of the role of that particular area of passion or personal growth in the student’s life or development. The analytical component is where the readers hear the writer’s voice loudest. The prompt in which story and analysis come together strongest is the prompt a student should choose.

Before locking down the final Common App prompt selection, students should take a quick peek at the supplemental essays for the specific colleges on their list. If a supplemental essay for a top-choice school requires a student to write an essay that is the same or eerily similar to the Common App essay response, choose a different Common App essay prompt. Writing the same basic content for multiple essays going to one college or university is a surefire way to prove a lack of creativity, depth, and work ethic.

As college application season kicks into high gear, here are some action tips for students, educators, and parents to help everyone thrive:

Students – Choose wisely, and keep the big picture in mind. Use narrative and analysis. Tell your story; use your voice. A planner, personal journal, or Bullet Journal could come in handy when it’s time to brainstorm stories. This should go without saying, but students should not wait until the last minute to draft their Common App essay. Leave enough time to try and fail and adjust and try again. Try two or three different prompts to see where they lead you before deciding on “the one.” Time and reflection will be your best friends in finding your voice.

Educators – Give students plenty of practice writing personal narratives. High school English classes run deep in the ruts of literary analysis, research-based writing, and argumentative essays. But students struggle to write their own stories. Do not neglect narrative writing, especially personal narratives. To junior English teachers specifically: at the end of the year, consider a brief personal narrative unit. Keep the word count similar to the Common App (maximum of 650 words). Let your juniors leave school prepared for the college application season ahead.

Parents – Help your students carve out time to choose their Common App prompts wisely. The ideal time to begin drafting college essays is in July between junior and senior years. Most supplemental essay prompts are out by then. The Common App recently has announced prompts in the winter or spring before the next application season. They announced on January 12, 2018, the return of the prompts from 2017-2018 for the 2018-2019 college application season, so it would stand to reason that the Common App prompts will be readily available in July too. Encourage your students to start early. Once students return to school in August or September for the heavy academic and extracurricular load most college-bound seniors carry, they will be writing whatever comes to mind from a sleep-deprived state and settling for just getting something written instead of writing their unique story in their authentic voice.

Questions? Write them in the comments below.

Suggestions? Write those in the comments below too.


College Admissions, Students

To Seniors Who Are Chasing College Dreams

woodland-road-falling-leaf-natural-38537Photo credit: Pixabay via Pexels

This one’s for the kids, although educators and parents might want to listen in too.

You are AWESOME! True story. You were created with an incredible set of innate talents. Add to that all the skills you’ve acquired in your years of education, and… whoa… Look. Out. World.

Here’s the thing, though–college application season is harsh, and it stands between you and higher learning, which stands between you and said world.

This fall many of you are going smack your forehead on the doorframe of college admissions. Soon you will realize that getting into college seems to hinge on persuading the institutions of higher learning that you are a perfect fit. You have everything figured out. You have not only a planned major for college but also a plan for greatness that will bring renown to the university and untold riches into its coffers. All you need is four years there, the right post-graduate programs, the perfect professional training experiences, and life will be positively Edenic.

Having your life 100 percent figured out before you are legally old enough to vote is a lot of pressure. It’s gut-wrenching to camp out on the notion that life will suck if you get the whole college application thing wrong.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh! High stakes!!!!!

Stop it. I mean, if you need the catharsis… purge away all the emotion. Cry, belt out a primal scream, run to the gym and lift for an hour and run back home again. Do whatever you need to do to get it out, and then bring it in for a landing.

You see, here’s the secret: the college search and application process is not a gauntlet designed to prove your superiority or inferiority. It’s an opportunity for you to discover on a deeper level your innate talents and hone those skills you’ve worked on all your years of education. It’s not a quest to present yourself as the perfect addition to a university’s student body; it’s a chance to find a supportive environment that will help you discover the center of the Venn diagram of what you love, what you’re good at, and where the opportunities are.

I’m going to recommend a book for you. Actually, I’m going to recommend the first of three parts of a book. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. To get the full perspective, you should read the Introduction and all of Part One. But if you want a quick-hit story that may help you figure out where to concentrate your efforts, at least read the story of Caroline Sacks.

Then you can go back to adding schools and application fees and additional charges for sending standardized test scores and school-specific supplemental essays to your figurative college admissions cart. If you still need to.

You are one-of-a-kind, created with a set of abilities and aptitudes and perspectives and no one else on this planet has. Your contribution to life in this world is unique. Find a college where you have the grace to discover your passion, the blessings of success and failure, and the gift of growing, instead of simply achieving.