SOS for The Short Answer: How to Write About an Extracurricular Activity or Work Experience for the Common App

14 Oct

The Common App requires one long essay. But it also has a short essay, a supplemental question that asks students to “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”  And they mean brief, no more than 1,000 characters (about 250 words). That’s really short, about one medium-sized paragraph!

The tendency is to simply describe an activity or experience. Trouble is that this description often ends up as a broad overview–BORING!! But how the heck do you give details when you can only use a few words? Here’s the trick: You have to pick something within that activity or work experience and focus on that.

Let’s say you want to pick your cross country running as the activity. My advice is to pick something within cross country that means a lot to you, such as a quality you have learned. How about endurance? Or mental discipline. Now just zero in on how you learned that quality while running cross country, and then give an example. The example is key. It will be like a little piece of a story or a specific moment. “I developed mental discipline from the times I had to run when I had a cold, or when the last 500 feet of the race was straight uphill…I learned to use little mental games to distract myself from the physical pain and fight back the voice that told me to quit…” This will make your answer feel real and specific (and interesting), instead of general and vague (and boring.)

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Check out The Choice

4 Oct

If you haven’t discovered the New York Times‘ blog on college admissions, called The Choice, it’s worth checking out–for everything from how to narrow your list of choice schools to how to find discount college textbooks.

Here’s the link to The Choice, in case you want to bookmark it:

Below is a recent post from The Choice with some solid tips on writing college admissions essays. I really like the one expert’s advice about “loosening up” when you write your essay. I know that sounds easy, and actually can be pretty difficult when all you are used to writing are those stiff, academic essays for your English classes.  (Actually, the advice about writing an imaginary roommate sounds like a good idea, but I don’t know many students who have the time for a creative writing exercise like that. Most just want to get cranking on their actual essays!) My tip is to try to write like you talk, and just get out your story or essay or rough draft, and then you can always go back and clean it up later. (I have many other posts on how to “loosen up” and find your voice on my blog. Check out the indexed posts–listed by topic–over on the right of this page to find what you need.)

September 23, 2011, 3:53 PM
Crafting an Application Essay
That ‘Pops’


Stanford University’s application for admission includes a prompt directing students to write a letter to their future freshman roommates. The exercise is a good one for all applicants – regardless of their interest in Stanford – as a fun, fresh jumping-off point in the essay writing process, Rebecca Joseph, a professor of education at California State University, said on Friday.

“It’s all about loosening up,” said Ms. Joseph, who was on a panel called “Communicating Stories: Strategies to Help Students Write Powerful College Essays,” part of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors conference in New Orleans.

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Jumpstart Your Personal Statement in 6 Simple Steps!!

11 Aug

If you are writing an essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or describe a quality, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as the Number 2 UC personal statement prompt!), here’s one way to approach your personal narrative. Remember, “narrative” means telling a story. I’m pretty sure at some point you learned in English class that to create a story you need at least two things: a character and a conflict. So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”) Again, thinking back to English class, conflicts can come from many different places–from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something bad happened to you.)

To put it simply, a conflict is a problem. Problems come in all shapes and sizes. They do not need to be traumas or a crisis, although those can work, too. (HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best!
Check out this post about “mundane” topics.) Here are other words for a conflict or problems: challenge, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc. Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem (Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact!  Include the 5Ws! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)

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Lessons from another season of college admissions…

27 Mar

I haven’t posted anything in recent weeks. My role as a college essay tutor wraps up in January and February. But if you are still working on an essay or personal statement, I would read through this blog for ideas and inspiration!

This spring, I have also been in the thick of the college admissions craze because my son is a high school senior. And boy what a ride it has been. One of the hardest parts is the waiting–and I know some of you are STILL waiting to hear from prospective colleges and universities. Hang in there!! And then there are the rejections. My son certainly had his share, and it didn’t help that they were the first schools to report. And one was his top pick. But he cast a wide net, and now has three great options to pick from, which is the next challenge. So, it all works out! And it will work out for you, too!

We went through this with my daughter, too, two years ago, and she landed in a fabulous little liberal arts college in the south and loves it. (She’s going to study in India next semester for her study abroad!)

I’m not a college counselor, but I can share with you a couple tips that I wish I had known, or paid closer attention to, for my own kids’ college quest. I can’t say we have regrets, but we certainly learned some things as we went along. In case they resonate with you, here they are (in no particular order of importance.):

  • Try as hard as you can to tune out others students and parents who talk up certain schools, especially the “prestigious” ones, and focus on what will be the best fit for you. Remember, you are the one who will go there, not them!
  • Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with all you have to do. Just keep up with the various steps, and it all works out. None of it is really that difficult. Stay open to learning about the different schools, and when you are in the area of a college or university (even if you don’t necessarily want to go there) your sophomore or junior year, drop by and check it out! Your opinions about colleges will change a lot in just a year or so.
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Wordle Your College Essay!

17 Jan

Wordle: college essasy

I heard of Wordling from a gardening friend over at a totally unrelated blog, called Lost in the Landscape. (Believe it or not, I do other things than read college essays!) Wordling is a program where you can drop in some text and it creates a colorful collage of random words in unusual fonts, and it also makes the words you use the most the most prominent. The idea is that you can get a visual sense of what you emphasized in your writing. (Above is a Wordle of this post! Click the image to enlarge.)

So, guess what I thought would be fun to Wordle? You got it (see, that’s why you are on your way to college!!)–college admissions essays!  In my previous post, I told you my son just finished submitting all his applications. So I Wordled one of his two essays (for the University of California application–basically personal statements about 500 words each).  Then I dug out one of my daughter’s recent college essays. I bet you will be able to see that they are very different in their interests:

My son’s Wordle (click on it to make larger)

Wordle: Caden Essay

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17 Jan

Yesterday, my son sent in the last of his college applications (just hours before many of the Common App Deadlines, might I add). YEA!!! I’m not sure which of us is more relieved. He is the youngest of my two children (my daughter is a sophomore in college), so this is it for me in terms of a personal role in the college application and essay writing process. Of course, I will continue writing this blog and tutoring college-bound students and parents on how to write powerful admissions essays. But boy does it feel great to be on the other side!

If you are still on the dark side, and have either just started thinking about your college essays or still have a couple to polish and send in for 2011, you, too, will someday be on the bright side with my son and I! The one thing you do not want to feel at the point where we are is regret. No matter how stressful and overwhelming the process, it is worth sticking with it to make sure everything is as good as you can make it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

And when you are done, you can step back and let what happens happen. There’s  nothing else you can do at that point. But if you are still cranking on these essays and supplements, take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, remember your goals, know that it will be over soon, and JUST WRITE THEM!

Congratulations to all of you who have all your applications in, and best of luck to those of you still plugging away!

This is exactly what I’ve been saying all along…

12 Jan

On Sunday, The New York Times ran an essay called “The Almighty Essay” about why the college application essay (aka the personal statement) is so important to admissions officers.

The author, a frustrated dad named Trip Gabriel who a journalist and the parent of twins who are juniors in high school, wondered why so much importance is placed on these essays, especially when students are not taught how to write them in high school. (College counselors say the essay is viewed as the main place in the application process where a student’s own voice can be heard and expressed.)

This dad, who is very bugged about how much value colleges place on these essays, especially the most competitive one, wrote:

“What if, like most 17-year-olds, a high school senior sounds wooden or pretentious or thunderously trite when trying to express himself in the first person? Prose in which an author’s voice emerges through layers of perfectly correct sentences is the hardest kind of writing there is. Plenty of professional authors can’t manage it. How reasonable is it to expect of teenagers?”

I totally agree with this dad, at least on this point. And not to pat myself on the back too much, this is exactly what I have been talking about in my blog and the reason I write it:  To help students learn to write about themselves–to discover a compelling topic and focus their points–and find their first-person voice and strike a more casual tone.

I won’t get into the argument of how fair it is to rely on these essays to decide who should get into college and who should not. In my opinion, the main reason these essays are so stressful is that no one has given students the tools to write them. As I’ve advised many times in this blog, I believe the best way to write a personal statement and naturally find a pleasing voice is to tell a story. Click this to link to some of my posts on how to tell a story in an essay.

Anyway, here’s the entire article (I took the liberty of  bolding the parts I agree with the most):

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