High School 2 College

September 15, 2021

The Worst Common App Essay

You might not be able to identify what makes a great singer great, but you know an awful singer when you hear one. It’s hard to explain what makes a great essay great, but when I read a dreadful essay, I know it.

Every year, I write about 30 college application essays even though I graduated from college 40 years ago. I should say that I don’t exactly write them, but I do help high school seniors come up with topics for their essays and then help those kids to polish their essays after the student finishes saying what she wants to say. I can (and will) tell you what sort of topics are real winners, essays that say something meaningful and true about a student and presents that student in a thoughtful, charming, appealing way. But first I need to warn you about dreadful essays.

What makes a really terrible essay terrible?

The worst essays come from senior English class. I’m an English teacher, so I can tell you with confidence that English teachers aren’t always great writers themselves. Has your English teacher written and published a book or even an article? Has she won any writing awards? Furthermore, Your high school English teachers hasn’t known you, their student, for more than a month or so, so why are you relying on his advice and guidance when it comes to writing a superior college application essay? English class essays often reflect the advice of someone who wrote an article on “How to Write a College Essay” 10 years ago. English class essays are often boilerplate, hackneyed, dry, uninspired. English class essays could often describe you and half a dozen other kids in your school or your sport or your club with the same overused phrases. [Yawn.]

Awful essays often reflect too much interference by parents. When students write about how they’ve conquered their fear (or special ed issue or their shyness or their academic challenges or their ADD) and show you that they are great now and now they can conquer life in the same way that they’ve conquered their whatever, I know a parent has taken over. When kids say, “I trembled in fear” instead of “I thought the teacher might actually bite my head off,” I know a parent has taken over. And if I know when a parent has taken over an essay, so do admission counselors. It’s not considered cheating for a parent or teacher or tutor to review an essay for grammar and punctuation and spelling or even word choice, but the essay topic and the essay language still has to retain the voice of a 17-year old, not a 45-year old who wants the prospective college to see their student as a shining star, just as that parent does. Parents, don’t meddle with your kids’ essays. It makes it seem as if you don’t trust your student to speak for himself.

Truly terrible essays explain how you, the 17-year-old student, have life figured out. When I finished first grade, I asked my mother why I had to go to second grade since I already knew how to read and write. Any high school kid knows that you’re not done learning at age seven. And any adult knows that you haven’t understood everything there is to know about life or even about yourself at 17. When kids write that they tried to make the team but failed, and, on the verge of quitting, decided to try once again and then made the team, that’s nice, but they can’t say, “And now I understand perserverance.” When kids write that they lost the big game but “Now I understand that it’s all about teamwork,” they look juvenile. When kids write that their parents sent them to Nicaragua for two weeks to build houses and “Now I understand poverty,” no you don’t. All you understand is that your parents could afford to send you to Nicaragua for two weeks and not everyone lives in your suburban town. You look spoiled and naive to say otherwise. It’s much more sincerely humble to write that you are beginning to understand something specific about yourself, but that you have a lot more to learn, and in part that’s what you hope to do in college.

The worst essays spend four paragraphs giving the history of your medical issue or insecurity or academic challenge and finally mention where you are now in the last paragraph or two.

Nasty essays criticize others, even if they deserve it. No college wants to hear that you got a 70 in Italian or Math because you had an incompetent teacher. No one wants to read that if your parents hadn’t moved, you’d be an A+ student. No one (except your mom) cares that you were on your way to gymnastic stardom until you dislocated your shoulder. And definitely no one believes that you would have done something meaningful and important with your life – but for Covid. Every student was impacted by Covid. Every sports team had cancelled games. Every club closed. Every science research project was postponed. But no one wants to hear that you couldn’t run or play ball or dance or join a club or make a meaningful contribution because of Covid. What COULD you do? Did you tutor neighborhood children? Did you sew masks when no one could get PPE? Did you design science experiments with materials kids had at home to help your elementary school teacher? Did you teach a senior citizen how to FaceTime with his grandchildren? It’s no one’s fault that you didn’t live up to your own potential – but you could write about what you might do differently next time.

So what SHOULD you write about?

If you’re on a team, what makes you different from the student next to you? It could be something that everyone knows about you, like you’re the tallest kid in your grade or you’re addicted to chocolate or you love country western music or classic cars. It could also be something that no one knows about you, like you love to clean bathrooms because of how sparkly they look when you finish (that was me growing up) or why you prefer to visit with your grandma in an old age home than visit your three-year-old cousin or why you’ve always hated the color blue.

And how should you start an essay? Just start. You can add an introduction and conclusion later. You can fix the spelling and grammar later. You can chose more expressive verbs and adjectives later. You can rearrange the sentences later. I can edit nearly anything, but I can’t edit nothing. So put something down on paper. Start several essays. When you find a topic you can’t stop writing about, you’ve found a winner. Try writing it as a letter to a friend, at least temporarily. Try writing it as a diary entry for now.

Just start writing. You’ll evenutally need an essay between 500 – 650 words, about a page to a page and a half. But for goodness sake, please don’t write about how your coach is such an inspiring guy because he convinced you to try out for the team once again before his annual trip to Nicaragua!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

April 8, 2021

Applications are Up and Admissions are Down: What Can I Do With That Information?

Articles like the one below have been flooding my inbox this past week.    The moral seems to be that applications are up and acceptances are down — significantly down, especially among the most selective colleges.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/04/07/admit-rates-ivy-league-pandemic-test-optional/

I’m not telling you this to frighten you but rather to confront you with the reality that having colleges go “test optional” is a blessing and a curse.  A wider demographic is applying to colleges of all sorts, so you’ve got less of a chance of getting into the same school that a mere 2 years ago you might have gotten into fairly easily.

What you do with this information is up to you, but I do have some suggestions I hope you take seriously.


1.  Widen your net.  Apply to more colleges than you might have 2 years ago, and apply to a wider variety of colleges than you might have.  Include more safety schools because this year, they might not be so safe any more!  Don’t dismiss schools just because you haven’t heard of them.  The ones your friends are going to apply to aren’t the only good ones.


2.  Make sure your school grades and your SAT/ACT scores sparkle.  Now is not the time to slack off.  If 25% of students are applying and getting in without SATs or ACTs, 75% ARE submitting scores. Take a full courseload of quality classes junior and senior year to show you care about your education.


3.  Use every opportunity to demonstrate interest.  Colleges want to know that you’re not just applying to two dozen schools because you can.  They need to be able to accept only those students who might reasonably accept their offers. So fill out the “send me more information” form on EVERY college you’re even thinking of.  Then open the email they send you promptly and click on any and all links.  Email the admissions department with a thoughtful question or two.  Attend every open house you can, virtual or live.  If a college is visiting your high school – virtually or live – make it your top priority to attend.  “Like” each school’s Facebook page, Instagram, Twitter, and any other social media you know about.  If a school is offering live tours (many of my students have already gone on several live tours), go if you possibly can.


4.  Get creative with extra-curricular activities.  I understand that many traditional activities have been cancelled this past year, but that’s true for everyone.  You’re no worse off than every other athlete or dancer or singer.  Yet some kids have developed websites or helped seniors find vaccine appointments or sewn masks or worked at food pantries or held virtual homework sessions for neighborhood kids or knit blankets for babies or the wheelchair bound or worked remotely on political campaigns or created composite YouTube concerts with fellow singers or band members.  What have YOU done?  If the answer is “not much,”  go back to item #1 above and broaden and deepen your list of schools, because the kids getting into selective schools have done all these things and more.


For those of you who go to Yorktown High School, I’ll be speaking virtually about how testing and applications have changed over the past two years this Wednesday evening, April 14, at the request of the guidance department.  (If you don’t go to Yorktown, I’d be happy to speak to parents of your school.  All they have to do is ask!)

Let me know if you have any questions,

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 18, 2021

College Application Process Starts NOW, Juniors!

For most of my students, college seems far away.  The few 10th graders I have think they’re much too young to have college on their minds.  My seniors are patiently waiting to hear from the colleges to which they applied under regular decision deadlines (or from those schools from which they got wait listed). My juniors think they’re doing quite well if they’re seeing me once a week for SAT or ACT tutoring.

Not so!

Let’s back up the timing from the end till now.

  • You want to hear back from colleges as early as possible and get as many yeses as possible, so you want to apply to several schools early action.  That means applying by October of senior year.
  • To apply by October, you have to work on your applications, especially the application essays, over the summer before senior year.
  • To work on the essays over the summer, you have to know which colleges you’ll be applying to more or less by May or  June of junior year.
  • To know which schools you want to apply to by May or June, you have to have visited several  schools – if not in person then at least virtually – in March and April of junior year.
  • To know which schools you’d like to visit or investigate in depth in March and April, you need a list of potential schools by FEBRUARY of junior year.  That means if you wait much longer, you’ll be behind in your schedule.

How should you start building that list?  I’m sure your high school guidance counselor has suggested you start with Naviance.  While Naviance can be of some help, the number of students is just too small to be useful. After all, it only includes students from your school.  If someone from your high school got into Big State U, is it because he was a sports star?  Did his parents go there?  Is he a coveted minority?  Was he an expert at the French horn?  You’ll never know from Naviance.  You need a search engine which represents more students.

Try the College Board college search. Another site with a variety of useful articles and a college search feature is College Confidential. My favorite, though, is US News & World Report because its college search tool is the least biased and has the most detailed information.  They charge $30 to access it for a year, but it has very specific, very accurate information, and I think it’s well worth the money.

Between US News and the other sites, you’ll have all the college information you need to start building a list. Think of how far away from home you want to be.  Think of what majors you want your school to have.  Do you care if your school has a big football team? Is on-campus housing important to you?  How do you feel about Greek life (fraternities and sororities)?  Is there a club or activity you want to try, like a school paper, a dance group, a religious organization like Hillel or the Newman society, a political organization, or even something fun like a board game group or ultimate frisbee?

You want your list to be huge at first, maybe 30 – 40 schools.  Include every possibility. Then start narrowing.  Are religious schools out?  How about urban schools without a campus?  Please don’t eliminate a school just because you haven’t heard of it, and don’t include schools that don’t fit your needs just because your friends are talking about them.  Build a list on your own.

Once you have a list, group your schools geographically.  Can you visit all the New York State schools over a three-day trip in the fall?  What about Pennsylvania schools or Boston schools? You’ll probably want to take a few weekends to visit schools, so start looking for fall weekends that work for your parents. Don’t forget to make appointments for school tours and information sessions before you go.  Some schools only give tours on weekends or in the morning. The most popular dates fill up quickly, and it’s absolutely worth it to take the tour rather than wandering around on your own.  Even if the tour guide isn’t the best, you’ll get credit from the school as “demonstrating interest” by going on an official tour.

If you visit a school, don’t forget to book an admissions interview if the school offers one.  If you’re not sure what to do on a college interview, take a look at this YouTube video I’ve prepared on that very topic:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGkffIAqzhE.  If you can only visit virtually, don’t forget to sign up for any online information sessions the schools on your list offer.

That should keep you busy for the next month or so, so get going! Let me know if you need help building your list or finding online resources.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

August 16, 2020

When Should I Apply to College?

The Common App opens for the new application season every August 1st.  That’s the date students entering their senior year in high school can begin to create their college applications, but by August 1st, you should really be toward the END of the college application process, which should have begun the summer going into junior year. (Juniors, are you listening?)

Sometimes I find it’s more effective to explain the schedule to students when I work backwards, like this:

The vast majority of the students I work with apply to most of their schools early action.  (Unlike early decision, early action isn’t binding.  It merely says to the college, “I’m showing you my application early so that you can give me a decision early.”)  Early action deadlines are generally November 1st.

That means EVERYTHING needs to be in by November 1st at the latest — your recommendations, your essays (yes, more than one if the college has a supplemental essay), your list of activities, your transcript, your SAT or ACT scores (which have to be ordered from either the College Board or the ACT and sent to each college directly by that organization -IF you decide to send any of the tests you’ve taken), any college credits you’ve earned by taking college-level classes.  EVERYTHING.

So realistically, you should have EVERYTHING in, done, and sent by October 7th at the latest because (1) you want to look eager to the colleges and (2) you don’t want to chance having the Common App website crash as you feverishly work to get everything in the last week in October (and it DOES crash – nearly every year!).  Most importantly, you want to apply by October 7th because the acceptance rate at nearly every college is higher for students who apply early action than for students who apply regular decision.  That’s not to say you won’t get into a college if you wait until the regular deadline between December and February depending on the school, but why not give yourself every advantage?  This article from last year explains that early action acceptance rates are getting higher every year (meaning colleges are taking more students who apply early and fewer students who wait until the regular deadline), and this year is certain to follow that trend.

Even if you’re not applying to a particular school early decision or early action,  you still can and should apply by October 7th.  Applying well before the deadline is one way to demonstrate your interest to the college.  Colleges also tend to distribute financial aid on a first come, first served basis, so the earlier you apply, the more money the college can offer you.

To get your applications finished by October 7th, you need to have:

  • taken your SATs and/or ACTs as often as you think practical or possible to show your best self
  • asked two teachers for recommendations (ideally, teachers you’ve had junior year in a subject area related to your intended major)
  • written your Common App essay (if you Google “Common App Essay topics 2020,” the list of possible topics comes up) and had your essay reviewed by a teacher or tutor or parent (as long as you don’t let your parents edit your paper for anything other than spelling or grammar – I can always tell when a parent has been too hands-on with an essay)
  • written your supplement essays (many schools require an additional essay or two or three!)
  • created a list of colleges to which you plan to apply, with at least three good-match schools, three safety schools (they’re almost guaranteed to take you unless you commit a felony between when you apply and when they get your application), and three reach schools, which are unlikely to say yes, but hey, you never know
  • visited several schools on your list (at least virtually)
  • filled out your guidance department’s forms so your counselor knows which schools to send transcripts to (some high schools substitute Naviance for this step, and some schools ask you to fill out information on Naviance AND fill out forms for your guidance department)
  • created a resume, or at least written down all of your extracurricular activities, including paid work, volunteer work, academic honors, and athletics grouped into those categories and in reverse chronological order (a resume makes it MUCH easier to complete the Common App and is useful when you go on interviews)

Look at the calendar.  October 7th is less than two months away.  What are you waiting for?

If you need help with your application or essay, don’t hesitate to book an appointment with me through my website.  I’ve been helping kids get into college for over 30 years, so the process doesn’t intimidate me at all, but it can be very daunting the first time.

Good luck!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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February 22, 2020

Hooray! A bunch of colleges want me! Now what?

Congratulations!  You’ve gotten into at least a few of the schools you applied to.  Doesn’t it feel good to be wanted?

Now all the adults you know are asking:  So, where are you going to go?

How should you choose among the schools that said “yes”? 

Make a few lists based on criteria. For example,

  • If all of the schools that said yes were down the block from each other, which would you pick?  (And now, decide how much distance matters.)
  • If all the schools that said yes cost the same, which would you pick? (Have you tried telling your top school that they ARE your top school, but you might have to decline because another school gave you a better financial aid package?  Financial aid departments have the most flexibility right now, while everyone is trying to get admitted students to commit.)

Revisit your top three choices.  See if you can sit in on a class or two, or, even better, stay the weekend.  Go eat in the cafeteria.

Check out the schools’ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. Ask current students online about your particular major:  what are the best and worst things about that major at that school?

Ask me.  I’ve been helping kids get into college for over 30 years.  I have a fairly good sense of what most of the colleges my students go to are actually like, which ones have more of a clove-cigarette-smoking, birkenstock-sandal-wearing culture and which ones have more of a beer-drinking, everyone-goes-to-the-football-games culture and which ones have more of a we’re-here-to-study culture and which ones have more of a we’re-here-to-have-a-good-time culture.  I know kids who are attending or have attended most of the most common schools and I might be able to find you someone from northern Westchester for you to ask some questions.

Most important advice ever: Choosing a college isn’t a permanent decision.  

Some decisions are forever.  If you commit suicide, you can’t take it back.  If you have a child, you’ll be a parent forever, even if you don’t raise that child.  But choosing a school isn’t one of those forever decisions.  About a third of all college students do not graduate from the same college they first attended, so if you have to transfer, you won’t be alone.

Make the best decision you can with the information you have now, and then settle into it.  If you realize the school wasn’t what you thought in a few years, or if you yourself change in a few years, you can always change schools, especially if you’ve done a good job of keeping up your grades your first year or two.

Please don’t forget to tell me where you applied – and which schools said yes.  That sort of information really helps me give accurate advice next year’s students.

Congratulations on your success!

Wendy Segal

www.wendysegaltutoring.com

January 21, 2020

Three Rules about What You Should Major In

Every teenager I know, from the beginning of junior year until at least the middle of senior year, is asked the same two questions everywhere he goes:  What are you going to major in, and what do you want to be?

Not since you were five years old have as many strangers and near acquaintances been so interested in your plans for the future!  But you can no longer answer “superhero”; people expect you to answer something reasonable, like “doctor” or “businessman” or “psychologist,” or you risk looking like you have put absolutely no thought into your own future.

So how, at age 16 or 17, are you supposed to know?

Frankly, most adults I know are working at a job or career that’s not the one they planned for when they were teenagers. So why choose at all?

The key, I believe, is to start moving forward, knowing that your path may take a turn in an unexpected direction at some point.  But if you never start moving, for sure you’ll never get anywhere.  So pick a major or a career you think you might like and take some action to make that come about, even if you never actually get there.

From a practical perspective, why not just put “undecided” on your college applications, since the truth is that you really ARE undecided?  Sometimes that is the best choice.  If you’re a girl who thinks she might want to major in psychology or English, or a boy who thinks he might want to major in math or business or some science, undecided might be best.  Every college has a ton of female biology majors and male math majors.  Colleges like to balance their incoming freshman classes in terms of gender (few boys want to go to a college that’s 90% female, and few girls want that, either – or they’d be looking at women’s colleges).  But they also like to balance out each major by gender as much as possible.  So a girl who is considering majoring in English isn’t increasing her chances of getting in to a particular college by applying as an English major, but a boy who might  want to major in English is indeed giving his chances a boost by listing that major on his applications, presuming his grades in English and Social Studies classes confirm that liberals arts would be a likely good fit for him.

So rule #1 is apply undecided only if the major you’re thinking of is common for your gender.

Some majors are designed to teach you more stuff, and some majors are designed to teach you how to DO stuff.  As a history major, I didn’t need to learn how to do anything I couldn’t do before.  I just learned more history, and I learned how to analyze it better and write about it better.  But those who major in engineering, nursing, physical therapy, accounting, and similar majors are actually learning how to do something.  For my history major, it didn’t matter if I took a class in the late middle ages before or after I took a class on the causes of the American civil war.  But someone who is majoring in engineering learns the basics the first year, then learns a bit more the second year, then specializes into mechanical or civil or electrical or some other kind of engineering the third year.  An engineering student can’t take a third year class during his first year, because he just won’t have the background for it yet.

All those “learning how to do stuff” majors generally require smaller and more specialized classes.  A college can put 400 history majors in a lecture hall, but not 400 senior-year nurses.  So those skills-based majors are usually more selective.  In other words, those programs have more requirements (perhaps they require SATs or SAT Subject tests when in general that university is “test optional”) and take fewer students.

So if you’re planning on majoring in biomedical engineering, should you just list your major as undecided because it’s easier to get in?  No, you can’t.  In most cases, the engineering (or nursing) departments constitute a different college within a university, and switching in isn’t easy.  Changing from a physics major to an engineering major will require you to apply again and start back with freshman classes, likely ensuring that you’ll go to college for much more than 4 years just to get your bachelor’s degree.

It’s very easy – and common – to go in as an engineering major and then switch to just math or just science because you’ve already taken the basic coursework, but it’s much harder (and sometimes impossible within the same school) to transfer from majoring in science to majoring in engineering.

So rule #2 is to list as your probable major the hardest and most specific major that you’re considering, even if you know that you’re not at all sure that you’ll stay with it.  It follows my advice above about starting down a path.  If you start to be a nurse and after a few classes you realize it’s not for you, it’s easy enough to change to biology or psychology.  But if you start with biology, you might not be able to get into the nursing program.

Does it make sense to major in history or English or any other liberal arts subject?  What could you possibly do with it?  Because college is so brutally expensive, too many families presume that if their students aren’t majoring in something practical, something that will turn into a career like business, their kids are wasting their own time and their parents’ money.  Not so.  I majored in history and was in banking as a branch manager for 11 years.  My cousin majored in Peace Studies at Binghamton and is now working for an internet company making a very impressive income, living in New York City.  Employers often look for employees with liberal arts degrees because the employers can be assured that those candidates can read critically, can write intelligently, can think independently, can complete a program they’ve begun, and most importantly, have learned how to learn.  As this article explains, a liberal arts degree translates into a higher income for life.

Rule #3, therefore, is major in what you really like to study with the confidence that it will turn into a worthwhile job.  Just start walking down that path.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

 

April 13, 2019

When Should I Be Visiting Colleges?

Right now is when you should be visiting colleges. Think about your schedule by backing up:  You probably want to apply to many colleges early action, which means getting the applications submitted by October of senior year.  That means you must have a good idea of which colleges you’ll be applying to by July or August following Junior year so you can get started on your application essay and have it finished by September.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges in the spring of your Junior year in high school BEFORE the students who attend college leave for the summer (so you can get an accurate sense of what sort of kids go there and whether you’d feel at home with them) so you can write your essay(s) over the summer.  That means you’ve got to visit before May when colleges have finals week followed by a mass exodus of students from campus.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges by March or April.  What month is this?  Do you still think you’ve got plenty of time to visit colleges?

Here’s some sensible advice:

1.  You should plan to visit schools by geography.  Many kids from my area of the US do a loop around Pennsylvania (Bucknell, Lafayette, Lehigh, maybe UDelaware), Or they do the Boston area run (Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, Brandeis, Northeastern, maybe Emerson).  Or perhaps the New York State trip (SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Cortland, Cornell/Ithaca College, Syracuse). You may want to visit a few colleges in the same general area, but I think you should limit yourself to two or three a day; otherwise, the whole experience can be overwhelming.  Make hotel reservations if you think you’ll need them, and ask your parents to take a couple of Mondays or Fridays off work.

2.  Sign up online for tours.  Some schools publish a schedule and you are welcome to go on any tour that’s convenient, but many others require you to sign up in advance.  Do that.  You’ll get a much, much better sense of the school on a tour than just wandering around on your own.  Also, if you’re on an official tour, you get a check mark for “demonstrated interest,” one of the qualifications you have the most control over in the college application process.

3,  Find out if you can interview with an admissions person.  Very often, colleges will offer something called an information session or a one-on-one with someone in admissions.  If that’s available, take advantage of the opportunity to make a good impression. Whether it’s a real interview or just a meet-and-greet, dress casually but be clean and neat, smile and shake hands, and have a few questions ready (and make sure the answers aren’t on the school’s website).  Good questions might be about your major (How easy is it to change majors?  How many professors are in that department?  How many students graduate with that major?  Does the school assign a faculty adviser to you?), about housing (Do they house all freshman together?  Are there substance-free houses or theme houses?  Do they guarantee housing for sophomores and juniors?), or anything else that interests you.

4.  While you’re at the interview or while you’re walking around the science building/ performing arts center/ library/ other building of interest, send your parents to the cafeteria. You can meet them there afterwards.  NO parents should go with you on an interview ever, even if the school allows it.  Having Mom or Dad go with you to meet the admissions person gives the impression that your parents don’t trust you to handle the interview on your own.  Instead, parents should be in the cafeteria, asking students questions that would embarrass their children to hear.  Parents, your job is to find a typical student and approach him or her with questions like, “Would you choose this school again?  If you had a cousin interested in economics (or whatever major your student is interested in), would you send him here?  What’s the worst thing about this school?”  You’d be surprised how honest students can be.

5.  Take pictures as you go around on tours or write on brochures.  Six months from now, you won’t remember which schools had the great dining halls or the up-to-date science labs.

It’s not imperative that you visit every school you will apply to, but you want to take a look at several schools that are on your “probably” list.  If you get into Harvard, do you care what the dorms look like?  If you only get into a school on the bottom of your safety list, who cares what the student lounges are like – you’re going or you’ll stay home.  You might want to see one urban, one suburban, and one rural school.  You might want to see a large school and a small school.

I understand that the very idea of visiting schools can be intimidating.  Sitting down to make a provisional list can seem overwhelming.  Start with your guidance counselor. He or she can give you a great starting list if you share what your preferences and goals are. Or start online with collegeboard.org or get the paid subscription offered by US News ($40 for the year and VERY well worth it, in my opinion).

Warning:  Don’t rely on Naviance exclusively.  Naviance will tell you who got in to which schools recently from your high school.  But can you tell which of those kids was an athlete or a “first generation” student or a minority or someone who played an instrument on a concert level?  Naviance uses a very small data set from which it’s very hard to predict your own chances at any given school.  You’re better off combining the information from Naviance with a list from the College Board and US News.  If you start to see the same schools on all three lists, you should probably be investigating those school schools carefully.

4/21/19 UPDATE:  Check out this recent article, which confirms what I said above: Naviance is only useful in conjunction with other search tools. Its focus is too narrow to be used alone, and in fact just encourages students to apply only to the same schools that their peers apply to.

Most importantly, just get a list going, plan your visits, coordinate your schedule with your parents, and go.  After you visit the first school, you’ll find the next ones much less scary.

If you really feel stuck and don’t know where or how to build a list, I can help.  Schedule a session with me and we’ll work it out together.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 27, 2019

What Are Colleges Looking For?

A balanced student used to be just what colleges were hoping for:  a student who gets good grades, high SAT scores, plays the clarinet and soccer, and helps at the local food pantry for the hungry.  Then colleges realized that if they enroll an amazing scholar, a world-class clarinetist, a star soccer player, and a devoted community service activist, a college could have a balanced incoming freshman class even though each student only had one area of expertise.  The sought-after student, therefore, should exhibit what was called “passion.”  Unfortunately, what that college got was a class with some very odd albeit accomplished people who had almost nothing in common.

In the past several years, colleges have not been looking for balance OR passion.  They seem to want what can best be described as “consistency.”  If a student says he wants to be an engineer, he should be getting excellent grades in honors math and science classes.  His math SAT scores should be high.  He should be doing science research or participate in the science club or science Olympiad.  He should be volunteering at the local elementary school to tutor younger kids in math or science, or, even better, he should start a science club in the local middle school.  Even his paid work should be about science or engineering – he might work at a Home Depot or Game Stop store or be the nature counselor at a day camp.

If a girl wants to be a biology major and she likes to dance, she should be a junior teacher at her dance studio, and she should organize other dancers to perform at a local hospital or senior center to combine medicine and dance.  Her grades in honors science classes should be high, but she should also perform in a school dance group or musical theater when she’s not working at the local hospital’s gift shop.

Colleges also want to see kids follow through on their commitments.  If you are a boy scout, continue on to become an eagle scout.  If you take taekwondo or karate, achieve your black belt.  If you played tennis as a child, play it all four years of high school.  If you start taking Spanish in 7th or 8th grade, keep taking it all the way through 12th grade, whether you like it or not – unless it’s a severe drag on your grade point average.

Once a college finds a stack of students with commitment and consistency, good grades and good scores, and a handful of very positive teacher recommendations, how does it decide which of those students to accept?

Much of the criteria are completely beyond your control.  (This article discusses how grades and scores aren’t always what determines who gets in.)  A particular college may want more girls in a certain major.  It may want more students from the mid-west.  It may want a tuba player, not a clarinetist.  It may want fencing, not soccer.

Is there anything a student can do to differentiate herself from the crowd?  I’m glad you asked!

First, there’s the application essay.  If a student is clearly a shoe-in, a uninspired essay might but likely won’t change that decision.  If a student is clearly unqualified, an amazing essay probably won’t change that decision, either.  But most students fall somewhat in the middle – a reasonably good fit, but fungible, that is, exchangeable for any other student with those qualifications.  That’s where a stellar essay can help.  Colleges are looking for an essay that doesn’t merely review what’s already listed on your Common App activity page.  Colleges want an essay that is so clearly YOU that even without your name on it, everyone in class would know that essay could only be yours.  What is there about you, about your story, about your interests that distinguishes you from the rest of the soccer team or your fellow dancers?

And one of the biggest things colleges look for now is “demonstrated interest.”  Because the Common App has made it so easy to apply to dozens or even scores of colleges with one or two clicks, no college is really sure if you’re applying because you genuinely want to go there or if you’re applying just because it’s easy.  So show the colleges you’re applying to some love.  Visit their websites and enter your name and contact information in the “send me more information” page.  And when they respond with an email, open that email and click on the links.  (Yes, colleges can tell when you open their emails, how long you wait to open the email, whether you click on the link, whether you assign yourself a password – and it counts!)  Visit the college if possible, take a tour, and check out the admissions building.  Stop by the college’s booth at a college fair or attend an information session (don’t forget to sign in so the college knows you were there.)  Email the college with a question (but not one whose answer is already on their website).  And don’t dare skip attending the meeting when a college representative visits your school’s guidance department, even if it means missing a class you’ll have to make up.  Those representatives aren’t merely traveling salespeople for the college — they’re the actual admissions counselors who decide who gets in!

If  you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email through my website.  If you need help with choosing colleges to go on your list, or assistance with the essay or the Common App, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

August 1, 2017

Before You Click Submit: Everything You Need to Know About the Common App

Every year on August 1st, the Common App opens for business.  The new essay topics are posted and all the site improvements are completed.  The Common App stands ready for your application.

What is the Common App?

Back in the old days, when you wanted to apply to ten schools, you had to complete — by hand or by typewriter! — ten different applications with ten different essays.  On some of the applications, they asked for your name above the line.  Some asked for your name below the line.  Some wanted your name written last name first.  Others wanted first name first.  Others asked for your social security number first.  Each application was a major project.

The Common App was designed to streamline that part of the college application process.  The student has to fill out only one application, and with one click he or she can submit an application to any of a few thousand colleges.  Of course, students soon began submitting dozens and dozens of applications because they could.  It became a game, and colleges had no idea which students were sincerely interested in attending their school. Many colleges, then, began requiring supplements (see below).  Now the Common App isn’t as “one-click” easy as it used to be, but more and more colleges prefer the Common App to their own application, and many have even dropped their own application and only accept the Common App.

What is the best way to complete the Common App without going crazy?

It’s a long, long application.  Every year, it gets fine-tuned and a little easier to manage, but it’s still overwhelming to many students.  You’ll have a much easier time of it if you gather this information and have it all in front of you before you even begin:

  • your social security number
  • your parents’ email addresses and cell phone numbers
  • where your parents work
  • what your parents’ job title and profession are (I’m always surprised how many kids don’t know)
  • where your parents went to college (all schools if more than one), what degree(s) they got, what year they got those degrees
  • your guidance counselor’s name, phone number, fax number and email address (Look on your school’s website under the guidance department. Look for something called “school profile.”  That should have everything you need.  Print it out if you can.)
  • when your graduation date will be
  • your SAT/ACT scores and when you took each test (exact date — look online at act.org or collegeboard.org if you don’t remember)
  • your resume

Why do I need a resume before I start the Common App and how do I create one?

A resume lists your activities in an organized, polished way.  There are dozens of ways to format a resume (try Googling “high school resume images” and you’ll see many excellent examples), but they all list your activities in reverse chronological order — from most recent to oldest, back to 9th grade.  Don’t include anything older than 9th grade unless you still are doing that activity.  For example, if you started Taekwondo or dance when you were 11 and still do it, fine, but don’t list soccer if you stopped in 8th grade. Break your activities into 3 categories if you can:  academic achievements, community service, athletics, and/or paid employment are groupings many students use.  Once you’ve got all of your achievements and activities listed with locations and dates on your resume, you’ll fly through the hardest part of the Common App:  the “interests” page.  You’ll also have a professional-looking document to bring with you when you go on college admissions interviews (or summer job or internship interviews once you start college).  You can also give your resume to teachers who promised to write recommendations for you as a way of reminding them of your interests and activities so they can include some in your recommendation.

Any advice about the Common App essay?

Many students begin filling in the Common App before they’ve written the essay.  Why?  I have no idea.  I think they just can’t face the essay and so start the Common App before the essay is done just to feel productive.  They’re not fooling anyone, especially me. Students, finish your essay.  Make sure you’ve shown it to your parents, your tutor, me, or anyone else you think can help you polish it.  It doesn’t have to sound like a 45-year-old dad wrote it — in fact, it shouldn’t — but it should make sense, be engaging, and be spelling- and grammar-error free.  The Common App has brought back the “topic of your choice” topic so there really aren’t any excuses.

When they say the maximum is 650 words, they mean it.  If you write an essay of 651 words, the last word won’t be sent to the colleges.  And you’ll look like a student who either can’t follow the rules or doesn’t care about the rules.  So you’re aiming for an essay that’s between 500 and 600 words, which is about one page to a page-and-a-half typed in size 12 font.  That’s shorter than you might think.

Don’t repeat what’s on your resume or transcript.  The colleges already know that stuff. Write about what makes you different from the kid who sits next to you in math class or the kid on your team.  Think about it this way:  if you dropped your essay in the hallway of your school without your name on it and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, would everyone know it’s yours because the essay is so “you”?  That’s one way good way to come up with a topic.

The other way to think about an essay topic is if that same scenario occurred and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, no one would think it was yours because it reveals something about yourself that’s not obvious.  Maybe you secretly love to iron, or maybe you adore your middle name.  Whatever it is, if you can’t wait to write about it, you’ve found the right topic.

Is there anything else I should do before I start the Common App?

Yes!  Glad you asked.  Many colleges require a supplement to the Common App in which you tell the college what your intended major is and whether any of your relatives attended that school.  Unfortunately, many of those supplements include an essay.  They’re usually shorter than the Common App essay, but there can be more than one supplement essay per school!

Don’t leave the supplement essays till the end.  Colleges care about those essays as much as they care about the Common App essay — or more so.  Go on each school’s website or on the Common App website and print out the essay topic for each supplement essay you have to write.  With just a little adjusting of each essay, you may find that one essay will suffice for more than one school.  For example, more than one school may ask why you want to go to that school or why you’ve chosen that major or what your favorite activity is.  Or you may decide that a particular school’s supplement essay is so odd that you’d rather drop that school from your list in favor of a similar school with an easier supplement.  It’s better to make that decision before you pay the application fee!

Any last words of advice before I begin to apply to college?

Based on more than 30 years of helping students apply to colleges, I have this advice. Not everyone follows it. Some who don’t forever regret not listening to me.  Here it is:

Don’t apply to your favorite school first!  

Have you ever sent an email and THEN realized you spelled something wrong or sent it to the wrong person?  Well, the same happens all the time with college applications.  I can’t tell you how often students find mistakes in their applications or realize they should have written something differently AFTER they hit “submit.”  So wise students send applications to their safest safety school first (they’ll take you even if you mess up), then a middle-difficulty school, and only then to their dream school.  Another benefit of following this method is that your safety school is likely to send an acceptance sooner, and once you get even one “yes,” the rest of your senior year should be a breeze.

Feel free to check out my website for more information and advice:  www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

Good luck!

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April 26, 2017

Should I Take SAT Subject Tests? Should I Really Start Testing in 9th Grade?

I have written in the past with answers to frequently asked questions.  Now I’m writing about one of the most frequently UNASKED questions.  It seems that everyone knows you have to take SATs or ACTs to apply to most colleges, but SAT Subject Tests aren’t on many people’s radar.  If you are applying to a college ranging from somewhat selective to highly selective (students who get B+ in school to those who have nearly perfect averages), then the answer is YES, you should be taking SAT Subject Tests.

WHAT ARE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

SAT Subject tests used to be called SAT IIs.  Way back when I was going to school, they were called “Achievement Tests,” and that’s what they are.  There are 20 Subject Tests: math (2 levels), science (bio, chem, physics), foreign language (with or without a listening component), literature, US history, and world history.  Each test is one hour, multiple choice only.  None of the tests has a short answer section or anything you need to write yourself.

WHO SHOULD TAKE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

A few schools have made the news lately (at least the news I follow, which is heavily about testing and college issues) by dropping their requirement that students submit two SAT Subject tests.  But, as this article confirms, many, many schools still recommend subject tests, which can and do make a difference in your application.  First of all, most of the applicants to any given college have GPAs in the same range with similar test scores and similar activities.  If 95% of those applicants submit subject test scores and you don’t, the college can’t help but conclude that either you’re too lazy to take the test or you did take the test, but your scores were very low.  The colleges seldom use the tests to make admission decisions (except as I said when you don’t submit them), but they are used to verify your school grades.  Is an A at your school the same as an A in a private boarding school in Boston?  Is an A at your school the same as an A in an inner city school?  An SAT Subject Test allows the college to compare levels of achievement on an objective basis.

You may have heard that if you take the ACTs instead of the SATs, you don’t have to submit Subject Tests.  For many schools, that’s true.  But for many schools, it’s not true — they still prefer you submit subject tests, as this article confirms.  So take them!  Each is only an hour.  If you’re not sure whether you’d do well on a given test, I STRONGLY recommend you take a sample test at home a few months before the actual test.  (There’s only one book I would recommend for your practice:  The Official SAT Study Guide for ALL Subject Tests by the College Board.  It has one of each test they offer.)  That way, if there are questions you get wrong, you can evaluate:  Did I get them wrong because I never learned that information?  Did I get them wrong because the test asked the question in an unfamiliar way but now I see how to understand that question?  Did I get them wrong because I forgot that information?

After you take the sample test, you’ll know whether you are prepared to take the test, whether you should NOT take the test because there’s too much content that’s unfamiliar to you, or whether you should go to your teacher and say, “I didn’t get these questions right about World War II.  Will we be covering that material before I take this test?”  Then you can either not take the test, wait for the teacher to cover the material, or learn it on your own.

WHICH SUBJECT TESTS SHOULD I TAKE — AND WHEN?

Some students mistakenly think that if they aren’t taking an honors-level or AP-level class, they won’t do well on the SAT subject test.  That’s not necessarily true.  Some students don’t even consider taking a subject test because their teacher didn’t mention it.  I haven’t found a high school yet (and I know quite a few) where teachers have a strong sense of who should take which tests, so you can’t rely on your high school teacher, or even your guidance counselor, to tell you to take SAT subject tests.

Colleges that require or recommend SAT subject tests usually want two.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take more than two.  If all of your subject tests are great, send them all.  If not, send your two best scores.

In general, if an area of study is completed after one year of high school, take the appropriate test in June of that year when your knowledge of that subject is fresh.  For example if you are taking chemistry this year and you are doing well, in April, take a practice subject test in chemistry.  Ask your chemistry teacher to explain the questions that seem unfamiliar — or ask him to confirm that you’ll be learning that material in class.  If you think you’ll do fairly well, take the Chemistry Subject Test the first Saturday in June.  Of course, you won’t be able to take an SAT in June since the SATs and SAT Subject Tests are given at the same place at the same time.  So you should then plan to take your spring SAT in May (if you plan on taking one — many students take ACTs only).

If an area of study is ongoing, like math or often foreign language, you can wait until October of your senior year to take those Subject Tests.  You are permitted by the College Board to take up to three tests in one sitting — but DON’T!  Every one of my students who tried it said, “I should have listened to you.  By the time I took the third test, I couldn’t see straight.”  You can, however, safely take two subject tests on the same day.

THIS IS THE PITFALL:

Many students take biology in 9th grade and chemistry in 10th grade, well before they are thinking about testing or colleges.  It doesn’t occur to them – or their teachers – that they should take an SAT Subject Test at the end of 9th grade.  They should!  If you are taking a science in 9th  or 10th grade and doing well, I STRONGLY suggest you take the SAT Subject Test for that science in June of that year, even if that year is 9th or 10th grade.  You may never take biology again, and by the time you’re in 11th grade, you’ve forgotten most of the details of the content.  Especially if you think you might want to major in math, science, pre-med, engineering, or another STEM subject, you should take your science subject tests as soon as you finish that subject.  Some schools that don’t require SAT Subject tests in general DO require them for STEM majors!

 

ADVICE FOR JUNIORS:

Check on the College Board website to see when the tests you’re interested in will take place.  (Language tests especially are not necessarily given more than once or twice a year.)  If you want to take more than two subject tests, in June take science or history or any subject that’s not repeating next year.  You can take foreign language, literature, or math in the fall if necessary.  You only have until May 9th to sign up, so hurry! Sign up for the June SAT Subject tests on the College Board website.

ADVICE FOR 9TH and 10TH GRADERS:

Don’t wait for your guidance counselor or teacher to recommend that you take an SAT Subject test.  Get the College Board book listed above.  The Subject tests don’t change much from year to year, so that book should last until you graduate from high school.  In the early spring, take a sample science test.  If you do well, take that Subject Test in June.  You’ll thank me!

WARNING:

Don’t forget that the subject tests follow the OLD SAT scoring policy.  You get points for correct answers, and you lose points for incorrect answers.  If you can make an educated guess, you ahead and try it.  But if you have no idea, you’re much better off skipping the question entirely.

If you have any questions about the SAT Subject Tests, feel free to send me a message on my website.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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