High School 2 College

August 5, 2014

Applying to College: Where Do I Start? When Do I Start?

If you’re going into your senior year of high school in the fall, you probably have a nagging feeling that you should be doing something about college, but I bet the whole concept feels overwhelming.  (If you’re going into your junior year and you’re smart enough to be reading ahead to be well prepared, give yourself a big gold star!)

Where should you start?  Is it too early to begin the college process – or are you already behind?

Let’s think this whole application process through, step by step:

– 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. (That means NOW!)

– To work on the essays over the summer, you have to know which colleges you’ll be applying to more or less by June of junior year.

– To know which schools you want to apply to by June, you have to have visited several  schools in March and April of junior year.  (Most schools discourage tours in early May when finals are in session, and most college students leave campus by mid-May.)

– To know which schools you’d like to visit, you need a list of potential schools by FEBRUARY of junior year.

So are you behind?  Unless you have a solid list of schools to which you intend to apply, I’m afraid you are!

How should you start building that list?  I’m sure your high school guidance counselor has suggested you start with Naviance.  Feh!  The sample on Naviance is just too small.  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.

Try the College Board college search.  (Yes, I used to recommend Princeton Review, but they’ve tinkered with it so much in the past few years that you now need a college degree to work their program.)  US News & World Report also has an excellent college search tool. They charge $30 to access it for a year, but it has very specific, very accurate information.  Between US News and the College Board, 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)?

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?  What about Pennsylvania schools or Boston schools? You’ll probably want to take a few weekends to visit schools, so start looking for weekends that work for your parents.  They’re much more likely to cooperate if you have a plan.  For example, you might say, “Mom, I want to take three trips.  I want to see the Pennsylvania/ Delaware/Maryland schools in one trip, the Boston area schools in another trip, and the New York State schools to the west in a third trip.”  Mom’s bound to be impressed! Then go online and find out when those schools have available tours and/or information sessions.

Don’t forget to make appointments for school tours and information sessions.  The most popular dates fill up quickly.

While you’re online, definitely fill out the “send me more information” page at each school.  That’s how they know you’re  considering them.  Once the schools get specific information from you, they can send you targeted brochures for your interests or major or any scholarships that you might fit.

After you  make your list, go to visit schools.  You don’t have to see every school to which you might apply.  You don’t have to visit your reach schools.  Face it, if you get into Harvard, you’re going.  Who cares what the dorm rooms look like!  Visit the schools that are most likely to admit you.  Visit different categories of schools:  urban, suburban, rural, large, small, northern, southern – whatever your categories are.

Next, start writing your essay.  The Common App is live as of August 1st.  You can read the essay prompts here, so get started now!

Please don’t wait until school starts to begin the essay.  Sure, some English teachers give you time to work on your essay in class, but they don’t have much experience with the new prompts (prompts changed just last year and are radically different from prompt over the past 10 years or so) and they don’t know you particularly well.  Don’t tell me you work best under pressure.  They’ll be plenty of pressure in the coming few months.   A well-thought-out essay may require several drafts.  You may pick one topic, begin writing, and realize the essay is a dud and you’d be better off with a different topic.  You don’t have to polish it up now, but you should most definitely begin right away.  Get off Facebook and start writing!

Also, you should be making a comprehensive list of everything you’ve done in high school.

List:

  • academic achievements (pins, awards, honors)
  • after school clubs
  • sports
  • paid jobs (even babysitting)
  • volunteer jobs
  • community service

You need the name of the activity, the group you did it for or with, the dates, and perhaps a 5-word description.

Once you complete your list, show it to your parents.  You’re bound to have forgotten something!

After you really complete your list, make a resume.  Look online for samples.  The most important thing about a resume is that it is error-free. Have someone else review it.  Now you have something to bring with you on interviews, and completing college applications is SO much easier when you already have completed a resume.  Trust me!

If you follow all these suggestions, you should be busy until school starts (sorry about that!).

Need more help or advice?  Feel free to book some time with me (http://meetme.so/WendySegalTutoring ).

Good luck!

 

 

best college

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 2, 2014

Is Early SAT Prep Worth It? Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

—————————————————-

I recently wrote a blog post with specific advice about how parents can help their students begin preparing for the SATs in middle school and early high school.

This week, a book was touted by local press in which a mother studied for and took seven SATs with her child.  Her advice agreed that it’s most effective to begin preparing years before the actual SATs.

Now I’d like to tell you WHY students should begin to prepare so early – and why it’s never too late or a waste of time and money to engage a private tutor.  

Is this shameless self-promotion?  Not really.  I already have a very busy practice, and this information is valuable whether you choose to work with me or another tutor.  In fact, as the mother who wrote the book (above) showed, you can be as own your child’s tutor if you have the ability and time and if your student will let you!

1.  Your student’s SATs will help him get into an appropriate, affordable college.  You all know that most colleges do consider a student’s SAT and/or ACT scores as part of his application package.  The larger the school, the more it relies on numbers for evaluation – numbers like GPA and SATs.  State colleges especially have a huge number of applicants and rely on numbers to eliminate some students on the bottom and grab some students on the top.  And state colleges – your state’s or another state’s schools – are generally thousands less expensive than a private college or university.

2.  Some colleges use SAT scores to give out merit aid scholarships.  Some just use the math and critical reading scores, others add the writing score.  Money spent on a tutor now might add up to much more money in college aid later.

3.  Very high PSAT scores might get your student a National Merit Letter of Commendation, Semi-Finalist, or Finalist designation.  These designations often turn into scholarship money, but even if your student’s first choice school doesn’t give aid based on the PSATs, a National Merit designation enhances her college application.  All schools like to brag that they have plenty of National Merit Scholars.  With a little early tutoring and the ability to score well on standardized tests, you could be one of those scholars, but the PSATs are given early in 11th grade, so many start working over the summer after 10th grade.

4.  Some employers ask for your SAT scores – even after your student graduates from college.  Articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal come around every year or two.  It might not be fair but it does happen:  Employers look at SAT scores when hiring for some types of white-collar jobs.

And for the most important benefits:

5.  I work with students to improve their grammar skills.  When was the last time your student studied grammar?  Has your student’s English teacher ever explained to her why a sentence written in the passive voice is weaker than one written in the active voice? Writing well is a skill that will be important in college and for most of one’s life.  Write a letter to the editor, write a proposal for a client, write a note to your child’s teacher, write an email to your boss – and you’ll be glad you studied grammar with me.  Your subjects will agree with your verbs, your pronouns will have clear antecedents, and your participles won’t be hanging.  Being able to write clearly and confidently will come in handy even when the SATs are a distant memory.

6.  I work with students to improve their test taking skills.  I watch kids answer test questions 5 days a week.  I watch some kids get low scores even though they have high grades, and others with modest grades get high scores.  Why are some students better test takers?  A private tutor can watch your student answer questions and correct his technique.  Some kids don’t pay enough attention to the question (they read the answers and hope something seems “true” to them).  Some kids second guess themselves and talk themselves out of correct answers due to lack of self-confidence.  Some kids race through questions because they’re afraid of running out of time or just because they want to be done with the test, often misreading questions.  Some kids need remedial vocabulary help (you can’t tell whether an author’s tone is curmudgeonly or benign if you don’t know what those words mean). That level of individualized instruction simply can’t be done in a class or small-group setting, but experienced private tutors do that sort of analysis and correction for a living.

7.  I improve students’ reading comprehension.  Yes, they read novels in school, but are your students reading persuasive essays like those on the SATs – and in news magazines?  Can your student understand an author’s tone – and how an accomplished reader can figure it out?  Many students can give me a one-sentence summary of an essay, but so many can’t put the individual sentences in their own words.  Understanding what you’re reading makes college studies easier. When you really understand what you’re reading, reading becomes less of a chore and more of a pleasure – a lifelong benefit indeed!

peering stupify demise

Wendy Segal

 http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com/

July 25, 2012

Everything You Need to Know About The College Application Essay

So far, it has been a glorious summer in New York.  Not too cold, not too hot (not too hot for me, anyway), not too dry, not too wet.  I’m sure the very last thing you want to do now is write a college essay.  Too bad.  The summer is passing quickly and if you’re going into your senior year in high school, it’s time to write your college application essay.

There was a wonderful article ta couple of years ago in the Washington Post (wonderful because it reiterates all the advice I give my own students) about writing a college admission essay.  Keep reading, and I’ll tell you about it.

I know that many high schools provide time for you to write your essay in English class in the fall, but don’t wait.  First of all, your English teacher isn’t an expert in college essays.  In most classes, he will distribute an article and/or a sample essay, and then sit back while you struggle with what to write and how to write it.   He can’t help you much because in most cases he only met you a few weeks before and doesn’t have the slightest idea what you should write about.  Secondly, your English teacher will have dozens and dozens (and dozens) of essays to grade and at best will scan your essay for obvious spelling errors.  Most of all, if you think you’re busy now, imagine how busy you’ll be in September and October.  So don’t wait.

But what should you write about? The first step is to answer the question.  What question?  The question that the college wants you to answer.  Most colleges accept the Common Application, a generic college application that purports to allow you to apply to many schools at once.  In previous blogs, I’ve written about my concerns about the common ap, but some schools only accept the common ap, so start there.

Print out the common application.  Every college application is some variation of this form.  You’ll want to complete this in pencil, so hang on to the version you’ve printed out.  The essay questions are at the end of the application.

Print out applications of other schools that you are interested in. Nearly all schools have their applications available online, so just print them out and read the essay topic.

Group the applications by essay topic. See if you can write one essay that would fit for 5 or 6 colleges.  Sometimes kids spend all summer writing an essay that will only work for one college.

I might as well confess this now (buried as it is in the middle of my blog) that there isn’t one college essay.  You’ll probably have to write at least 3 different essays because different schools want you to respond to different questions.  Sorry to be the one to break that news.

The goal of the essay is to let the college know something about you it couldn’t find out from your transcript, your resume, or your application.  They already know from your application if you play a sport.  They know about your community service activities.  They know how smart you are by your grades.

But what makes you different from the other kids on your team?  What makes you different from the other B+ students in your English class?

The best essays portray a moment in time, an insight into the “real” you.  The best essay I ever read was written by a student of mine, Chris M.  He was just an average student in high school, about a C+ student if I remember.  But he wrote about his first hunting trip with his father and his uncle, a trip he had longed for as a child.  Now here he was, in the frost of fall morning, alone with his gear and his gun, praying that a deer didn’t come by because he realized he didn’t really want to kill a deer after all, remembering his grandfather who had died hunting, and thinking that this was way more important than sports or girls.  It was brilliant, charming, engaging, honest.  Sure, it needed cleaning up, but every line showed me a Chris I hadn’t known in all the weeks we had done SAT tutoring together.  (He got into his first choice college.)

Have you had an experience that shows us an insight into who you are, what makes you vulnerable? Read thisexcellent advice on writing a college essay from the Washington Post.   Now there are at least two of us telling you the same thing: write from the heart, be humble, don’t take yourself too seriously, show them who you are.

Here are essays that you should avoid. I’ve read DOZENS of each of these, and if I gag reading these, so do the admissions people.

  • I play sports, and I blew the big game, but I worked hard and came back to victory
  • I play sports, and now I understand about personal effort and teamwork
  • I went to Nicaragua (or Arkansas) and now I realize that there are poor people in the world and I’m very lucky
  • My mother/father/aunt/cousin had a dread disease and now I’m going to cure cancer/multiple sclerosis/heart disease
  • I most admire my dad because he’s a swell guy and he works hard for our family
  • I’ve gone to Israel/Italy/Argentina on vacation and now I understand people of the world
  • My family moved when I was 8/10/15 and I had to really define myself

I do a lot of work with kids on college essays, and I know we’ve hit on the right topic when they begin to smile.  If it’s something you really want to write about, it’s more likely that someone else will want to read it.

Lastly, keep it to 500 words. That’s about one side of a typed page at size 12 font.  When the application says 500 words, they mean 500 words or less.  Not 501.  501 says you don’t know how to follow directions, you don’t know how to edit, or you think what you have to say is more important than what other kids have to say.  Take the word counts seriously!

Write an essay or two and leave it for a few weeks. Look at it after a while.  Is it as good as you thought?  Should it be revised?  Or should it be scrapped for a new topic?  Show it to a friend or family member.  Take your time.

But don’t take so long that the summer passes by completely.  Get started now, and let me know if you need help getting started.

Wendy Segal

October 26, 2010

Rant: If I Ran The English Department at Your High School

Let me be very clear — I’m not faulting any particular high school. I’ve worked with kids throughout Westchester, kids from schools from Chappaqua and Scarsdale to Peekskill and White Plains. I’ve worked with kids from Rockland and Orange counties.  I’ve worked with kids from New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and Alaska.  Very few schools are uniformly outstanding.  They each have weak departments and weak teachers.  Too often, it’s the English department that fails to offer students what they need to succeed.

I could do better.

I know it sounds arrogant, self-important, even smug.  You might say it’s easy for me to say, sitting here at home in my little messy office, working with only one student at a time.  But sometimes you can see problems — and can imagine solutions — when you’re not in the thick of it.

Here’s what’s wrong: Most English teachers become English teachers because they like to read.  If they didn’t like to read, they wouldn’t become an English teacher.  And because they like to read, they want to share that love of reading with others.  Students are a captive audience.  So English teachers present books to students and say, “Here.  Read this.  I’ll help you understand it, and then you’re bound to appreciate it.”  That’s what happened when they were in school:  A teacher gave them a book, they loved it, they read more, they majored in English in college, they became an English teacher.  They picked up good writing naturally as the result of loving reading.  They picked up good grammar because they read good grammar.  They know that good literature lifts your soul, enriches your life, expands your world.  Surely if they give kids the right books — and the right books are a mix of the books they had to read in school and the books they’ve enjoyed this past summer — surely if the kids are just exposed to good books, they’ll love reading.

It doesn’t always work that way.

My son understood subtraction before anyone taught him.  It’s the reverse of addition, he told me sometime around age 3.  The rest of us who don’t have an innate aptitude for math need to be taught.  It’s the same with English.  It’s not enough to be exposed to good writing and good grammar; some people need to be taught.

Our schools aren’t teaching.  They’re not teaching grammar. Most students learn grammar only from foreign language class.  When was the last time an English teacher said “direct object” in your English class? Do you know what a split infinitive is?  Do you know that you always use an object pronoun after a preposition?  If you DO know, I bet it wasn’t a high school English teacher who taught you.  Using good grammar not only clarifies your writing, it makes you sound intelligent– even if you’re not.  Poor grammar makes you sound uneducated — even if you’re not.

They’re not teaching reading. If a student loves to read, it’s rarely because of literature her English teacher introduced to her.  Few teachers articulate for students why any piece of writing is considered “great.”  Perhaps if a student knew BEFORE he or she started reading that a book was controversial when it was written (and why), he or she might approach it with greater interest, appreciation, and understanding. When I tell kids that iambic pentameter was like the rap of Shakespeare’s day, that no one spoke like that (just like no one speaks in rap) but that, like rap, it was stylized speech with a beat, they are less frustrated by some of the language that used to be just annoying.  Assigning a book and quizzing a student on a chapter a day prevents students who actually do like the book from consuming it in one or two sittings.  He must read it ploddingly and at the teacher’s pace so he can pass the chapter quizzes.  And since the goal of reading seems to be passing quizzes, what incentive does the student have to read the book itself?  If your goal is to pass a chapter quiz, you’d be foolish not to read the SparkNotes.

They’re not teaching writing. Most schools assign too few essays.  The essays they do assign tend to be in-class essays (easy for the teacher — she can catch up on paperwork while the students write essays).  I know that the Regents exam requires an in-class essay, but surely a student would learn more from writing an essay that he can revise over time and with more thought.  Slapping a B+ on an essay and writing, “Needs more detail” in the margin is not teaching writing.  Imagine a Little League boy stepping up to the plate with his bat.  The pitcher throws one pitch and the boy misses.  “Okay,” the coach says.  “Come back next month and you can try again.”  Do you think this kid would ever learn to hit a ball?  Of course not.  Then why do English teachers give an essay, write one or two terse remarks, and expect next month’s essay to be any better?

In my (fantasy) school, middle school and high school teachers would set aside 20 – 40 minutes each Friday for grammar. First, they’d give a pretest.  Anyone who scores better than 90% doesn’t have to sit through the lesson on that aspect of grammar.  He could sit in the back of the room — on a desk, on the floor, any place would do — and read the book of his choice.  That would teach the class that grammar is important (we’re making it a regular part of our curriculum), and would show kids that reading can be a reward, a pleasure, a treat.

In my school, students would read books in coordination with other subjects. If the juniors are studying the French Revolution in history, have the English teachers work on Tale of Two Cities.  If biology class is studying the circulatory system, have kids read Fantastic Voyage. If health class is studying the perils of drug addiction, ask the kids to read Go Ask Alice.  There are books on math, science, social studies, both non-fiction and novels.

In my school, only a few assigned books would be in the first person. Books written in the first person, even classics like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby to say nothing of more current works, need to be written in colloquial, conversational style to imitate speech.  If kids primarily read books in the first person, they’ll always have difficulty reading sentences of any length or complexity.  In our local high school, the English department recently replaced Tale of Two Cities with Frankenstein.  I have nothing against Frankenstein, except that once again, they’ve replaced a fairly complex novel, both in plot and in language, with something written in the first person.  As in my Little League analogy, you can’t get good at something you never practice.

In my school, some assigned books would be funny. When was the last time your high schooler read something that the school assigned that made her laugh out loud?  Does she even know that books can be good AND funny?  Not only do humorous books, stories, and plays make reading a pleasure instead of a requirement, irony and sarcasm can build a young person’s confidence and logical thinking.  Why don’t schools assign O. Henry or P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber stories?  Why don’t they read the play Harvey? When I was in high school (but then again I had a superb teacher, Joyce Garvin, and went to a middle-class suburban high school with a fair respect for intellectualism), we thought Theater of the Absurd was a hoot.

In my high school, we would read essays and speeches and articles. Reading a novel is not like reading a speech, which is not like reading a play, which is not like reading a biography.  Each genre has its own vocabulary, its own flow and style and pacing.  Very few students will be reading Shakespeare in their thirties, but they should all be reading TIME or Newsweek or The New York Times.  You’d be surprised how few of my students can make sense of a political speech.  Kids need practice with all types of reading, especially kids who want to do well on the SATs or ACTs, or kids who want to be able to analyze a report for work when they grow up.

Finally, in my school, English teachers would set aside some time for reading. Imagine if every Friday for 20 minutes, everyone — teacher, too — took out a book of his or her choice and read.  I know they do this in some elementary schools, but why stop at fifth grade?  Why not continue all the way through high school?  Students might actually want to continue reading over the weekend.  The whole class might get to see what other students are reading.  They might even get to see what the teacher, that same teacher who became an English teacher because she loves to read, is reading.

But if I ran the English department, I would put myself, the tutor-for-hire, out of business so forget you ever read this.

Wendy Segal

October 8, 2010

Postscript to Vocabulary Question

I heard these words on The Daily Show on September 29th.  Imagine — all these words in a show that lasted about 24 minutes.  How many do you know ?  How many do your parents know?  How many could you define or use in a sentence?  And why aren’t you watching The Daily Show?

  • midterm elections
  • salivating
  • transformative
  • corroded
  • cerebral
  • apathy
  • demoralized
  • subverted
  • grueling
  • legislative
  • touting
  • hyperbolic
  • rhetoric (not rhetorical)
  • public square
  • paraphrasing
  • fundamentalist
  • zealot
  • polarizing
  • anecdotal
  • extrapolate
  • aggregators
  • bereft
  • regimes
  • font (of knowledge)

And the next day, September 30th, I heard all of these words:

  • austerity
  • deficit
  • perils
  • entitlement
  • laissez-faire
  • capitalism
  • tabled
  • derail
  • legislation
  • bureaucratic
  • redundancy
  • rubble
  • regaling
  • anecdotes
  • riveting
  • monumental
  • plugged (a movie)
  • objectify

What a tremendous vocab-building resource this show is — and it’s free!  (And so much more fun than studying lists or flashcards.)

I’d be curious to see if you can watch an episode and come up with your own list.

Wendy Segal

July 1, 2010

The College Admission Essay: What, When, and especially How

So far, it has been a glorious summer in New York.  Not too cold, not too hot, not too dry, not too wet.  I’m sure the very last thing you want to do now is write a college essay.  Too bad.  The summer is passing quickly and if you’re going into your senior year in high school, it’s time to write your college application essay.

There was a wonderful article this week in the Washington Post (wonderful because it reiterates all the advice I give my own students) about writing a college admission essay.  Keep reading, and I’ll tell you about it.

I know that many high schools provide time for you to write your essay in English class in the fall, but don’t wait.  First of all, your English teacher isn’t an expert in college essays.  In most classes, he will distribute an article and/or a sample essay, and then sit back while you struggle with what to write and how to write it.   He can’t help you much because in most cases he only met you a few weeks before and doesn’t have the slightest idea what you should write.  Secondly, your English teacher will have dozens and dozens (and dozens) of essays to grade and at best will scan your essay for obvious spelling errors.  Most of all, if you think you’re busy now, wait to see how busy you’ll be in September and October.  So don’t wait.

But what should you write about? The first step is to answer the question.  What question?  The question that the college wants you to answer.  Most colleges accept the Common Application, a generic college application that purports to allow you to apply to many schools at once.  In a few weeks, I’ll write about my concerns about the common ap, but some schools only accept the common ap, so start there.

Print out the common application.  They’ve made a few changes next year.  The official application won’t be available until mid-August, so they’ve provided students with an official preview of the revised application. Every college application is some variation of this form.  You’ll want to complete this in pencil, so hang on to it (again, more about this in a few weeks). At the end of the common ap are the essay questions.

Print out applications of other schools that you are interested in. Nearly all schools have their applications available online now, so just print them out and read the essay topic.

Group the applications by essay topic. See if you can write one essay that would fit for 5 or 6 colleges.  Sometimes kids spend all summer writing an essay that will only work for one college.

I might as well confess this now (buried as it is in the middle of my blog) that there isn’t one college essay.  You’ll probably have to write at least 3 different essays because different schools want you to respond to different questions.  Sorry to be the one to break that news.

Think about what you want to write.  The goal of the essay is to let the college know something about you it couldn’t find out from your transcript, your resume, or your application.  They already know from your application if you play a sport.  They know about your community service activities.  They know how smart you are by your grades.

But what makes you different from the other kids on your team?  What makes you different from the other B+ students in your English class?

The best essays portray a moment in time, an insight into the “real” you.  The best essay I ever read was written by a student of mine, Chris M.  He was just an average student in high school, about a C+ student if I remember.  But he wrote about his first hunting trip with his father and his uncle, a trip he had longed for as a child.  Now here he was, in the frost of fall morning, alone with his gear and his gun, praying that a deer didn’t come by because he realized he didn’t really want to kill a deer after all, remembering his grandfather who had died hunting, and thinking that this was way more important than sports or girls.  It was brilliant, charming, engaging, honest.  Sure, it needed cleaning up, but every line showed me a Chris I hadn’t known in all the weeks we had done SAT tutoring together.  (He got into his first choice college.)

Have you had an experience that shows us an insight into who you are, what makes you vulnerable? Read this excellent advice on writing a college essay from the Washington Post.   Now there are at least two of us telling you the same thing: write from the heart, be humble, don’t take yourself too seriously, show them who you are.

Here are essays that you should avoid. I’ve read DOZENS of each of these, and if I gag reading these, so do the admissions people.

  • I play sports, and I blew the big game, but I worked hard and came back to victory
  • I play sports, and now I understand about personal effort and teamwork
  • I went to Nicaragua (or Arkansas) and now I realize that there are poor people in the world and I’m very lucky
  • My mother/father/aunt/cousin had a dread disease and now I’m going to cure cancer/multiple sclerosis/heart disease
  • I most admire my dad because he’s a swell guy and he works hard for our family
  • I’ve gone to Israel/Italy/Argentina on vacation and now I understand people of the world
  • My family moved when I was 8/10/15 and I had to really define myself

I do a lot of work with kids on college essays, and I know we’ve hit on the right topic when they begin to smile.  If it’s something you really want to write about, it’s more likely that someone else will want to read it.

Lastly, keep it to 500 words. That’s about one side of a typed page at size 12 font.  The common ap used to limit the essay to a strict maximum of 500 words.  Now they ask for a minimum of 250, but some colleges still want 500, so you might as well keep it to a maximum of 500 words.  Moreover, colleges are used to looking at essays of that length.  If you go over by more than a few words, college admission people will start to get cranky.  They’ve got hundreds of these to read — what makes you think that what you’ve got to say is so important that you can use up the time they should be spending elsewhere?  It’s just arrogant to write more than 500 words, so don’t do it unless you are a brilliant writer with something  charming to say.

Write an essay or two and leave it for a few weeks. Look at it after a while.  Is it as good as you thought?  Should it be revised?  Or should it be scrapped for a new topic?  Show it to a friend or family member.  Take your time.

But don’t take so long that the summer passes by completely.  Get started now!

Wendy Segal

November 28, 2009

First Rant: What’s the Matter with Kids Today

Usually, I write carefully worded advice for high school and occasionally middle school or college kids on some topic having to do with succeeding in high school or college.  When I work with kids each week, I am usually the model of patience and optimism.

Inside, I am often seething.

Kids can’t write.  Kids can’t read.  Kids have no idea how to construct a sentence and often aren’t quite sure what a complete sentence consists of.  Kids have an alarmingly truncated vocabulary.  (Yeah, like they would even know what “truncated” means.) When I talk to kids, I modify my speech so I don’t appear threatening by using big words.  And these are kids who have grown up with educated parents in a middle-to-upper-middle-class suburb with a highly-regarded school system who are headed for college and professional careers.

I’ve been tutoring high school kids in my town for about 22 years now. I’ve decided it’s not all the kids’ fault.

Sure, they could read more than the two books assigned for summer reading in their spare time. Of course they could read the whole assigned book rather than read Spark Notes for the chapter summaries. But if the teachers are going to gauge student compliance with the reading assignments by giving quizzes which ask the kids to regurgitate those summaries, the students would be foolish not to give up reading and go to the Spark Notes when time is tight.  I’ve asked nearly every student I’ve had over the past five years or so why their teachers are assigning literature to read, and not one of them has been able to articulate a reason.

So my first rant is about English teachers. Not all English teachers, mind you, deserve censure. Some are good (I like to think I’m pretty good).  Some are GREAT (thank you, Mrs. Joyce Garvin of River Dell Regional High School, the best English teacher in the world, as far as I’m concerned).

But I know an English teacher whose assignments so regularly contained grammar errors that my students had a find-the-error competition going on.  I know an English teacher who was surprised to hear me say that most Elizabethans didn’t speak in iambic pentameter.  I know an English teacher who told a student that “between you and I” was correct.

I’ve never heard of an English teacher who said, “Everyone should clear his desk.”  Or “Did each student bring his assignment pad?”  It only sounds odd because you’re not used to hearing it.

Even worse, most of the students I know can’t imagine reading for pleasure because they’ve never been given anything pleasurable to read.  Reading comes with chapter quizzes, outlines, skits, posters, but not with a purpose.  Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Good Earth were taken out of the curriculum, I suppose because the teachers weren’t able to help the students understand them.  Instead, they were replaced by books written in the first person.  Even good books written in the first person, like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby don’t have complex vocabulary or sentence structure because they are trying to use colloquial speech to sound natural and realistic.

Where I’m from, English teachers generally don’t assign plays unless they were written by Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.  English teachers don’t assign novels or short stories written by authors from any country other than America or England. English teachers (with one notable exception in a nearby town) don’t assign essays or speeches. And English teachers never, ever assign anything humorous.

I know kids who’ve gone through high school taking Regents English classes who NEVER had a take-home essay to do. Well, I shouldn’t say never.  Perhaps they had one in four years, but they couldn’t remember it.  That’s shameful.  All the essays are in-class so the students can practice for the Regents exam.

My son got to college and had to take a freshman writing class.  After his first assignment, on which he got a less than stellar grade, he called me to say that he couldn’t imagine why his college writing teacher hadn’t asked them to do a poster or a presentation or a skit since he had become so proficient at them in high school.  Why, he even learned how to write in bubble letters and how to use a glitter pen!

So maybe the problem isn’t with kids after all.

I’m sure I’ll have to duck some harsh criticism about this rant, reminding me how television and computers have made it all but impossible for English teachers to teach reading and writing to kids today, but I can’t hold it in any longer.

What can parents and school districts and English teachers do to improve the situation?  Here’s what I’d love to see:

  • Introduce students to works of literature from different periods of time and from different cultures.  How about a Russian short story or a play from the 1920’s?
  • Offer students reading that’s slightly above their comfort level.  That’s how they’ll grow.  A juicy Agatha Christie is fun and challenging for most students.
  • Try humor.  Have you ever read P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber and kept a straight face?  How about Dave Barry or Ephraim Kishon?
  • Tell students about why the work is considered worthwhile before you read it, not afterward. Maybe then they’ll start the book with a sense of purpose.
  • Read for pleasure.  Have your kids read for pleasure.  No tests, no papers, no essays, no posters, no bubble letters.  Just pleasure.  Have “reading time” in school just like they do in second grade. Let the kids sit on the floor and eat a snack while they read.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little controversy.  Read and discuss TIME or Newsweek’s back page essays with kids.  Read the letters to the editor of those magazines, too, and figure out why the writer is really writing.
  • Ask kids to share their favorite authors with each other.  Some kids do read because they want to, and other kids should see that.

There.  I feel better now.

Do you have something to rant about when it comes to education and kids?

Wendy Segal

Blog at WordPress.com.

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