Story to College welcomes a guest post from Yue Ren, a freshman at Harvard College. Yue currently works at Argopoint LLC, a Boston-based management consulting firm.
Photo credit: Getty Images/George Doyle
I have found Carol’s work on Story to College to be amazing in helping prospective college students write great essays. Not only have I found her advice integral to writing great college application essays, but also applications for jobs, internships, and more. I would like to provide my thoughts on college essays to highlight the importance of these elements in the real world.
When admission officers flip through your application, they see your transcript, GPA, SAT scores, the quick descriptions of your extracurricular activities, perhaps a few AP scores and even a couple of awards, but all that seems very quantitative. What part of the application defines you? After writing quite literally over a dozen college essays and supplement essays, I have a couple of observations. Although I do not have all the answers, I believe these tips would have been helpful when I was writing my first college essay as well as subsequent essays for jobs:
- Express yourself with a story: In my experience, the best way to communicate an idea is to tell a quick, concise anecdote. Think about all those lessons you have learned in your extracurricular activities or throughout your life. What do these stories tell about your talents, aspirations, or character? I also believe the manner in which you tell a story, including your tone, mood, and attitude, reflects on how you react to certain challenges or successes. This provides just as much information to the reader about your character as the actual story you write. Therefore, word choice in your expression is crucial.
- Be Human: Why is talking to your friend so much more fun than reading an old biography? Construct your stories with feelings and emotions such that the reader can experience the breadth and depth of your happiness, anger, pain, or excitement. If you are ever wondering why your friend refuses to give any hints about his or her essay, it might be because it is personal; it might reflect intense emotions. A journey in a day in the life of you is filled with crescendos and decrescendos that may ultimately shape your outlooks. Do not be afraid to share them with admissions.
- Write Truthfully: Honestly, lying is hard. In all likeliness, the details of a real story derive much more substance to you that you can elaborate on, unlike in a lie. Save yourself the trouble of trying to write about stuff that you have never done, and just pour your heart and mind into those events you have faced. If you did a thousand extracurricular activities in high school, now is a perfect chance to talk about a few of those thousand topics.
- Seek Peer Critique: Although many people choose to not let anyone see their essay, I found that letting your teachers and maybe a close friend see your essay brings new perspective. Going back to word choice: some words simply rub people the wrong way, and it is probably best not to rub admissions the wrong way. You cannot control what your reader thinks or how your reader interprets your essay; you can control how you express your ideas. Therefore, express them wisely and always be conscious of your audience.
Remember that the essay is just one part of your application, but I would recommend treating it as the part of the application that truly identifies you. It is an opportunity, not another barrier keeping you from clicking that submit button.
Carol’s Story to College blog is truly awesome. I would check “How to get started on my college essay”, “7 Things Admission Counselors Are Looking For”, and more for great advice on college essays and applications. I know I found them abundantly helpful when I was writing my essays. Her advice extends beyond just the scope of college essays. I would like to stress that for courses, jobs, or internships, I found these tips equally as applicable and useful as they are for college essays. In fact, when I wrote my cover letter for Argopoint, I specifically used examples of past experiences and extracurricular activities in anecdote form to highlight my skills and abilities. I also sought help from peers who have experience with applying to jobs, and who helped critique my cover letter. Of course being frank and honest is important. Therefore, I found Story to College to be helpful for college essays as well as for applications in your future.
by Elias Strizower, Bronx High School of Science
Have you ever applied to college? If so, you probably found yourself in the same situation that many of us have, whether or not to take standardized admission tests. Sadly, this isn’t actually a question because the answer is handed to you; you must take standardized tests in order to apply to a competitive college. Because of this monopoly, standardized test companies can charge any price they want. Being a senior in high school who is (almost) done with the college application process, I have spent hundreds of dollars on the College Board. I have been the victim on countless occasions of their unfair prices, and have found my bank account suffering as a result. It is completely wrong that students are the victims of this monopoly, and College Board should be stopped.
In the East coast, the main standardized test company is College Board, the creators of the Standardized Admissions Test (SAT). College Board has a complete monopoly over the test taking process, and because of this can charge any price it wants on. The average student takes 2 SAT’s and 2 SAT Subject Tests. The price for this given scores sent to 5 colleges is $146. Given a situation that a student took 3 subject test (one of them being language), registered late, and rushed score reporting, the price is $227; a situation that is quite normal. This is not fair. A student shouldn’t have to pay so much money to take a test, preparing is hard enough. In contrast ACT registration prices are quite similar. The main difference is sending scores is free, and the ACT encompasses many subjects so separate ACT subject tests don’t exist.
College Board also has many other services such as AP tests, and CSS Profile for financial aid. The prices of these services have a large effect because many students take AP tests, and most if not all send CSS Profiles. The current price for AP tests is $87 per test, and the price to send the CSS Profile is an initial $25 and $15 for each additional school. This is extremely ironic and unfair because it shouldn’t cost money to prove that you can’t afford college.
I think that College Board should be forced to lower their prices. College Board has an unfair monopoly given that students don’t actually have a choice whether or not to take the test. For this reason, students are forced to pay the absurd fees. Students should be wondering whether or not they want to take a test, not whether or not they can afford it. College Board shouldn’t be able to profit off of students. Although it costs money to run a business, I don’t believe that their prices are a fair reflection of how much it actually costs to do the job. Sending scores online should be free. It doesn’t cost money to send an email does it?
All in all I don’t believe that the practices at College Board are fair. Students have become victims due to College Board’s monopoly, and are forced to pay ridiculous prices.
Elias Strizower is a senior at Bronx High School of Science.
By Carol Barash, PhD, Founder and CEO, Story To College
“Education access is the civil rights issue of our time.” Eduardo Padron, President of Miami Dade College. 10/24/12 at the College Board Forum.
Hello from the College Board Forum at the Fountainebleu Hotel in South Beach, Miami. There are over 2000 college admissions officers and guidance counselors here discussing “Investing in Education.”
It is a big moment, with a new president of the College Board, and I am quite aware of the work we need to do moving forward to connect students with their highest achievements and purpose in high school, college—and especially life.
In a panel called “The ‘Ideal’ High School Graduate: The Conversation Continues,” high school counselors and college admissions officers from Yale, Rochester, and Brandeis discussed the gaps between what colleges are looking for in students’ applications and what students most often reveal. The discussion wasn’t so much about what colleges want, as how an increasingly outcomes driven admissions process has skewed students’ education and life choices:
- Character: Several panelists mentioned recent cheating scandals at top high schools and colleges (Stuyvesant, Harvard), and how this is echoed in the news from business, finance, and journalism. Students live in a world where “Achievement trumps character,” said Jon Burdick, Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid at the University of Rochester. College Admissions, on the other hand is all about character. Colleges are looking for young people with character and especially integrity. Not the person who does generalized “community service,” but the person who is doing that work with a sense of purpose and commitment.
- Grit: Colleges want students who will make the most of what college has to offer. So they look for students who have persevered through adversity and learned from real life challenges, rather than people who make excuses or who expect other people to solve life’s problems for them. Parents and children alike should read Paul Tough’s writing on grit. Here’s an excerpt.
David Coleman, the new president of the College Board spoke about the need to expand “equity and excellence” throughout K-12 education. He spoke of “two walls” that limit educational excellence in the United States: high school achievement has stalled, and there are huge gaps of race and class at the highest levels of academic achievement. He committed the College Board to leading an effort to increase rigor in US high schools, to creating a program like Advanced Placement that can expand educational achievement in middle school, and to making the College Board’s data available to outside researchers.
Coleman ended his talk with an inspired reading and discussion of Martha Graham’s Blood Memory: An Autobiography:
“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the practice desired.”
Along with sand, and sweat, the themes of practice, work, and rigor—and of putting yourself entirely into learning and life—are my big takeaways from South Beach.
By Zach Kwartler, Story To College Instructor, Teach for America Corps Member, and Princeton University class of 2011.
Are you excited to find out what this blog post is about? Do you think what I’m about to write is going to be really interesting? Does this opening paragraph accurately reflect my prodigious writing ability? If you answered yes to all of these questions, congratulations, you just won an iTunes gift card! If you answered no, welcome to the 99 percent.
As writers, we need to grab our reader’s attention in the first sentence. We need to “hook” our readers in so that their answer to the aforementioned questions will be a resounding “Yes!” Since a college admissions officer will spend just five minutes reading your application essay, your first sentence takes on even greater importance. But fear not! The hook – like the Green Goblin (err… Lizard) – is a beast that can be conquered. Here are three strategies you can use to write an attention-grabbing hook that will make admissions officers scream out in excitement: “I can’t wait to admit that student into my university.”
1. The Place Setter
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville’s opening sentence in Moby Dick is so simple even a caveman could have written it. Yet the American Book Review ranked this as the best opening line in literary history. The message: when all else fails, keep it simple and stick to the who/what/where/when/why of your story. In the past, I have read essays that describe a deeply personal moment only to ask myself when I’m done reading: “Wait… where did this story take place?” By setting out the basic facts in your first sentence, you will ensure that your essay does not meet a similar fate.
Example: The summer after my junior year, I worked for eight weeks at a food pantry in Brooklyn.
Non-example: Hi! My name is Zach, I’m from New Jersey, and I am writing this essay so that I can get into college.
2. The Deeper Meaning
“Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I read the opening line to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I immediately asked myself two questions: “Why are all unhappy families unique? And what is going to happen to the poor family in this novel?” Undaunted, I plowed through the next 860 pages of Tolstoy’s masterpiece only to find out that Anna’s family… (Disclaimer: I never got past the first chapter in Anna Karenina – something about the small type – but I have always wondered how this novel ended). The good news: your college essay is only 500 words so if you can compel your reader to ask questions upon reading your first line, they will read the rest of your story with excitement.
Example: I have always wondered why my father organized that road trip to West Virginia.
Non-example: After years of searching, I have come to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to work hard and find happiness.
3. The Deep Dive
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel García Márquez accomplishes two things by beginning One Hundred Years of Solitude at the novel’s seminal moment. First, he shows us that something exciting will happen in his novel, and it is our job to find out why. Second, he demonstrates his skill as a writer by raising the stakes of his novel from the opening line. If you can accomplish both of these tasks in the first sentence of your essay, your reader will view the rest of your essay with heightened interest and you will show off your confidence as a writer. (Disclaimer: Although it took me two tries, I did read all 448 pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Example: I woke up to a splash of water on my face. “Get up,” Juan said to me, “We’re moving.”
Non-example: It was the final act of the high school musical and I was really nervous and I thought that I was going to forget my lines.
Do you have a favorite literary hook that you want to share? Respond with your favorite hook in the comments.
Zach can be reached email@example.com.