Your college application has quite a load to pull. Colleges are supposed to decide who will make it to their campuses - and who won’t - by looking through a form and crunching some numbers.
And of course they need to know if your numbers need to be up to what they’re looking for, but they also want to be sure they’re finding matches for their schools. In other words, they’re trying to get to know their candidates a bit before they decide whether they’ve found a good fit for their school.
One way they do this is by requiring letters of recommendation.
Colleges will commonly ask for three recommendations: one from your counselor, and two from teachers. If you’re in a large school, there’s a good chance that you and your counselor are not well acquainted. But colleges will still see this recommendation as useful to them because counselors are situated to see how students fit in with the school as a whole. So now that you’re privy to this insider information, see if you can make the effort to get to know your counselor now, so that they’ll have a good impression of you when it comes time to write your recommendation.
Your two teacher recommendations will probably be more personal. Ideally, you’d like to find two junior year teachers from different fields. We say junior year because that will be the most recent grade in which a teacher has had the better part of a full year to get to know you well. It should be said, though, that if we thought that we didn’t have two junior-year teachers who would give us a glowing review, we’d prefer a senior, or even sophomore-year one we really had a connection with, who will do nothing but say great things about us. And if you can get letters from teachers from two different fields – say English and science, or history and math – that just goes to show your college admissions department what a desirable, well-rounded property they’re looking at. But at least one of these letters should be from a teacher in your field; an engineering program is going to be somewhat more interested in hearing about your huge left-brain gifts from your physics teacher than about your performance art presentation on creative skipping from your art teacher. That can certainly help, but it won’t be weighed as heavily as your math or science performance.
And choose teachers who will speak well of you personally, and well as academically. Your college will have a basic idea of your academic skills from your transcripts and application. But while digging through huge piles of paper, all from mysterious people they don’t know at all, the student who seems thoughtful and respectful is likely to have an edge over the one who looks like he/she is mostly interested in clubs and setting off the fire alarms. So, if you had the best year in a chemistry class since Marie Curie graduated, but you also were a team member in the blowing up the lab prank, that’s probably not the teacher you want recommending you.
The best recommendations we’ve written have always been for students that we could recommend wholeheartedly. Sure, we address how smart and capable they are, but we also spend a lot of time discussing their maturity, and how they’re exactly the sort of high-quality human being any school would want to have in their classrooms. We do what we can to put any student in the best light possible, but if a student doesn’t seem interested in growing up and showing some character and self-discipline, no matter how we try to be kind, the letter just will not have the same gusto, and will never be as convincing.
And if you want a good rec, be sure to help out your teacher, or counselor. As teachers, we could have as many as 240 students every year. A counselor can deal with three or four times that many. So if they can’t remember your every detail, you’re not being slighted. Help yourself by helping them. Work up a sort of resumé with all of your dazzling accomplishments. If your history project was the one that rewrote the history books by revealing that the Hundred Years War actually went 116, remind them. If you pitched in on your teacher’s favorite charity project, remind them. If you were the only grownup student in a class of clowns, and the teacher knew that your maturity could be relied upon, they tend to admire things like that. Remind them.
You’d also like to show that you’re tough enough for college wherever you can. No admissions officer is looking for the next sad victim in the epidemic of first year students who fail out of school in the first year because they weren’t disciplined enough to handle the workload. If you are the one who shepherded through a tough biology project when it looked like everything was falling apart, see if you can get your teacher to mention that. If you helped lead the debate team to the world series of debates, despite the fact that you had a schedule full of college prep classes and half the team was down with the vapors, it wouldn’t hurt to refresh your debate advisor’s memory.
If you have a story of surviving a tough challenge in your family/home life that your teachers know about, see if you can get them to comment on that.
This is especially true in areas that go beyond your self-interest. One of our students had immigrated to the US, and English was far from her first language. But despite the fact that she had to work like crazy to keep up with the native speakers in her classes (while becoming fluent in a third language), she still went out on weekends to volunteer as a tutor at a kids’ club. It doesn’t matter what school you’re shooting for, there will be no shortage of self-absorbed, please-please-pay-attention-to-me types. Most schools won’t be desperate to find another one.
Show them, whenever possible, the sort of community member you have been at your school. Colleges like to think that part of their purpose is to prepare the ground for a solid community beyond their walls. They want that reflected in their own students, and the only way they have of gauging that is to sift through the students who seemed to be good community members in high school.
It’s best to be sure that your recommendation is sealed too, so that your college can see that you haven’t had the chance to look it over. It shows that you’re confident in your teacher’s opinion of you, and that you didn’t need to weed out fourteen bad recommendations to get to the good ones.
Finally, choose a teacher who will take your recommendation seriously, and make your letter genuinely personal. A form letter is not going to have the same impact, no matter how great your relationship with the teacher has been. And be sure to ask early. Give your teachers a month or more to come up with something that will grab an admissions officer’s attention, and make you stand out from the crowd. Teachers have lives of their own, are busy running classes, and probably have a stack of about 500 requests for recommendations. Rush them, and your recommendation will probably reflect the hurry.
Then, when you’re all done, take the time to write a letter of thanks to everyone who took their time to help you, and put their name on the line for you. This basic courtesy shows them that they were right in judging you to be such an extraordinary person, and worthy of your dream schools.
At some point, most students who have decided on the college route find themselves thinking that there is so much to do that they don’t know where to start.
Well, one good place is the College Board website.
You’ve probably heard of them – The College Board is the same organization that administers the SAT. Our students have been using the site for years to help them research and narrow their college choices. Then, once they’ve come up with a few targets, they go back to the site again to see the expectations their schools have for GPA, or SAT/ACT scores. There is an amazing amount of information gathered in this one place, and you can’t start your research too early. Give yourself time to look around. As time goes by, you start to get a clearer idea of the schools that are match for you and, just as importantly, which schools not to spend time on. The better acquainted you get with your target schools, the more likely you are to find the right one.
To get started, they’ll ask you to create an account. Having an account can come in handy during your search because not only can you save a list of favorites, but you can get information on other college-related things, like financial aid and the SAT (if you decide that you are better suited for the SAT than the ACT).
Now that you’re in, what are the most important qualities you’re looking for in a school? Once you know this, you can start filtering. Do you want to stay close to home? You can use filters to narrow your search to only colleges near you. Do you want be an adventurer and try living some place far away? Think of some states you’ve always wanted to see and start looking there. Do you want a single gender school? You can filter for that. Do you need to keep costs down? You can filter for that too.
One of the best things about the system is that you don’t even have to start by knowing which colleges you want. As you feed in your data, the site will suggest schools to you. So, if you have decided that you are more of a small, intimate college type, only small schools will pop up.
We’ve worked with students who aren’t sure what their major will be, but know that they want to be in a certain field, like science or the humanities. There’s a “Majors and Learning Environment” filter that will deliver only what you’re looking for, and save you a lot of wasted time.
Start by casting a wide net; As a trial run, we applied 12 filters, and still came back with 3,788 schools. If you start early, you’ll have lots of time to pare down your choices without feeling any pressure.
And as you run through the filters, the College Board website has a Q and A feedback system to help sift through your choices. As you ask questions, you can access videos and other sorts of advice.
Next, choose the colleges that look interesting, and take a look through the information. This is one reason to get an early start; You’d don’t want to have to sort through the details in a rush. At first, most of your work will be eliminating schools that definitely aren’t what you’re looking for. This is a good thing. The more you cut down on choices, the more you can focus on what you want, and the clearer your choice will become.
When you find colleges that look like they’re what you’ve been dreaming of, and it looks like you’ll be eligible, save them to your account’s favorites list.
In the end, you’ll focus your research only on your favorites. Don’t be afraid to make this a long list. Our students usually find that what they wanted in their sophomore year was not necessarily what they wanted in their junior year. So, they pare down a few schools, and add a few others.
Then, as senior year approaches, check to be sure you’re on track for your favorites. If you can, try to spend a little time on the campuses you’re looking at. One of our students knew the second she set foot on the grounds and University of Illinois that she wanted to go there. She finished up her college tour, but she found out that her intuition had been right. She’s ecstatically situated among the Illini today. Others found the opposite – a school that seemed like a soulmate in the brochures just didn’t seem like a match when they met in real life.
Finally, you’ll want to narrow your list to around five to seven schools. Include in this final list a “reach” school – the college of your dreams that might be a stretch for your GPA – and a “fallback” school that might be less selective, but would still make you happy.
Ultimately, you want the place that will make you glad you spent a significant amount of your life there. Sure, if you’re serious about being competitive, and want the highest power law or medical school, go for the prestige. But more than one our students have found out the hard way that they chose a place that they wouldn’t want to invest four years in.
One of these decided that she wasn’t willing to settle, and transferred to a school that suited her. She graduated last year, and now thinks that switching was among the best decisions she’s ever made. She wound up getting three years where she really wanted to be.
In the old days, writing an essay for just about any standardized test meant giving your point of view on a topic. All that really meant was, write well and present a strong, supported argument. But the SAT and ACT have both changed things recently.
The SAT essay section now involves reading an essay, and then analyzing the tools the author used to persuade readers.
In the past few years, high school English departments have begun to emphasize the use and analysis of rhetoric. In theory, this is a great idea, since any culture that hopes to have an informed public should encourage an understanding of the ways in which their public speakers try to bring them around to thinking their way.
What this means is that it is very likely that most students taking the SAT will have had some exposure to the practice of literary/rhetorical analysis, and the art of writing this sort of analytical essay.
Look over this basic outline of what they will be looking for, and see if it looks like the sort of writing you’ve been taught in class.
The classic idea of a proper analysis considers three types of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.
The term ethos come from the Greek, and originally meant something like “character,” or “disposition.” In an analytic essay, however, ethos means something closer to establishing credibility. In other words, should we consider the author an expert?
In an essay on music, the author might establish a background as a musician, or maybe a professor of music history. In a piece on international politics, an author who is a mechanical engineer will not be given the immediate credibility that a diplomat, or a political scientist will.
Pathos, as the essay readers see it, means making an appeal to emotion. Any time you see one of those “if it were your child who (fill in horrifying event here)” arguments, that’s an appeal to pathos.
When Shakespeare has Antony address the Romans about the assassinated Caesar, he grabs the people’s sympathy when he interrupts his speech and says, “Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, And I must pause till it come back to me.”
This helps him sell the idea that his words are not motivated by a hatred for Caesar. Serious pathos.
Now if Antony’s heart had literally been in the coffin with Caesar, that might have been an appeal to logos.
Logos, unsurprisingly, pretty much means “logic;” Essentially it is the use of facts, or reason to make a point. For example, if you wanted someone to buy your gum, you might say that four out of five dentists recommend it.
This is how the SAT sums up what they are looking for:
As you read the passage below, consider how the author uses
1. Reading - How well you read and understood the passage.
2. Analysis - This deals with the strength of the writer’s analysis of the rhetorical elements of the passage, and how well each point is supported.
3. Writing - Really, this is just a measure of how well the essay was written.
Each of these components will be scored on a four point scale by two readers.
This is not the kind of essay anyone should take on without experience. If your English teacher has not tackled rhetorical analysis well in class, then writing a great essay will require learning how to construct this type of essay on your own, and this will be tremendously difficult without feedback from an experienced reader.
The essay alone is not enough reason to choose the ACT over the SAT, but it can be a factor in your decision.
In addition, since fewer and fewer schools are even requiring an essay at all, check your list of targeted schools to be sure you even need to turn in and essay.
It’s not a bad idea to do the essay section just in case something changes and you suddenly fall in love with a school that will ask for an essay. But if you’re absolutely certain that you won’t need one, spend your time getting ready for the other parts of the exam, and not figuring out how to tell a pathos from an ethos.
Next time we’ll take a look at the ACT essay, so you can decide if you’d rather take a shot at that one.
How to hook your reader blog - SAT
Part I - The SAT and literary analysis.
There is no way to be absolutely sure of pleasing your essay reader. Whoever reads your essay, of course, will be guided by an extensive rubric, but there is no way around the fact that good writing is largely a subjective judgement.
Just read a few “great” authors talking about other “great” authors. Mark Twain said that it seemed “a great pity that they let Jane Austen die a natural death.” He also said that reading Pride and Prejudice made him want to dig up Austen and “hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.”
Michael Crichton said that he became suspicious of a English professor’s skills - or maybe motives - when he received C’s on every one of his papers. So he tested his theory by putting his own name on a George Orwell essay on Gulliver’s Travels and turning it in. Orwell got a B-, and Crichton switched to anthropology.
Now, there is a question to be answered first before you spend a minute prepping for your essay: Should you even sign up for the essay?
A recent op-ed in the LA Times said that only 27 colleges even require an essay score. Harvard and Dartmouth have both dropped the requirement, and that seems to be the way the trend is going. So if you’re sure that none of the colleges you’re applying to will ask for an essay score, why bother?
The other side of the coin, though, is that you never know when things might change. You might find yourself interested in one of those 27 schools after you’ve taken your test, and you’d hate to have to go back to the drawing board if that happened.
OK, so back to hooking your reader. If you do decide to write an essay, there is a sort of best bet when it comes to writing it: Don’t be a slave to the rules.
In general, high school English classes will teach the skills required to write a literary analysis that will satisfy the SAT standards. But it will help you decide the tone of your work if you think of who will be reading your essay, and what they’re going through. These people have to read hundreds of these things, and most of the entries will not be sparkling with interesting prose; It’s very likely that they’ll be worn out by the time they see your work. So help yourself and your score by making things interesting and bending the rules a bit.
We have a friend who teaches six periods of English classes. He dreads the days when all of the essays come in. Forget the bad writing. That’s relatively simple to grade. The ones that give him a headache are the ones that are technically correct, but lifeless.
This doesn’t mean you need to put on a clown suit and become a full blown entertainer. But it sure can’t hurt to be sure that your writing is interesting.
In other words, hook your reader. Give them a great first impression of you before they have a chance to start heading for the aisles.
In your classes, you might be lucky, and have a really vivacious teacher who spends time weeding out the dull, and pushing students toward verve and panache. But probably not. Most of them, even the good ones, have their hands full just covering the basics of good writing in the course of a 55 minute class for five days a week.
So if you don’t feel well schooled in hooking your reader, then there is a really great way to learn if for yourself: Find the kind of writing that always hooks you.
Here’s how Gabriel Garcia Marquez made his reader feel like his Chronicle of a Death Foretold would be worth reading past the first page:
“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”
How’s that for getting hooked?
Or how about Chuck Palahniuk’s opening line in fight club?
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”
And here’s his opener from Choke:
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”
Or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not straying far from the title, but still catching your attention.
“I am an invisible man."
Don’t these lines make you want to find out what happens next, rather than making you feel you’re in for a chore? It doesn’t matter who your reader is, no one wants to spend time reading something that won’t feel worth the time.
Here are a couple of college essay openers we culled from a few Internet lists:
"Who else’s identity can really be constructed by the calculus of fragmented memories? Not mine!
“I change my name each time I place an order at Starbuck’s.”
Or try the opening paragraph from an essay by Mary Ruefle, a poet:
“I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility. Part of what I mean—what I think I mean—by “imbecility” is something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel. It was a Master who advised that we speak little, better still say nothing, unless we are quite sure that what we wish to say is true, kind, and helpful. But how can a poet, whose role is to speak, adhere to this advice? How can anyone whose role is to facilitate language speak little or say nothing?”
Of course you are writing for academic readers, so there will be rules to follow. But they’re also human, and like other humans they want to be interested, to have their curiosity aroused.
And go into this knowing that you can both hook your reader brilliantly, and still follow the rules. Loosely. If you’re a little shy about putting your reader off by making your writing too spicy, then find your comfort zone by dialing it down a bit, and adhering a little more closely to the rules. But remember, if your reader is bored - even by the most technically perfect essay - they probably won’t be in a great mood when deciding what score to give you.
Next time we’ll talk about the differences - the huge differences - between the SAT and ACT essays. They’re large enough, in fact, that the type of essay you prefer to write could help you decide which of the tests you would prefer to take.
The last thing any student wants is to have to start any standardized test at a disadvantage. These tests are normed, which means that scores are judged by comparison with other students’ scores.
Students with any physical or learning issues, or who are still learning English, might be eligible for special accommodations on a test, and must take advantage of the opportunity.
Both the SAT and ACT have clearly defined rules to determine who will be granted accommodations. So what do you need to do to determine your student’s eligibility?
First, get an early start. Both the SAT and ACT will require solid documentation before they allow any accommodation. This usually requires diagnosis and testing by a certified professional, and a record of the history of accommodations allowed by the student’s school. To be sure that your case is well supported, it’s best that students complete an evaluation by 10th grade. Then stay on top of things: Be sure to find out if the diagnosis will need to be updated before the test date.
The College Board, who produces the SAT exam, warns that the application process can take up to seven weeks. So it’s crucial to start things going long before the test date. Not only will this help ensure that your notification will be received in time, but, just as importantly, it will help determine how you should prepare for the exam, since anyone who is granted an accommodation should practice for the test under exactly those conditions.
One nice thing about College Board’s policy is that that anyone approved for accommodations on one College Board exam is automatically approved for any other, such as AP, or SAT subject exams.
And schools are usually prepared to work with parents when it comes time to apply for accommodations, so you might save a lot of legwork by talking to your school’s administration first.
Students taking the SAT may request an extra 50%, 100%, or in some cases an extra 150% time allotment.
The College Board also recommends considering a request for extra breaks, rather than extended time, as an accommodation for students with conditions such as diabetes, which will not specifically slow performance.
And if you have requested an accommodation for extended time, be ready to spend the entire time in the testing site. No one will be allowed to leave early, and those with extended time accommodations will not be allowed to move on to the next section until the entire time allotment of time for each section has passed.
And if you believe that your student requires any accommodation beyond extended time, include that request when you submit your application.
The ACT has two forms of accommodation for extended time: National extended time, and specialized testing.
National extended time is commonly granted when qualifying students are able to take the exam in a standard test center. This status allows an extra 50% of the allotted time to complete each section, or a total of five hours to complete the multiple choice sections, and one hour to complete the writing section.
If a student cannot take the exam in a standard testing center, or requires more than 50% extended time, special testing should be requested.
Here are some examples of the accommodations available from the ACT and SAT:
Students with issues that may cause them to perform slowly on a test may be granted extended time.
Hearing or visual issues
Visually impaired students may apply to receive braille, or enlarged print testing materials, or may request audio aids, such as a reader, or a DVD or MP3 audio test format.
Students who see well enough to read, but who read slowly, should also look into requesting extended time.
Most of the instruction before and during the exam will be given orally, so hearing impaired students should request written instructions, or preferential seating to allow lip reading.
A Few Other Examples
As competition for admission to college heats up, it becomes even more important for students to insure they don’t begin the process a step behind.
The value of working with your college counselor cannot be overstated. Some students attend schools, both private and public, that have counselors who are over-burdened with too many students and do not have the time they would like to spend with students and families. In this case, it is wise to ask an independent college counselor to form a partnership with your school counselor to attain the best outcome.
Before visiting with the college counselor(s), it is a very good idea to think about some things that will help in the process.
It is also important to determine your admission strengths. You can do this by making a list of core classes you have taken including AP and Honors classes. Know your GPA and if you need to improve your standardized test scores. Make a list of your personal attributes like perseverance, hard work and time management skills. Additionally, make a list of your work experience and extra-curricular activities that may be relevant such as community service.
You are now ready to meet with your college counselor(s) based upon what you have learned about yourself. Together, you will be looking for a good match. I recommend choosing 10 colleges or universities to explore. You will have the opportunity to do this early by visiting the school websites, attending college fairs and/or taking a college tour. Word of mouth is another important resources – when possible, speak to other students about their experiences in the admission process and at the schools they chose.
Make a list of the qualities you have discovered at each of these colleges or universities and discuss your thoughts with your counselor(s). Keep these things in mind when thinking about school choices and how important these qualities to you.
As students begin to receive decision letters from colleges and universities to which they have applied, they will also be receiving information from the financial aid offices at those institutions informing them about funding their education. The award letters can be confusing and therefore difficult to compare. Families must be able to identify how much free money (grants/scholarships and work study) is being awarded and how much is coming from loans (funds that must be repaid).
The first task for students and their parents is to ascertain the true cost of attending each school. This not only includes direct costs such as tuition, room/board and fees but also indirect costs such as travel, insurance and books. Only then is it clear what the family will have to pay beyond what is awarded from grants/scholarships and work study (free money). It is the gap that must be made up by the family usually via loans from the federal government, state governments and private sources. These funds commonly become a burden after graduation. So, when awards are received, there are some important questions to ask.
1) What is the percentage of grant aid compared to loans?
2) What is the remaining cost due from the family (the gap)?
3) Will the family be able to afford the loan debt after 4 years?
4) If the family needs more financial assistance from the school, are there usual circumstances that would enable the family to make a compelling appeal for a larger grant?
There are two important things to consider when making a decision about which award is best for the student and the family. First, the college that gives the most aid may not represent the best award because the cost of education there may be higher. Second, if a family does not think they can afford to pay the gap or may be incurring excessive debt, then it may be time to consider alternatives such as attending a community college for the first two years and then transferring to a four-year college. Advice from a good college counselor can be extremely important when making this critical decision.