Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why College Essays need to be Risky Business

By Patrick O'Connor PhD

With so many students putting the final touches on their November 1 college applications, I’m a little hesitant to pass this last-minute advice along, but part of me thinks the students can handle the truth, so here goes.  Just promise me you’ll read the entire column before your set your hair on fire or start hitting the Delete key.

A number of college representatives visit my high school every fall, and I always try to talk to them after they talk to the seniors.  When we talk, I ask about the essays the reps read last year—what do the reps like about what they see, what they don’t like about what they see, and what they would like to see that they aren’t seeing.  This is timely news that can help seniors create better college apps; they can’t change their grades from sophomore year or take more tests before November 1st, but they can design their essays to respond to the concerns the colleges talk about.

That’s what happened last week, when I spoke to a couple of reps and read a couple of interviews with college reps about essay do’s and don’ts—and the advice they offered made me nervous.

Remember—you promised you would read to the end.

“Students aren’t taking enough risks in their essays.”

The first thing counselors do after they hear something they weren’t expecting is listen more, so it came as no surprise when the reps kept talking when I said nothing—which worked out well, since I was so surprised I couldn’t say anything even if I wanted to. 

“They’re playing it too safe when they write, and aren’t writing essays that tell us more about who they are or what they’re thinking about.  That’s what the essay is all about.”

In other words, there are too many students writing too many essays that sound like they could be written by too many other students.
And if you think the solution is easy, think again.

Students are convinced the problem is the subject of the essay—favorite pet, most memorable class, current event of greatest concern.  They think if they just answer “skunk” instead of “dog”, they set themselves apart from everyone else, and college is a done deal.

The reps aren’t saying that—it isn’t what students are writing about, but how they’re writing about it.  If you think it’s impossible to write a more compelling story about a dog than a skunk, I have two words for you—Old Yeller. Can you even name a famous skunk in literature (and Pepe LePew doesn’t count)

Of course, it’s understandable if students listen to the college hype and decide the best thing to do is play it safe, and write a non-descript, mistake-proof essay.  I get that, but if you’re worried colleges will notice your essays in the “wrong” way, remember what the reps said—bland essays aren't  getting it done, either.

So it’s time to be brave by being you.

Students hold insightful conversations every day as they walk past the counseling office, and nearly all of them would make great college essays, rich with humor, honesty, and their own voice. Colleges want you to talk to them just like that—write as if you were walking down the school halls with the rep by your side.  Your essays will make get positive attention, your application will get a closer look, and reps won’t be telling me about the need for more risk next year…

…and let’s hope they aren’t asking me why so many students wrote about Pepe LePew.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Replace the SAT with AP Scores? Uh…

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Jay Mathews was almost onto something in his recent column, Time to Retire the SAT (  In his argument, Mathews shares the best-kept secret in college admissions—many colleges don’t require any standardized testing at all as part of the admissions process.  These colleges have long recognized what Mathews points out:  standardized testing doesn’t tell these colleges much more about students than the colleges already know through the student’s grades, essays, and letters of recommendation, so why put them through the stress of taking the tests? (see the list at

So far, so good—but then Mathews drops the baton just as he nears the finish line:

“Why not replace the SAT and ACT with the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Advanced International Certificate of Education tests? Those exams are the culmination of college-level courses and encourage critical thinking. They require that students write many of their answers in detail.”

In other words, let’s measure a student’s potential to do college work by evaluating the college work they’ve already done in high school.

This idea defeats the purpose of reform, since any argument about de-stressing the college application process goes completely out the window.  Students who currently feel compelled to take SAT prep classes would now feel the heat to load up on even more AP courses than they currently take—and they would have to take these courses in their junior year in order for colleges to see the AP test results as part of the college admission process.  No pressure there, as long as your school recognizes your academic potential by fifth grade to get you into classes that will set you up for this opportunity.

In addition, this option does little to help colleges sort out students any better than the SAT or ACT.  Highly selective colleges already receive more applicants with high AP scores than they can admit; trading SAT for AP scores simply trades one tool of denial for another, if in fact that is what occurs at highly selective colleges as Mathews claims.  Colleges that admit more students than the highly selective schools would certainly have a clear picture of their top students, but the SAT and ACT already fill that need for these colleges, and students don’t have to complete college-level classes to prepare for those tests.

Most important, Mathews’ solution suggests the best way to predict college success is to have students take college-level classes sooner—but then, what’s the point of high school?  Just like “early college” programs offer students an Associate’s Degree when they finish high school, loading students up with college courses at age 17 denies students the opportunity to explore the breadth of a traditional high school curriculum; their choices are suddenly restricted to courses that colleges already teach.  AP and IB classes may teach college-level material, but do they allow the student a chance to expand their view of the world by taking an art class, exploring the depth of a subject rather than its width (anyone for Creative Writing or Sociology?), or give the student the opportunity to explore the real world through internships, co-op, or independent research at the high school level?

If top colleges don’t need the SAT or ACT to predict a student’s success in college, they don’t need AP or IB scores either. Free of standardized college test pressures, high schools are free to create genuine curriculum reform that is student-centered, not test-centered, reform that will breathe life back into the real purpose of high school—a step that would allow our students to breathe a little as well.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Best College Essay is really a Conversation

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph. D

I’m surprised when students have trouble writing their college essays.  I hear these same students in the hallways, talking about everything from the answer to a complicated math problem to the great college they visited last weekend to the girl in Homeroom who has just noticed them for the first time in four years.  Students have keen powers of energetic observation about themselves and the world around them, but ask them to share any of those ideas in a college essay, and the silence speaks volumes.

It’s the title that scares them.  To the average high school senior, Essay either conjures up images of a high stakes speech where they have to create noble images, or a tedious five-paragraph exercise that provides modest information with little passion.  If they see it as a speech, they think they aren’t up to the task; if they see it as one more English assignment, they’re sure they don’t want to do the task.  Either way, they panic.

The best way to move forward is to see a college essay as a conversation. If they could, colleges would welcome you to campus and ask you questions for hours—but if they did that, no one would be admitted to college until they were 43.  To accelerate the process, they want you to talk on paper; let them get to know you by giving them a guided tour of your heart, your brain, and your life.  If you succeed, they will look up from reading your essay, and be surprised you aren’t in the room; indeed, they will swear the chair next to them is warm from your having sat in it since Tuesday.

Of course, there are a few don’ts to pass along as well:

Avoid the Four Ds.  Essays on negative life events can be very tricky.  Unless enough time has passed since the experience, the essay can be too personal, too much of a rant, or just too hard to read.  One rep said the general rule of thumb was no essays on the Four Ds—Drugs, dating, death, and divorce—but you get the idea.  If you want to write about a personal challenge, emphasize what you learned and how you grew—if you dwell on the details, the essay will not achieve its purpose.

It’s Not a Book Report  You may indeed think that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the best book ever written, but there’s a point where your analysis of the book becomes more academic (and about the book) than personal (and about you).  If you’re writing about your response to the book or how it influenced your life, the right writing ratio is a lot less about the book and way more about your life—in this case, it really is all about you.

 Grandma Barbara Isn’t Going to College  "Less is more" is also the case if you’re asked to write about someone who’s had an impact on your life.  It’s great you love that your hero was born in Scotland and learned the bagpipes at age 4, but that level of detail leaves less words for the college to hear about what you’ve done with the inspiration that special someone has given you—and it’s that story they want to hear. 

It’s OK to go on and on about Granny B if she’s applying to college, too; if she isn’t, a few specifics and a summary of qualities will nicely set the stage for what you think about all she’s done, and ways she’s made a difference in your view and interactions with the world. That’s the main entrĂ©e on the menu of the college essay—let the reps dig in to a generous portion.

Finally, let them age.Once you’re done with an app, hit Save and let it sit for two days; that way, you can make the changes that come to you at 4 in the morning, then hit Submit with confidence-- your full story is told.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Have You Cleaned Up your Facebook Page Yet?

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There are three key technology rules when it comes to applying to college:

1.       If at all possible, use the college’s online application, and ask their tech support for help the minute you run into a problem.

2.      Create a new e-mail account just for the messages that will be went to and from colleges.

3.      Clean up any and all social media pages you have.

Students understand the first two with no problem. College applications need to be clear, clean, and thorough, so it’s important to make sure you’re uploading your college essays, not your prom pictures.

Ditto for a new e-mail account.  E-mail be old school to you, but this is how most colleges contact you, even once you enroll. This makes it easy to keep track of college contacts, and it’s probably  all for the best colleges not know your personal e-mail address is  

But try and talk the plusses of Web site maintenance, and students are convinced their counselor roamed the Earth with dinosaurs. The insist colleges don’t care about social media accounts, and are too busy to check them—to prove it, students wil ask colleges if they look, and the colleges will say no.

Fair enough—except when I asked a college if they looked, their answer was “Do you really think I’d tell you if we did?”

Play it safe.  Rough language, risky pictures—even having an account under another name—can hurt you and anyone else who’s in those questionable photos with you.  Once you’ve tidied up yours, ask your friends to take anything off their pages that makes you look iffy.  After that, search for yourself on the Web, and see what’s there.  You might not need to address it or be able to do anything about it, but it’s better for you to know before the colleges do.

And even if the colleges don’t look, they sometimes find out in very remote ways that can do serious damage…

(Based on a true story that happened somewhere else.)

Joanna thought she was all that
She knew she was a winner
A 3.9, a 32
The gal was no beginner.
Took five APs and tutored, too
Her homework was a snap
Spent most nights on the Facebook page
Just dishin’ out some smack
She posted pix of homecoming
Her folks would see as knockouts
But dog, they’d never seen them, since
Her FB page was blocked out

You can’t imagine her surprise
When her counselor said “Yo lady”
I got a call from East Coast U
The news will make you crazy!
The U was ready to admit
When in arrive their intern
‘The buzz is all on Facebook, man
These pics will make your hands burn.’
The intern loaded up the page
Of some homecoming hijinx
And in the photo, there was you—
Which made our rep do eye blinks.

“They saw your picture once or twice
And thought they’d overlook it
But then they read your FB smack
And that’s what really cooked it.
Your essays were all erudite
And very nicely tailored
But then they saw the real you
Has language like a sailor.
They read your app and loved you, girl,
It’s you they were admittin’
But now they said they just can’t take
A profane party kitten.”

So dudes and dudettes, hear me out
Few colleges go lookin’
But if FB vibes come their way
That just can’t be mistooken
Your full ride dough, your dream admit
Are goin’ down the tank, sir
And all because you tried to be
A bad-selfed Facebook gangsta.