How To Keep Your Voice In Your College Essay

Cyndy McDonald

Cyndy McDonald from mycca.net

Today's guest post is from Cyndy McDonald at mycca.net.

I have been assisting students with brainstorming college essay topics and reviewing college essays for almost twenty years. I have watched many students learn and grow from that process. One of the most important parts of the college essay process is for you to keep your voice. I have developed three tips to assist you in this process:

1. Limit the number of people who will review your personal statement. Having lots of people read your essay will give you lots of suggestions as to how to make it better. Often you can get too many suggestions. One person’s advice will contradict another. Select only 2 people, 3 at the most, to review your essay. This helps you to keep your voice in your essay clear and distinct.

2. Explain to parents this essay is hands off. I recall one distinct experience with this. I was working with a student in the final phases of his college essay. I was reviewing what was supposed to be his final draft. It was filled with words and phrases that did not fit. As I circled the phrases, the student started grinning. The more I circled, the more he grinned. That is not the usual response I get from a student when he is submitting a final draft and I am telling him to go back and redo it one more time. Finally, I asked him, "Why are you grinning?  I was expecting a frown, not smiles.” He responded, “Everything you have circled, my dad told me to put in.”  “Go tell your dad you are taking these parts out. They are not you. It does not fit and does not have your voice.” Parents mean well but are not the best sources to turn to when it comes to writing in your own voice. It is best if they take a hands off approach to this process.

3. Be true to yourself. The college essay is your opportunity to tell the college anything you want about yourself. It is not the time to try to impress them with an intellectual dissertation. Be true to who you are. If you ask a friend to read your essay, ask them “Does this sound like me?”. If the answer is “No,” then start again and write until the answer is “Yes”. The passion and sincerity of who you are needs to shine through your essay.

Using College Essay Organizer will help you to understand what you are writing about, and help you find your voice in your essays. It gives you a clear writing plan that you can use in the process.

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They're in! Now What? Parents, Keep It Real

Maureen Tillman

Guest blogger Maureen Tillman's got some tips to help you and your child with the transition.

Our post today comes from Maureen Tillman, L.C.S.W. She has served as the organizer and curator of The New York Times' Local College Corner, and is also the creator of College with Confidence, a comprehensive psychotherapy service that supports parents and young adults through the college experience. She has offices in Maplewood Village and Morristown, New Jersey and also provides educational seminars, training, phone and skype consultations.

Strategies for a successful college transition

The retention and graduation rates in this country scream out that American students experience significant challenges staying in and succeeding at college.According to the non-profit organization American College Testing, the national retention rate for four-year institutions is 67.6 percent at public schools and 68.7 percent at private schools. Completion rates are even starker. Just over half -- or 55.1 percent -- of students in private institutions, and 39.6 from public institutions, graduate in 5 years or less.

Many parents take an incredible leap of faith sending their children to college, spending an enormous amount of money as well as saddling their young adults with student loans in an uncertain economy.

Parents need to get real with their teens about what college really is. It's a valuable academic commitment in a world of wonderful opportunities -- and distractions.

One of the most important factors for success of college students is being real with themselves. This sounds easier than it is. In today's "bubble wrapped" society, most teens and parents do not realize how much support and monitoring they have received growing up, including parents, institutions and tutors. Too often, students used to constant support at home become overwhelmed when they arrive at college and don't reach out for support in a timely way, resulting in myriad of difficult outcomes.

Teens heading off to college need to understand what it takes for them to succeed in life -- socially, academically, and emotionally -- and how to make that happen.

How can parents start this process?

    1. Do some serious soul searching and evaluate how much monitoring and support your teen has had from you and others:
  • Are you waking them up in the morning, doing laundry, running errands, making their appointments?
  • Do you call the high school or college about information?
  • Do they have a tutor/therapist/psychiatrist/disability? Do they regularly spend time with a support team at high school?
  • Have you been making sure they meet deadlines?
  • Do you monitor/remind them often about their time and activities?
    2. Find a good time to talk:
  • State that beginning college can be a big adjustment and that you want to help them to get ready.
  • Explain that this will involve fostering their independence.
  • Ask what they feel you are still doing for them that they can do themselves.
  • Discuss recreating a support team on campus similar to the supports they are currently receiving.
  • Ask if they have any worries or concerns about transitioning to college. Whatever they express, listen, brainstorm for solutions, get information. Consult with a professional in the field now when they are still in your "orbit."
    3. Get the facts yourself. For resources on challenges at college as well as a successful transition, visit my website: www.collegewithconfidence.com

Follow Maureen Price Tillman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maureenptillman

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College Admissions: What You Need To Know

Zen College Life

Louise Baker from Zen College Life weighs
in on college admissions

Today's blog post comes from Louise Baker at Zen College Life. Zen College Life is a leading source for college and degree information online. Their writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, on MSN, About.com, The Consumerist, and many other publications and websites.

Going to college can open up a world of opportunities, both personally and professionally. Getting into college, however, has gotten progressively harder in recent years as more and more high school students have realized that attending college can give them the tools for lifelong success that they need. Below are the tips that you need to know, as you navigate the college admissions landscape.

Although you may be tempted to tag along with your high school buddies, as they road trip to the colleges that have the best parties in your area, it is important to do your own research on the schools that you want to attend. Unless you are confident that you want to attend a school, you will not be able to put together an application that convinces a college's admissions offices that you truly want to be at that university. Start by brainstorming the types of degree programs you are interested in and the geographic area you are willing to move to for college. Then begin visiting schools to narrow down factors like the size of the school and type of campus.

Once you have a list of five to seven schools that you would be okay with attending, make sure that among them is at least one or two safety schools. These should be schools that, based upon your SAT I and SAT II scores and your grades you are statistically likely to be admitted to for the fall semester. Hopefully, you will get into several of your choice colleges, but it is important that you have at least one school to attend in the fall. Remember, you can always transfer to another school later on!

Many colleges accept the common application, which means that you only need to write one essay and put together one package of information. Be careful though, as some schools will require supplemental statements. Sending one to the wrong school can mean being disqualified by both schools! Check the schools' requirements for letters of recommendation and make sure that your teachers write yours and send them in well in advance of their due dates so your application is not held up. Call the admissions office after your teachers notify you that they have sent them to confirm the schools' receipt.

Even if you are fairly confident that a school will accept you, you should still go ahead and ask for an interview. This is a time to show off what makes you special, which may be hard for an admissions counselor to see on your paper application. Show up in a suit or other nice outfit and be ready to discuss your favorite books.

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Today Is A Great Day To Get The Process Rolling

Lee Bierer

Lee Bierer of College Admissions Strategies

Today's blog post comes from Lee Bierer, independent counselor and principal of College Admissions Strategies in Charlotte, North Carolina. Additionally, Lee has been writing the weekly “Countdown to College” column for The Charlotte Observer, that is syndicated nationally by McClatchy Newspapers, for over four years. Lee specializes in three areas of college admissions counseling: college identification and selection, application strategy and scholarship search. You can learn more about her and her services at www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.

Now is the right time for high school juniors and their parents to be thinking about colleges and the admissions process. It's not too early, and, thankfully, not too late.

Many families find the most important first step is to discuss options and expectations.

You don't want your child poring over catalogs from colleges in the Northeast if you really want him within driving distance. With private schools costing $20,000 to $50,000 per year, you owe it to yourself and your child to have a frank discussion regarding finances. He needs to know how much has been saved and your expectations for his financial commitment toward college, typically student loans.

Parents and students should independently make a list of a dozen or so colleges that would be a good fit for the student.

Before you begin, have your son or daughter compile PSAT or SAT scores, high school grades, and rank in class or estimated grade point average. These stats will guide you, but understand that only half of students fall within SAT ranges listed in the guidebooks. While grades, rigor of curriculum and SATs are typically the most important criteria, factors such as extracurricular activities, college essays and letters of recommendation  make a difference.

Borrow or buy a current guidebook, and spend some time reading about a range of colleges and universities. Try to reduce your biases and think about what kind of college or university will best serve your child.

Basic areas to consider: size, location, academic offerings, retention rate (how many freshmen return for their sophomore year), cost and availability of financial aid. Depending on your student's interests, you may want to include sports teams and Greek life. (How important are fraternities and sororities to the college?) Some guidebooks offer a quality-of-life rating that provides a peek into campus culture and the surrounding community.

Listen to your student - Once you've done your homework, compare notes and listen to your student's wants and needs. Take a look at the schools that you have in common and discuss why each of you listed them. Encourage everyone to participate in brainstorming and try to minimize judgments. Then hone both of your lists into one with 15 to 25 colleges to explore in more detail. As you narrow the list, keep two things in mind:

  • Academic factors: Where will your student be challenged, but not shoved or overshadowed? Where is the learning environment that matches your student's personal learning style?
  • Social factors: Where will your student be comfortable? Where will he fit in?

Make sure your child "owns" his role in the admissions process. This first exercise often sets the tone for what can be a wonderful collaboration.

3 Tips for Picking a College

  • Don't focus too much on prestige or rankings.
  • Don't assume that schools that cost more are of higher quality.
  • Don't believe there is only one perfect college.
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Finding Your Authentic Voice (With Some Help From Your Fan Club)

Avery Educational Resources

Today's post comes courtesy
Erin Avery at Avery Educational Resources


Today's blog post is from Erin Avery, an independent educational consultant based in Fair Haven, New Jersey, who specializes in the college and boarding school search and application process. A graduate of Oxford and Yale, Avery is a Certified Educational Planner and creator of CollegeApp, available on the App Store. You can learn more about her and her services at averyeducation.com.

Ed. Consultant Erin Avery: “So, where geographically are you considering attending college?”
Son: “I don’t know…I was thinking of maybe an island.”
Father: “Yeah, Long Island.”

Yesterday, I sat beside a father and son duo, not unlike many cradled in the inner sanctum of my office’s worn leather armchairs. Often, as depicted above, parent and child come with divergent perspectives: rightfully so based on their respective worldviews and life experiences.

This is why I always welcome parents, guardians or other loving stakeholders to participate in the all-important Essay Brainstorming Session. The results are phenomenal. The invited “guests” act as time capsules, jogging the student’s memory of past notable examples of characteristics demonstrated, or character embodied. They may recall that precise anecdote that illustrates the quintessence of the student. Ultimately, if it is conducted properly, the essay brainstorming session is akin to a love-fest wherein the student hears and has mirrored back to him or her a chorus of voices affirming his or her unique gifts to the world.

In my role as an educational consultant, I have to admit, I am always scanning my conversations with you, my client, for “essay-worthy” content. I simply can’t help it. I have met myriad teens in my near decade of private practice. By employing my strength-based methodology, I passionately echo back to each student how incredible I find him or her. High school students never cease to astound me! While peers and society attempt to smother teens with the gag order of conformity, I bathe you in affirmation for your daily courage to choose to be yourself.

I have seen my share of Eagle Scouts, Congressional Medalists, National Merit Finalists, Point and Figure Charting experts, even oyster gardeners, and the accolades continue. Yet be mindful that the most profound essay topics need not be the most cataclysmic. At a symposium last spring, the New Jersey reader from GW shared, as she welled up with tears, that her favorite essay amid her applicant pool was written by a student portraying the profound impact on him of his parents’ 25-year marriage. (Her second favorite essay topic was on the sneaker-odor of the applicant’s car.) Your story can (and often must) be drawn from the quotidian, everyday seventeen year-old lived experience. Do not grant one instant to counterproductive feelings of inadequacy if you have not yet discovered a cure for cancer (but get on that, would you?). Rather, own who you are and where you are. If you are presently staring at a blank screen, go grab a decaf frappuccino with someone who loves you and if you are too embarrassed to ask them blatantly to sing your praises, ask him or her what s/he would say at your funeral (morbid, yes, but effective!). Still stumped? Google and read “The Desiderata”. Works like a charm.

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ACT or SAT: 10 points of comparison

Stephanie from Knewton addresses your standardized test questions.

Today's post is again from our friends at Knewton - this time from test expert Stephanie Wertkin.

Most high school students planning to go to college know that they probably have to take some kind of standardized test. Often, the only question is: Which one? Many schools accept both the SAT and ACT. Before you make your choice (or decide to take both!), it’s a good idea to compare the ins and outs of each test.

Here are a few basic points of comparison:

1. Cost

SAT exam registration costs $45. The ACT exam alone costs $32 – but if you want to take the optional writing test as well, it will set you back $47.

2. Length

The SAT consists of a 25 minute essay, six 25 minute sections, two 20 minute sections and a 10 minute multiple choice writing section. That means the whole test is 3 hours 45 minutes – not counting the 3 short breaks you get in between.

The ACT consists of 4 sections that total 2 hours and 55 minutes. If you take the Writing Test as well that will add an extra 30 minutes, for a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes.

3. Number of Questions

The SAT has 140 questions; the ACT has 215.

4. Subject Matter

This is one of the most important distinctions between the two tests. The SAT tests reasoning and problem-solving ability. The ACT, on the other hand, is a curriculum-based test, meaning the questions are designed to test a student’s knowledge of high school work.

The SAT covers mathematics, critical reading, and writing. The ACT covers English, mathematics, reading, and science. There are some differences in the way each test approaches the subject matter: for example, the ACT contains basic-intermediate algebra, geometry, and four trigonometry questions, while the SAT only tests basic algebra, word problems, and geometry. While the verbal sections of the SAT emphasize vocabulary, the ACT focuses on grammar and punctuation.

5. Scoring:

SAT – Aggregate score 600 – 2400, based on total of 3 scores (Reading, Math, Writing, each scored on a scale from 200-800); Score of 0-12 for Essay
ACT – Composite score 1-36 based on average of 4 sections (English Math, Reading Science);  Score 0-12 for Optional Essay.

6. The Essay

The ACT essay is optional, while the SAT essay is mandatory. The SAT prompt is usually abstract and open-ended (i.e., do people learn from their mistakes?), while the ACT prompt is more specific and high school-centric (i.e., should more schools adopt uniforms?). On both tests, you’re expected to write an essay that makes a strong argument and uses specific examples to support that argument.

7. Scoring

The ACT only counts the answers you get correct, whereas the SAT deducts 1/4 of a point for all incorrect multiple choice questions.

6. Difficulty

There’s a prevailing myth that the ACT is easier than the SAT. However, there’s not much truth to this: The vast majority of test-takers score in the same percentiles on both tests. Since both tests are scaled (that is, your final score is based on how you do compared to everybody else), that’s really all that matters.

On the SAT, questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section (except reading passage questions, which progress chronologically through the passage). On the ACT, the difficulty level of the questions is random.

7. College Requirements

The majority of colleges in the U.S. now accept both the ACT (+ writing section) and the SAT.  However, just to be safe and to avoid confusion (and possibly despair) near application deadline time, make sure you know which scores the schools you are applying to require for admission. If you are confused about a school’s requirements, contact that college or university’s admissions office for clarification.

In addition to SAT or ACT (with the writing section), some  schools also require 2-3 SAT Subject tests.

8. Administration dates

The SAT is offered seven times per year: January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December
The ACT is offered six times per year: February, April, June, September, October, and December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)

9. National Averages

For the Class of 2009 the average SAT scores were: Critical Reading – 501, Mathematics – 515, Writing – 493
The 90th percentile scores were: Critical Reading – 670, Mathematics – 700, Writing – 650

The ACT national averages in 2009 were: Total – 21.1, English – 20.6, Math – 21.0, Reading 21.4, Science 20.9
The 90th percentile scores were: Total – 28, English – 29, Math – 28, Reading – 30, Science – 20

10. Score Choice

Students can select which scores they send to colleges by test date for both the SAT and the ACT. Scores from an entire test are sent—scores of individual sections from different test dates cannot be selected independently for sending. Some colleges and universities (particularly the more competitive schools) require students to send all of their scores.

The way that admissions offices deal with multiple SAT scores varies from school to school. For more on College Board’s “Score Choice” program and more information about how colleges evaluate your SAT scores, check out our blog post decoding Score Choice.

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SAT Writing Help: How To Be A Pro At Pronouns

Matthew Busick from Knewton

This week brings another guest post from our friends at Knewton - this time from writing expert Matthew Busick.

You’ve heard of the Ten Commandments, the G8, the Big Ten, Top 40 Pop, the Three Musketeers, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the 1001 Things to Do Before You Die. The lists of impressive numbers are endless. But at Knewton, we’ve compiled the most impressive list of them all: the SAT Freshman 15 Grammar Rules. These are, in all their splendor, the top fifteen most commonly tested grammar rules on the SAT. Learn these, and your whole life will fall into place (that is, if your whole life is the writing section of the SAT).

Today, we’re going to talk about just one of these illustrious rules:

Rule 15. A pronoun must refer to a specific noun or a group of nouns (no matter how correct the pronoun may sound in a sentence.)

In everyday speech, we break this rule all the time. It allows us to express ideas easily and generally causes little confusion. Consequently, we often overlook ambiguous pronouns when they appear on the SAT. Rule 15 is meant to remind you that every pronoun on the SAT must logically refer to a noun or group of nouns in the sentence. These nouns, or groups of nouns, are known as “antecedents.”

Keep these three sub-rules in mind:

1. A pronoun cannot refer to an abstract idea. The most common offenders are the pronouns itthis,and that. These pronouns are often used to refer to broad ideas expressed in entire sentences or clauses. For example: “Devon broke his knee playing basketball, and because of this he had to quit the team.” This sentence is flawed because this must refer to a noun, but the only previous nouns in the sentence areDevonknee, and basketballThis might be attempting to refer to a general idea, such as the fact that Devon played basketball, or the fact that his knee was broken, but specifically which idea is not clear.

These sorts of sentences can be revised either by replacing the pronoun with a noun or by supplying a clear antecedent for the pronoun. If we say, “Devon broke his knee playing basketball, and because of this injury he had to quit the team,” the pronoun this now logically refers to the injury. This construction clarifies that the injury caused Devon to quit the team.

2. The pronoun “it” at the beginning of a sentence is not preferable. When the pronoun “it” begins a sentence or is part of the phrase “it is,” be on the lookout for a better option. Sentences that begin with “it” tend to be unnecessarily wordy, and the pronoun “it” is usually ambiguous. For example, in the sentence: “It is not typical for an adult to prefer cartoons,” the antecedent of the pronoun it is slightly unclear. Exactly what is not typical? An adult who prefers cartoons? The occurrence of an adult preferring cartoons? A better way to phrase this sentence would be: “An adult typically does not prefer cartoons.”

3. When a modifying phrase begins a sentence, the pronoun “it” can never be the first noun after the comma. In the sentence: “Traveling across the country in an RV, it is the first vacation that Edna is able to go on all year,” the pronoun it does not have an antecedent. It does not logically refer to the gerund traveling or to the nouns country or RV. The sentence should read: “Traveling across the country in an RV, Edna is on vacation for the first time this year.” In fact, the pronoun “it” will neverhave an antecedent when placed immediately after the comma. “It” cannot be modified by an opening phrase; without a prior subject, it doesn’t stand for anything.

The same rule applies to personal pronouns. Although a modifier may strongly imply a pronoun’s antecedent, it cannot itself function as that antecedent. Check out this example:

Incorrect: In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he weaves a tale of death and deceit.
Correct: In Hamlet, Shakespeare weaves a tale of death and deceit.

The possessive modifier Shakespeare’s cannot function as the antecedent of he. The rewritten sentence eliminates the pronoun and inserts its implied antecedent, Shakespeare.

Well, there you have it: rule number 15, last but certainly not least on our Freshman 15. Tune in again to learn about subject-verb agreement, verb tense, modifiers, and sentence fragments. For now, go practice the skills you’ve gained from rule 15 on your friends and family. It… I mean, your proper use of pronouns is guaranteed to blow them away.

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SAT Essay Prompts: What They Look Like And How To Approach Them

Alex Khurgin from Knewton Advises on the SAT Essay

This week brings another guest post from our friends at Knewton - this time from essay expert Alex Khurgin.

First on the list of Cailey Hall’s recent post, Top 10 SAT Essay Do’s and Don’ts: Take the time to read the essay prompt and make sure you understand what it’s asking. Knewton recommends that you devote a full minute of your total 25 to reading and thinking carefully about the prompt before deciding on an answer to the question.

A minute might not seem like a long time, but if you’re familiar in advance with the types of prompts you’ll see on the test, it should be all you need.

Every SAT essay prompt begins with a short paragraph, 50-80 words long, that touches on an issue of broad relevance to the studies and experiences of a typical high school student. About half of the prompts will be adapted excerpts from books. For example:

Information is now so cheap and abundant that it floods over us from calendar pages, tea bags, bottle caps, and mass e-mail messages from well-meaning friends. We are in a way like residents of Borges’s Library of Babel—an infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters and, therefore, somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges’s librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense.

- Adapted from Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

…and half will be passages written especially for the test by the College Board. For example:

Of all the millions of children in the United States today who play and show an interest in athletics only a few thousand of them will ever become professional athletes and of that number only a handful will become truly successful at the top level of their respective sports. The same goes for virtually any pursuit. Rather than succumbing to long odds one would be better off setting more realistic goals.

The issues presented in the passages above —how technology affects access to information, and how the unlikelihood of achieving a goal should affects its pursuit—will be familiar to most test takers and not just because of their studies. It’s hard to be alive and not sometimes feel bombarded by information or frustrated by a seemingly unachievable goal. Other favorite topics for SAT essays include courage, honesty, independent thought, and facing adversity—emotionally charged words for many high schoolers.

If after reading a passage, you don’t have a perfect grasp of the issue it presents, the question that follows will lay it out clearly. For the two sample passages above, the assignment might read:

(1) Is it true that the more information people have access to, the less knowledge they can obtain from it?

(2) Is an unrealistic goal worth pursuing?

As with all SAT essay assignments, the questions above can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” You may notice that the authors of the two sample passages seem to be leaning one way or another; Jonathan Haidt would probably answer “yes” to the first question and the author of the unrealistic goals passage would probably answer “no” to the second question. Or maybe, in response to such broad questions, both authors would answer “it depends on the context.” However, since you, the test taker, only have 25 minutes to write an entire four- or five-paragraph essay, save the nuanced “depends-on-the-context” responses for your school assignments. On the SAT, pick a side and stick to it. And remember: you don’t have to agree with the passage.

Practice the first step of writing an SAT essay with the five examples below:

Traditionally, the term “originality” has been applied to those who are the first to see or discover something new. But one of the most original things you can do is to see as new what is old and long familiar, to re-imagine something that has been overlooked by everybody. The discoverer who can only see new things is too common of a creature, lacking spirit and addicted to accidents.

- Adapted from a philosopher’s Mixed Opinions and Maxims

Is “originality” better defined as discovering new things or discovering something new in the old?

The more we are aware that we are lost and confused, the more eager we are to be guided and told; so authority is built up in the name of the State, in the name of religion, in the name of a Master or party leader. Authority is the great limiter of personal freedom, because it places an intermediary between you and reality.

- Adapted from J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living

Does obeying authority always limit personal freedom?

Thoughts are like friends for most of us: close, constant, intimate as breathing. Why not, then, choose good ones instead of bad? If we torment ourselves, sooner or later we torment others; family, friends, neighbors, other nations. It is inner war, that inner conflict of all the judgmental, nagging, angry voices in our heads that eventually explodes in outer war, as we take our anger out on others.

- Adapted from Dale Carlson, Who Said What?

Are external conflicts caused by negative thinking?

The term “beautiful” is used by surgeons to describe operations which their patients describe as horrific, by physicists to describe methods of measurement which leave romantic people cold, by lawyers to describe cases which ruin all parties involved, and by lovers to describe the objects of their love, however unattractive they may appear to the unaffected spectator.

- Adapted from George Bernard Shaw

Can something be considered beautiful by everyone?

As awful as it may seem when young people around the world are asked what freedom means most of them say the freedom to buy what you want, when you want it, and to use it how you want. Although we don’t usually admit it, this was at the heart of our American Revolution. Recall the Boston Tea Party. We did not like to be told what to buy and how much to pay for it.

- From James B. Twitchell, 20 Ads That Shook The World

Does freedom mean the freedom to be a consumer?

For even more practice, check out the four essay prompts from the most recent batch of SATs (June ’10).

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The SAT Essay: Top 10 Dos and Don'ts

Cailey from Knewton

This week brings another guest post from our friends at Knewton.com - Cailey Hall is the SAT essay guru for Knewton’s SAT prep course.

As Knewton’s resident SAT essay grader, I get to read a lot of SAT essays. While every essay is different – and I always enjoy seeing how students choose to tackle the prompts – I do notice some of the same issues coming up again and again. Rather than tear my hair out every time I encounter one of these problems, I wanted to let you guys know what to do – and what not to do – on the SAT esssay.

Here’s a foolproof list of advice to get you a 6 every time:

1) Do take the time to read the prompt and make sure you understand what it’s asking. Rewrite it in your own language if that’s helpful. If you don’t write an essay that is on the topic presented, you will get a zero. Be sure you know what you’re supposed to be writing about!

2) Don’t start your essay by restating the prompt. SAT essay graders know what the prompt is. They don’t need to see it again. Instead, open with what we at Knewton like to call a “dazzler” sentence – in other words, a sentence that grabs the reader’s attention and gets them excited to read more of what you’ve written!

3) Don’t hide your thesis! Your thesis statement is not an Easter egg. Nobody wants to go hunting for it. Make sure it’s the last sentence of your introduction.

4) Do make your examples specific. The SAT essay is not the place to offer up hypothetical and/or vague examples. Save the metaphysics for when you’re hanging out in a dark Left Bank cafe with a philosophy graduate student named Fabian. Spend the first 5 minutes of the essay section brainstorming specific examples (from literature, history, current events or personal experience) that support your essay. Then choose the best 2-3 examples to turn into your body paragraphs – and make sure you only address one example per body paragraph!

5) Don’t write in the first person. Unless one of your examples is a personal anecdote – in which case, go for the narcissism – stick to the third person. Phrases such as “I think,” “I believe,” “In my opinion,” etc. should be avoided. The essay graders already know that this essay is from your point of view – you don’t need to tell them again!

6) Don’t write in a stream-of-consciousness style. Yes, James Joyce did it to excellent effect. But the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses would also get a bad grade on the SAT. Also – don’t feel like you need to write loooong sentences because they sound “smart.” More likely than not, they will just sound confusing. You don’t want to lose the reader halfway through your sentence-paragraph. Use Ernest Hemingway for inspiration… not Henry James. At the same time, don’t write sentence fragments. Make sure you’ve got a main subject and verb!

7) Don’t be redundant. Make your point and move on. Don’t make it twice (or three times) in slightly different language.

8 ) Do know when – and when not – to use a comma. While comma usage is one of the more debated topics in the scintillating field of grammar studies, the number one rule to keep in mind is: Would I pause at this point when speaking this sentence? If yes, put a comma. If no, don’t put a comma. There are plenty of other times when you should use a comma, but when you’re reading through your essay, keep this main guideline in mind.

9) Don’t introduce new material in your conclusion. I know – it’s hard! You have one more point you desperately want to make but you’re almost out of time and space. Exercise some self control and save that point for later. The conclusion is the place to restate your thesis (using new language, of course), to remind the reader of the excellent, specific examples you have used to support your thesis, and to end with a brilliant parting thought.

10) Do leave yourself time to proofread. The most common errors? Missing words, subject-verb agreement issues, and missing punctuation and capitalization. Also – watch out for verb tenses!

With these rules in mind, writing the SAT essay should be almost as easy and fun as reading (or re-reading) Twilight. Hey, I said almost

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Ten Ways IECA Uniquely Serves Educational Consultants


Mark Sklarow, IECA Executive Director

The following is a guest blog post from our partners at IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association. This is the first in a series of IECA articles that will be posted here.

Mark Sklarow has served as Executive Director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association for 16 years. Prior to this he was Dean of Students at a private day school in Philadelphia, a Political Science instructor at Temple University, and Director of Education at Presidential Classroom. As IECA’s CEO he presents extensively across the country about trends in the field of independent educational consulting, and offers trainings and assistance to those entering the profession.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education recently completed a study of the field of Educational Consulting.  Noting the dramatic growth of the field, the research concluded by cautioning parents and other educators to steer clear of the thousands of educational consultants who have refused to subject themselves to the thorough vetting process required of membership in the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).  As a result, there has been increased exploration among consultants in joining IECA.  To assist those unaffiliated, yet serious professionals, here are my “top ten” ways IECA helps to serve independent educational consultants:

1. Referrals: Given our extensive outreach efforts and national promotional work, the IECA print and online directories are referenced by parents thousands of times each week.  Just in the past few days we heard from one member noting that he received 4 referrals in August alone and another new member who noted she received her first client from an IECA referral, less than a week after joining.  A single referral covers the cost of IECA membership many times over.

2. Professional Development: IECA hosts multi-day and full-day training programs for those newer to the profession each fall (in conjunction with NACAC) and each summer.  We partnered with the University of California/Irvine extension to offer the only certificate program in independent educational consulting.  Our two national conferences draw between 850 and 1200 attendees each, including hundreds of colleges who participate in our fairs.  We also sponsor group campus tours throughout the year and IECA members receive invitations to members-only and other group tours through our website.

3. National Staff: IECA’s professional staff of 6 full-time employees means that someone is always here to help.  Whether you are working on your own social networking, need assistance with one of our dozens of member benefits, have questions about an upcoming meeting, need a sample contract or want to examine business expansion or ethics concerns, the IECA staff is available to you.

4. Small Business Assistance: We know that most who enter the field do so with a background in admissions or counseling and chose the profession because they are passionate about helping adolescents.  Yet to “make it” consultants must also embrace entrepreneurial skills and we assist members every step of the way in understanding small business skills from running an office to marketing.

5. Press and Public Relations: IECA spends considerable resources on its public outreach efforts.  Our goal is to make sure that when families, educators and the media think about independent educational consulting, IECA comes to mind.  We make all of our dozens of brochures and fliers available to members to use and continually look for ways to use new media including blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook and much more.

6. Leading the profession: Ask anyone who sets the standards for educational consulting and IECA is mentioned.  The recent Harvard Study noted our ‘Standards of Excellence’ and our ‘Principles of Good Practice’ as the two leading documents for those entering the profession.  Our opinions are valued, our leadership sought out.  No wonder those who want to be seen as serious professionals and leaders in the field join IECA.

7. Member Services: Marketing, publications, campus tours, special events, discounts on professional materials and office supplies (including College Essay Optimizer), healthcare programs, liability insurance, mentoring and members-only seminars are just some of the offerings for members.

8. Peer Networking: Central to our mission is a belief that professionals support each other in their work.  Whether through our ListServe, mentoring or interactions during workshops, seminars or conferences, those who join IECA become part of a network of consultants stretching around the globe.

9. Holistic View of Adolescence: We do not believe you can view college admission in a vacuum, and we do not exist to assit only with admission.  IECA believes strongly that independent educational consultants must understand the entire child.  We help ensure our members understand issues like depression, teen anxiety, impact of adoption, learning disabilities, non-traditional families and more, to best serve the needs of all students.

10. Recognition for Excellence: When you include “Member, IECA” on your brochure or Web site, it conveys a great deal about you: that you have been fully vetted, that you are among the most respected, knowledgeable, competent consultants with top-notch training, experience and credentials.  No wonder so many in the media, in college admission offices, and among parents, will only work with IECA Members.

To learn more about IECA and membership opportunities, visit: http://www.iecaonline.com/membership.html