New York Times' Maureen Tillman Blogs: Beware The Freshman Pitfalls

Maureen Tillman

Guest blogger Maureen Tillman's got some tips to keep you from being taken to task.

Our post today comes from Maureen Tillman, L.C.S.W. She is 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.

For high school seniors making the transition to college, this is the time to get real. It is crucial for these new graduates to be aware of the common stumbling blocks that many college freshmen encounter, and learn what they can do to help themselves have a successful transition from high school to college.

For many, this is the first time they will be leaving the nest, and it is now time to deal with the issues that will arrive when they are living on their own.

In my work I have talked with many college students on this first-year transition. Common pitfalls emerged from our discussions, some of which can have serious consequences. For example:

* Many students with learning and medical disabilities, ADD or ADHD have had support while growing up (including the monitoring of medication) from parents, tutors, schools and counselors — all significant factors in their academic success. But many students who decide to try college without this support find that this decision leads to a ticket home.

* Drinking and partying when homesick or down can spiral into deeper depression and academic failure.

* Freshmen tend to frequently text, call and use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family back home. Too much of this can take away from meeting new people and feeling connected.

It is helpful if students look ahead and learn all they can about the college terrain before they leave.

Here are three suggestions to help students in their transition:

1. Talk to a variety of college students who have recently finished their freshman year. Ask them about their challenges and how they navigated them. What myths were shattered? And what do they wish they had known previously which would have allowed for them to have been more prepared?

2. Be realistic. You can do this by taking responsibility for yourself before you leave and take on tasks that your parents may have assisted in, like becoming literate in finances, making your own daily decisions and managing stress. Use the summer months to practice self-advocacy and assertiveness in challenging situations that may come your way.

3. Read the student handbook, “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College,” by Harlan Cohen.

Freshman year at college offers a window of opportunity for students to reach out, join activities and make new friends. Yet many high school students cling to myths that could affect their ability to fully enjoy this time of their lives. When you hold those conversations with rising college sophomores you may know, don’t be afraid to raise some of your assumptions about college life; you might be surprised by their response.

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Ways of Diversifying Your Applications

Gotta diversify... And mix it up... Like a... British Jamaican DJ.

As we've written about before, the cost of diversifying your set of schools is minimal when compared to the potential reward you have in store for an acceptance at a school above your safe range.

Being accepted at a school on the high end of where you're aiming is a big deal in terms of the academic experience you'll have, the success your peers will have after graduation, and the professional expectations you'll have, both in salary and breadth of opportunity.

So how do you expand that list of schools without wasting your time?

Focus on the core priorities you have for your university experience. Selectivity, reputation and ranking, class size, location, setting, etc. Once you've made those decisions, find ways to broaden your selections, and the odds of landing a position will increase.

If you're going to be applying to, say, Cornell, Drexel, Boston College, and UConn, stretch out the list of top schools to three or four, and your chances of winding up at a school like Cornell, even if it's not exactly Cornell - say, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, or Yale - are going to increase.

Remember, there are many reasons you can be denied admission to a school, many of which are outside of your control, such as your demographic, geographic location, or high school's history with the university. Broaden your selection and you'll improve the chances.

CEO is here to compliment the other tools at your disposal and make the many applications, and the legwork that goes along with it, that much easier.

Knewton Blogs: Evil SAT Trick Of The Week

Sarlin vs. Evil. Bet Sarlin.

Sarlin vs. Evil. Bet Sarlin.

Our post this week comes from Alex Sarlin, Verbal Lead at Knewton, where he helps students with their SAT prep.

If you’ve begun your SAT prep, you’ve probably already realized that the test-makers aren’t exactly mild-mannered or kind—quite the opposite. Luckily, we at Knewton have their number. Today we’ll be revealing one of their signature tricks.

First, a quick aside. Have you ever heard this old word-game? It goes something like this:

You: Let’s play a game. I’m bet I can get you to say the word “black.”

Friend (smirking): No way.

You:  OK. Name the colors in a traffic light.

Friend (thinking, suspicious): Red… yellow… green.

You: How about the colors in the American flag?

Friend: Uhh… red… white… blue.

You: Gotcha! Oh man, that was so easy!

Friend (surprised): What?!

You: I made you say blue. You totally weren’t even paying attention.

Friend: What?! You said you were going to make me say ‘black!’

You: NOW I gotcha.

So very evil. And there’s a moral, too: Never let your guard down before the game is over.

The SAT writers use their own version of this trick on the math section of the test. They give you a rather complex problem, and then, just when you’re at the very last leg of your problem-solving, they’ll offer you an answer choice that refers to the next-to-last step. After all that work, many test-takers cling to this number like a life preserver, forgetting to do that last, important step and completely wasting all the time they just spent.

Let’s look at some examples:

8. There are 2 different ways to arrange the 2 letters A and B in a row from left to right. How many more different ways are there to arrange the 5 letters A, B, C, D and E in a row from left to right?

A.      60

B.      100

C.      118

D.      120

E.       625

Ah, permutations and combinations: everybody’s favorite subject. Dig into your math knowledge: you need to put the number of possibilities into “slots.” There are 5 possibilities for the first slot (A, B, C, D or E), 4 for the second (because one letter is gone), 3 for the next slot, and so on. You end up with 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120 different combinations. Choice D. All set, right?

Wrong. The question actually asked how many more different ways are there to arrange 5 letters than there are to arrange 2 letters. Because there are 2 ways to arrange two letters, there are 118 more ways to arrange five letters. Choice C is correct—not evil Choice D.

Now try this problem, which has not one, but three evil answers lying in wait:

4. Hector is both the 4th tallest and the 4th shortest person in his family. If everyone in his family is a different height, how many people are in Hector’s family?

A.      6

B.      7

C.      8

D.      9

E.       10

Some test-takers will think, OK—four taller, four shorter, eight people, choice C, done. Those people obviously aren’t paying attention. For one thing, they forgot about Hector himself!

Others think, Ah ha! Four people taller and four shorter, plus Hector. There are nine people in Hector’s family: Choice D! That might sound like it makes sense—but it’s still wrong.

In reality, if Hector is the fourth tallest, then actually there are only three people taller than he is. He is the fourth tallest. The same goes the other way. There are three people shorter than he is. And, then, we have to add Hector. There are 7 people in Hector’s family. Choice B is correct.

As you can see, the SAT isn’t out to make friends. Watch out for answer choices that seem too obvious or simple to be correct—they often are. These are particularly evil examples, but in fact, the SAT uses this trick, in some form or another, on many math questions. Beware, and think twice before choosing the “obvious” answer!

Check out the Knewton blog for more Evil SAT Tricks!

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CEO In The News: New York Times Education Section

Our CEO and founder Daniel Stern is quoted in this New York Times article on plagiarism. One of the unexpected - but great - side effects of CEO's service is that it cuts down on plagiarism. And maybe better yet for the more ethical time-strapped teens we help, it cuts down on that nagging urge to plagiarize.

I mean, it's right there. Copy. Paste. Done. Why not? It's a time saver. And the colleges aren't doing you any favors there by making their applications so similar, yet not identical. Why not take just a little help from your friends?

It's an ethical issue everyone wrestles with, especially when doing work you're not necessarily pouring your heart and soul into. But where CEO comes to the rescue is in the focus and ethical re-application of the work you've already done for your other apps. It cuts down on the work you need to do, making the apps especially easy for those sure-bet and safety schools you have on your list. For sure, by the time you get to those apps, you've outlined your grand life plan in five hundred words or less enough times. No need to do it again, right? Right.

Now thank CEO instead of the command-v.

College Essay Organizer Helps Defeat Plagiarism

There is no better opening. But you cannot have this opening. Sorry.

There is no better opening. But you cannot have this opening. Sorry.

Tom Robinson at Today's Campus Online recently addressed an issue that we've found CEO is well-designed to defeat, that of plagiarism in college essays.

Robinson discusses a recently published study that a jaw-dropping 36 percent of personal statements were found to include "significant matching text" when put through plagiarism-checking software, leading the researchers to believe that more than a third of all applicants were lifting parts or all of their college essays.

There are a whole lot of issues that come to mind when discussing this, not least of which are the problems of the naturally overloaded guidance counselors of America. Without meaningful one-on-one collaboration between students and faculty, it can be difficult for writers to be aware of the significant differences between the college essay and the standard five-paragraph essays they've been expected to churn out for years.

Another significant issue is the overwhelming amount of work that seniors are saddled with each fall. Most have their hearts set on an individual school, and if their early applications are denied, are often surprised to learn the actual amount of writing they have to do for their other applications. Panic sets in, and cheating begins to feel inevitable.

Our president and CEO, Daniel Stern, is quoted in Robinson's article and talks about how CEO provides an ethical solution.

For juniors who are looking to avoid that time crunch in the first place, we've offered steep discounts, encouraging them to get started ahead of time and capitalize on the free time available in the summer.

For seniors, we provide an automatic, low-cost solution to the organizational challenge they're bound to face, and we show them how to repurpose the work they've already done for many applications without resorting to taking others' words.

Hey, if putting a dent in plagiarism is our good deed for the day then it's been a good day. Shoot us an email and let us know what CEO's doing right for you.

College Essay Organizer For Juniors: Now With More Discounted Goodness

Nothing Is Inconceivable. Not even the ivies, baby.

Nothing Is Inconceivable. Not even Harvard.

CEO has taken a few proactive steps to help juniors take control of the college application process before it takes control of them. For purchases made before May 1, retail prices are being discounted 50%, just by using the promotional code 'junior'.

It's an exciting time for juniors who are beginning to wrap up what is probably the most difficult academic year they've had so far. Most can't wait to get it behind them and co-o-o-ast into that senior year of waking up late, leaving early, and doing a small version of nothing somewhere in between.

But hark, there waits a large pile of applications to be done before one can be stranded on the lawn of some weird frat house after homecoming, and the sooner you can get that pile organized and simplified, the sooner you can get the apps out the door and get yourself into the nine month vacation known as "I already turned those things in."

Have a look at the new juniors page and see why it's a great idea to get rolling on the things now, and see that by purchasing your account before the crush of work kicks in, you'll save money and put yourself ahead of the curve. Remember, with our new email notification system, you'll be updated as soon as your schools publish whatever changes they make to their application for the 2010-2011 season.

2011? Did I just write that?

College Essay Tips: What To Write About When You Can Write About Anything

We have written about the style of the college essay many times here on CEO Blog. The form at its best is almost its own genre of writing – it is a combination of story telling, personal expression, and resume that demands a level of revision that most high schoolers are not used to.

There are all kinds of things that can make a writer freeze up when putting together a personal statement, but ironically, one of those things is having too many options. Many essay prompts, including the Common App’s long response, allow you to write on a topic of your choice, which is to say anything at all.

When you can write about anything, write about your passion.

Your passion won’t be the thing you think you’re supposed to write about, or the thing you think will be most impressive to the guidance counselor you are imagining, but it will be the thing that makes you sit up and say, “I can write about that.”

When you have that a-ha moment and recognize what you care about, your writing will actually improve. You will avoid cliché and, better yet, you will be able to write with detail that shows you understand the world you’re talking about. You will be able to invite the reader into an understanding of what you love and show why your involvement in it matters.

In short, you’ll be able to describe for the reader something about yourself that your resume doesn’t reflect as well as it could, and that’s the job of this piece of writing.

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College Essay Writing Help: To Use Humor Or To, You Know, Not?

Think long and hard about how funny you are. Are you funnier than this cat? Are you sure?

Think long and hard about how funny you are. Are you funnier than this cat? Are you sure?

As we have mentioned many times before the college essay is not to be considered a cousin of the typical five-paragraph essay. It is a piece of writing that lends itself to an invention of its form, and in its best cases operates almost like its own genre. Depending on the prompts there can be opportunities to discuss unique experiences, failures, crimes, and misdemeanors. There is also an almost nagging opportunity to write the thing as wittily as possible. For many, that urge is irresistible.

We recognize this desire. We have felt this desire. We demand that you repress this desire.


Because unless you are simpatico with the admissions officer reading your essay - and have caught him or her in the right mood on the right day - you run the risk of just straight up falling on your face with any gag or tonal shift you attempt. And that is not a risk you can afford to take.

It's not to say that you're not funny - though in our experience you are almost definitely less funny than you think - it's that the shaky likelihood of your reader thinking your humor is good and appropriate to the subject is multiplied against the shaky likelihood that you're funny. Multiply it again by the number of admissions officers who have to read the thing and you've written yourself into a statistical hole.

But the best reason to avoid humor in these essays is the amount of time you're going to spend on the piece. You will be able to much more easily figure out if your essay is good by avoiding humor. You will be able to focus on structural, stylistic, and content elements that are much more easy to quantify. The flip side of that, of course, is that those elements are much more easy to recognize as being well done by the admissions officer, too.

It's not that we don't like funny! We live for funny. It's just that we really live for your admissions success, and that's no laughing matter. Ba-doom-ching.

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College Essay Help: Writing About Your Accomplishments

I Don't Mean To Brag, But... I Was An Incredibly Strong Baby.

I don't mean to brag, but... I was an incredibly strong baby.

One of the potential stumbling blocks many students face when writing personal statements or other pieces about their accomplishments is in navigating the fine line between self-promotion and bragging. We've seen "I don't want to brag, but..." in a startling number of essays. That part shouldn't be a problem. Here's a tip if you're including that line: don't.

But selling yourself is part of the deal, and you're going to need to get across what makes you great without ever seeming pompous. Here are three important tips:

1. Try to state what you've achieved, not what others have failed at. When you're trying to avoid bragging, remember context. The context you put your accomplishments in will make the difference between stating your achievements and just kicking dirt in your opponents' faces.

2. Talk about your decisions, and why they were unique. By discussing the things that were right, you imply options, and in the process, you articulate things that others have done and gotten wrong, without denigrating them or seeming like a sore winner.

3. Discuss how you expect to improve even further. This doesn't mean talking about what you did wrong, or even what you'd like to change about your past actions or accomplishments. Simply discuss in specific terms how you see a new level of development that was never available to you before, but that after all your hard work, you belong there.

You should be proud of all you've set out to achieve, and talking about what you are capable of rather than others' shortcomings is a huge boon to your writing. Make the most of it.

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College Essay Advice: How To Write About An Extra-Curricular?

The Rushmore Beekeepers. I'm a member, but also its founder.

The Rushmore Beekeepers. I'm a member, but also its founder.

The New York Times' lovely blog, The Choice, has recently done a couple of posts that don't seem to be intentionally linked but have an interesting relationship regarding an important question many have asked about their college essays. What's worth writing about when it comes to extra-curricular activities? Is it worth it to spend your time discussing something that's already on your resume? And is it a no-brainer to write about the most remarkable one on the list? Should we always write about the thing we've stretched furthest and hardest to do?

Extra-curriculars are the worst victim of resume padding there is. They tend to be easy to add (or even make up), and every school has several that require little or no work most of the time. But we generally know even before we're asked which ones are important to us. We know which ones were added because we love them - the ones we'd be happy to do without even being credited for it - and those that were asked just to look good on paper.

What you're perhaps less likely to believe is that the person reading your essay can tell, too. Even if he or she hasn't met you. And it's not because the activity is rare or sounds fake, but that a lack of passion will almost invariably be revealed in an essay.

What's most important when choosing what to write about is not whether it seems the most exceptional, or seems like it took the most amount or work, or even the one that needs the most explaining. It's the one you can write about in an excited, engaging, and specific way. When you find these topics, you're golden, because you will be able to articulate what it is that fills you with that excitement, and only then will the reader understand what makes you, you.

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