Paved With Verbs offers college essay help and life coaching/mentorship services. It's definitely the coolest and most meaningful work I've ever done.
I've had the opportunity to work with countless amazing students. They're all fantastic! But. I've noticed two recurring problems that a lot of them struggle with:
FIRST, they show up to our first meeting with perfect grades and amazing SAT and ACT scores. They've taken seven or ten or even more APs. But... they don't necessarily have anything to write their essays about.
"The thing is," a student told me once, "I've done a lot in school... but I don't really have many life experiences."
"My world is really stressful," added another. "I haven't had time to do much outside of school. I spend most of my free time studying, or watching TV."
I even had one student recount, "I almost did a medical volunteer program in Jamaica this summer, but my mom said it was more important to stay home and study for the SATs."
Sometimes, to get them started, we read through all the 2015-2016 Common App essay prompts:
After reading each prompt, I say, "If you HAD to answer this question, what would you say?" And a lot of the time...
They've got nothing. They can't think of a single time when they challenged a belief or idea. There's not a single problem they'd like to solve. They can't recount a single failure more compelling than, "Well, I almost got a B in Spanish once."
This is going to majorly hurt their chances of getting into a top school for three reasons.
1. The advantage of going to a top school isn't book learning. It's that top schools have money, staff, faculty and resources to make anything possible. When I was at Stanford, there was this amazing introductory seminar called Inside the Jet Engine. It was for non-technical students who were curious about jet engines. For one of the class sessions, students took a bus to SFO, flew to Arizona to tour Boeing for the afternoon, and then flew back to school that evening. Are you the kind of student who would be excited about this opportunity? Or would you be too busy trying to get A's in all your pre-med courses to care?
Top schools have hundreds of student- and university-run organizations you can be a part of. They have grants, scholarships and service opportunities abroad. Are you someone who would take advantage of this? Or will you be too busy studying?
If all you've ever done is study, you don't need to go to a top school. You'd do just fine at the local library.
2. Admissions officers are looking to build a diverse community of students with a variety of skills, interests and backgrounds. And, make no mistake: "diversity" doesn't refer simply to skin color or socioeconomic status. It means making sure each student in each classroom brings a perspective to the table that no one else could. If all you've ever done is work hard in school and do well on the SATs... what's interesting about your perspective? What can you bring to the table that 90% of the other applicants couldn't?
3. Admissions officers love students who have demonstrated purpose. When they read your essay, they want to see that you've done what you've done for a reason. I wrote my Stanford essay about how I loved scuba diving... So I spent my summers learning how to scuba dive. I earned my Underwater Naturalist certification, and learned how much I loved the underwater world. Then, I earned my Rescue Diver certification... and learned how much I loved chemistry and first aid. I was lucky enough to go to Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in New England. We had the largest secondary school library in the world -- where I went to read everything they had on scuba diving. When I ran out of material, I did some research online, and presented the librarians with a list of books I would like to read next. They ordered them for me (one of the perks of going to an elite school -- see point 1), and I was back in the library reading the next week. I filled my schedule with science electives, as well as the one and only AP course that I ever took: AP Biology.
In other words, I showed purpose. Tons of students walk through my door and say something like, "I'm applying to elite school X, Y and Z, and I'm going to major in Computer Science."
"Great!" I tell them. "What's your background in CS?"
"Well... I haven't taken any. But I think it will look good to say I want to major in CS, and I think it would be a... good career choice?"
What they don't realize is that, to an admissions officer... this looks weird. How can you declare a major in something you've never studied, but easily could have -- either in school or online? Why did you take AP Environmental Science and AP English and AP US History... if you want to study CS? Do you have any interest whatsoever in CS, or are you just declaring it because you think you "should"?
The other major mistake that students make on their college applications is submitting "good" recommendations.
To get into a great school, you're going to need great recommendations.
Many "high achievers" have spent countless hours studying, memorizing and preparing... but they've never taken the time to get to know their teachers on a deeper personal or intellectual level. So they pick a few teachers whose class they got an A in, and ask them for a letter of recommendation.
What's the teacher supposed to say about you?
"So-and-so got a good grade and always handed in his homework on time. It was a pleasure having him in my class, and I think he will do well in college."
If you're not going to take the time to get to know your teachers -- to ask them how what you just discussed in class applies to scuba diving; or if they could go over that math problem you got wrong with you, even though it's not going to help your grade; or even just why they decided to advise the debate team or coach the soccer team -- it will clearly show in your letters of recommendation. And it will show two things about you:
1. There's no reason for admissions officers to expect you to engage with your professors in college. And remember: elite schools aren't elite because of all the book learning their students do. They're elite because they attract the best teachers and researchers in the world. If you're not going to take advantage of that -- if you're not going to ask questions that go deeper than, "Will that be on the test?" -- then you'd do just as well at a community college, and there's no reason to give one of their few spots to you.
2. You're not much of a community member. Remember: their goal is to build a diverse. Community. of students. If you submit a generic-sounding letter of recommendation, it indicates that you're the kind of student who shows up at the right place, at the right time; does what's required; and then goes home. What will you contribute to the university that another student with your grades and ACT scores couldn't?
I just got back from my 10-year high school reunion -- and it was a blast. I loved seeing all of my former classmates again -- and even meeting their wives and children. But you know what was my favorite part? Seeing my teachers. They had a profound impact on my high school experience, and I was truly blessed to have them in my life. If you can't imagine yourself saying that in ten years... there's a big chance you're not going to get the recommendations it takes to get into the Ivies.
What does this mean for you? What are some strategies you can take to avoid these two mistakes? Here are three ideas to get your started:
1. Fire your academic tutors. More often than not, academic tutors teach dependence and stunt your thinking and time management skills (trust me: I can always tell which students have been over-tutored). Learn how to do your own homework -- and, if you run into trouble, talk to your teacher. Ask her to meet you to go over a problem or an essay for 15 minutes before school starts. Show up with two coffees and two muffins -- one for each of you. When you get a paper back, see if he will go for a short walk with you to go over some of his comments after school. Get involved in a leadership position that allows you to work closely with one of your teachers. This is a great way for you to get to know each other more... without all the expenses and drawbacks of hiring a tutor.
2. Hire a non-academic tutor. This could come in the form of a mentor or life coach who specializes in helping connect gifted young people with purpose, passions and opportunities they might not have realized, otherwise. (Not to shamelessly self-promote, but that's one of the services I offer at Paved With Verbs.) It could come in the form of a college student or professional who is working on something you'd like to learn more about. You could get together once per week (or even month) to do science projects, discuss papers or build something together. By the time you've got to start those college essays, you will have a wealth of experiences to write about.
3. At the start of your junior or sophomore year, think about who you want to be by senior year. What story do you want to write about in your essays? Be as crazy and outside-the-box as you want while you brainstorm. Then, sit down and list each step you'll have to take to make that story a reality. Make sure that each step is SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. If you get stuck... use it as an opportunity to get to know your teachers. Pick one you get along with. Tell them about your goals -- and ask them how they think you could get there. This will help you find a story to tell and get a great recommendation!
Students, how have you demonstrated purpose in your lives? Parents, how have you encouraged your child to develop their own unique interests and experiences. Teachers, how can your students get to know you better? Share your response in the comments! Or, if you'd like to learn more, Contact me.
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.