Walking the Talk

We wanted to bring to your attention an excellent piece from Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that appeared in Inside Higher Ed. In "More to Life than AP," Schmill addresses the messages that colleges send to students about how they make their decisions and the role colleges play in shaping students' behavior. He addresses the "holistic" process; what MIT is looking for; and why parents and counselors should give students the confidence to pursue their true interests instead of ignoring them in favor of what they think a college wants.  Candid and reassuring, Schmill's commentary is a must-read.

Getting Organized for the Last Lap

From time to time, we will be welcoming guest bloggers to the website. Today, we're pleased to host Ana Homayoun, an expert on time-management and organization. You may notice that our guests' recommendations don't always jibe with the guidance in our book -- for example, we recommend that you do your essays first, before the rest of the application! But not all great minds think alike and we believe you can benefit from a broad spectrum of advice and expertise. As you count down to your deadlines, Ms. Homayoun is here to help: When it comes to the college application process, I often think of December as akin to the third of the four laps of the timed mile run in P.E. class. Even though you have already done so much and exhaustion is starting to creep in, there still may be a key amount of work left to do before the finish/submission line. Some students feel as though they have been hearing about college applications forever, and by December many students can find the final details daunting. But some simple steps can make a huge difference in successfully finishing up.

Essay Lab: Getting the Words to Flow

Mix one part approaching holidays with one part looming application deadlines and you may have a recipe for procrastination or full-on writer's block when it comes to writing your essays. But no worries, both are temporary conditions.

If you're in the throes of a case of writer's block, one of the ways to get “unstuck” and develop some good stuff you might be able to use for your essays is to actually take a detour and write about something else. This may seem counterintuitive, but responding to a different -- and slightly provocative -- question than the one you seek to answer in your application essay can help move things along. And doing so can also help you find the heart of things, so that what you say and how you say it can have more impact.

Twitter as Prep for the College Essay?

It has character limits, discourages wordiness, and makes you aware of your audience -- all virtues in crafting a good college essay. Check out How Twitter Can Make You A Better Writer by Amanda Cosco at Social Times. If you're looking for inspiration, visit the Twitter feeds of your favorite writers and the colleges on your list -- but probably not Ashton Kutcher's. And don't miss our Essay Lab, beginning next Monday. First up, prompts to get the words flowing from some novelists, essay writers, and writing teachers!

More on Essays: What are you like when no one is looking?

Kudos to Laurie Fendrich, blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education and faculty member at Hofstra University, who weighed in on the exotic essays front, as well: “In pushing college applicants to write college essays proving how “extraordinary” they are, we get application essays about the summer spent hiking in Nepal, the semester abroad learning Chinese, the Saturdays spent at soup kitchens, and the long hours at the violin. But all these extraordinary extracurricular activities are almost always artificially concocted. They’re a result of the savvy, ferocious ambitions of students, their parents and their guidance counselors, all of whom desperately work together to make sure the student looks “extraordinary.” “But what we really need to learn about an applicant is what he or she is like when no one is looking. What is the student like in a quotidien sense? In Katherine, we see a young woman who hadn’t ever done anything glamorous with her summers, but had instead spent day after day, for most of her young life, tending cows—and not because it would make for an interesting subject in a college application essay (although it probably would). She tended cows simply because she grew up in a family where she was required to do serious chores.

What's a standout college essay? It's the one about you.

According to a recent New York Times article, students are cultivating summer experiences such as expensive internships or exotic travel experiences "with the goal of creating a standout personal statement." We couldn't disagree more with this "strategy"! Or, as a former admission officer on Robin Mamlet's staff at Stanford put it -- more colorfully --in an email to us, "YUCK.  That should be YUCK in all caps, bold, italics, the works. With many, many exclamation marks." If you ask college admission officers -- including College Admission coauthor Mamlet -- about the essays they find most memorable, overseas internships or travels abroad don't usually top the list. Mamlet remembers an essay about Tom Robbins' novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and another about why an applicant hated piano lessons.  Others recall essays about silverfish, babysitting a younger sister, astronomy, holiday rituals, the family's backyard chicken coop, repairing motorcycles, thrift store shopping for vintage clothing or family breakfasts. With the essay, colleges are trying to get to know you. So the topic is you. The "right" essay is one that reveals your true self, in your own voice -- whether you're talking about studying viruses, raising pigs in 4-H, or your collection of vinyl records.