Nerves abound as the teacher walks through the room. Every student waiting anxiously, stirring in their seats as names are called out one by one. Finally, your name is called; stiffening as your paper lands on your desk, you gasp. One glance at all the red ink and your heart sinks; the essay you spent all night writing barely resembles the original copy. You think to yourself, “But I tried so hard. What did I do wrong?”
This story can be echoed by students across the country. Whether you are answering an ACT or AP test prompt, or submitting a college scholarship essay, persuasive writing is not about trying hard but understanding how to craft an effective argument. There are several common mistakes that are easy to fix.
Planning the Essay
Too often students are given a prompt, brainstorm a few ideas, then begin writing. To really plan an essay you need to figure out more than just your thesis statement. A good plan should include how you are going to defend your thesis, what arguments others might pose and how to counter them, and what evidence you will use to support these claims. With a good plan the essay can almost write itself. All you need to do is link the arguments together.
Supporting a Claim
What is the difference between a claim and evidence? While most people can articulate the difference, these often become muddled in essay writing. A claim is a statement that presents a perspective and a belief on a certain subject. Evidence is a factual statement that provides support for a claim. For example, If I stated that M&Ms are the best candy, few people would accept it. However, if I provide concrete evidence I can give weight to this claim. But evidence can have varying strengths. Good evidence can look like this: “Fox News reported that M&Ms sold the most units and were the highest revenue generating chocolate candy in America for 2017.” This evidence has a strong source, provides a metric for comparison, and covers a large sample size. By leaving any of these out the evidence loses credibility and effectiveness. Let’s see what bad evidence would look like: “Mr. Johnson’s fourth grade class voted M&M’s as their favorite candy”. This extreme has very little credibility, a tiny sample size, and provided no metric for comparison. Just remember, whenever you make a claim it needs good evidence to support it.
Trying to make an essay stand out can be hard. But one surefire way to catch a grader’s eye is to show understanding of what drives different perspectives. By arguing against the emotions or motivations of counterpoints you can move past just responding to a prompt and start providing real insight. Anyone can rewrite a prompt in their own words, but few are able to dissect that prompt and move past just regurgitating the same old lines.
All these things can bring strength and life to your essay writing that might be missing in your peer’s. This is not about changing your style of writing, merely approaching your essay differently. Focus on writing clearly with sound arguments and you will see a lot less red ink marring your essays.
Most students look forward to summer simply because there’s no homework, no tests to study for, and it’s sunny and nice out! Whatever your reason is to love summer, there may be a gently nagging in the back of your mind that you have a ton left to do to get ready for college. Planning for college in the summer is a great way to get ahead of the game.
Get Smarter Prep offers several different options to help students prepare for college including a Career/Assessment test, how to build a College List, and Essay Writing Courses.
Career/Major Assessment Test
Start with a Career/Major Assessment test. This test allows you to see what your strengths are, coupled with what you enjoy doing and provides a number of careers to guide you in the right direction. Don’t worry, taking this type of test in the summer isn’t something you have to necessarily prepare for. The test is a comprehensive online assessment that will gauge your learning style, interests, personality, and career focus. Our counselors will go over the results of the assessment and discuss possibilities and paths through your feedback and conversation – discussing careers, as well as possible majors.
Build a College List
If you already have a good idea of what you want study in college and/or what your major will be, but haven’t nailed down a college yet, Get Smarter Prep will help you build a college list that matches your values and goals. If your simply not sure where in the world you would like to college, we will guide you through the process and figure it out together. We can customize ACT/SAT recommendations to ensure the college list is right for you.
College Essay Writing Course
Maybe you already know where you want to attend college, but haven’t even thought about college essays? Not to worry, we offer college essay writing courses in June and July to help you write your best college essays and set you apart from the pack. Our college essay writing experts will help you craft your best essays for your college set. We go above and beyond to ensure you don’t write an essay that prevents you from becoming accepted into your school of choice.
Wherever you are in the college planning process, we can help. It’s not too late or too early to start planning for college in the summer. Contact Get Smarter Prep to get a jump start on your summer plans!
“This win is Bella’s future,” said Dawn Heckert, mother of our scholarship winner, Annabelle Heckert. Dawn has won her fair share of giveaways and raffles throughout the years. When she found out the essay piece she wrote for Get Smarter Prep’s scholarship contest was in fact what we selected, she knew she won something special. However, it wasn’t until Annabelle started coming to her sessions with our Premier-Level Tutor, Caleb Pierce, and started seeing a change in Annabelle that she really understood the gravity of what she won.
Originally, Annabelle didn’t think much of taking the ACT. She knew she would eventually have to if she wanted to go to college, but she wasn’t excited about it. Taking the ACT was a step towards college, but she didn’t even know where she wanted to attend or which major she was interested in. Annabelle was grateful she won the scholarship contest and she knew she was going to give it her best effort, but it wasn’t until the very first session with Caleb that she knew this was going to be life changing.
“She came home and was excited to share these different strategies with me,” said Dawn. Annabelle’s excitement continued to increase after each session with Caleb. With each session her confidence also escalated.
“You gave her confidence and unlocked something inside of her that was stifled,” exclaimed Annabelle’s mom, “Confidence is the most important thing you can give a student now days.”
Annabelle took the ACT exam February 10th at her high school, Blue Valley West. When she was taking the test, the ACT proctor noticed she was taking the test differently than other students. Annabelle was going back and forth between questions and passages within each section, which is one of the strategies students learn at Get Smarter Prep. After the test was complete, the same proctor approached Annabelle and asked her what she was doing. “I was using my different strategies!” replied Annabelle.
“We are just so excited for her and proud of the effort she put towards this training by Get Smarter Prep! Caleb told her there were strategies to beat this test and she wanted to see if it was true. And man did she do it!” said Dawn.
Annabelle knows her training was unique. She put in the effort, came to class with a fantastic attitude ready to learn, completed her homework, and confidently walked into the ACT using the strategies and methods she learned during her tutoring sessions.
Annabelle still doesn’t know where she will attend college, or even what she is leaning towards for a major, but she does know she has completed a piece of the puzzle by taking the ACT. She knows for a fact that with the help of Get Smarter Prep she has done better than she ever thought possible, and that different possibilities now exist that weren’t there before.
“Get Smarter Prep has opened an even greater future for her as she explores what’s next! You have changed her story for the good!” exclaimed Dawn.
With a full 15-hr. Premier-Level Tutorial Annabelle’s score jumped up 7 points from a 24 to a 31 in a condensed four and a half week program! Get Smarter Prep couldn’t be more proud of this year’s Scholarship Winner, Annabelle Heckert!
Finally, winter break has arrived! There is time to breathe, to sleep, and to think.
Also to study, spend time with friends and family, travel… a Winter Break To-Do List can become rather unwieldy, especially if you don’t have a clear plan. But managed carefully, winter break can provide the extra time you need to get caught up on everything from sleep to college applications. Here are some tips for making your winter break as enjoyable, and productive, as possible.
Make a List
First, make a list or plan of what you want to accomplish. You may not be much of a list person, and that’s OK! Your list could be as simple as “sleep 9 hours per night. Finish college applications.” (January 1 is just around the corner!) Time can seem to evaporate when you don’t have a plan, so having a sense of your goals is important. Break up each goal into small, manageable sections, so that you’re not panicking the last night of break about how much work remains.
Be Realistic with your Plan
Try to be realistic when making your plans. If you plan to catch up on your reading, visit two colleges, and travel to visit out-of-town family, this may not be the time to learn oil painting or start your own podcast. Similarly, if you plan to work on applications for an hour a day, keep in mind that you may not get that time on, say, Christmas day.
At the same time, keep a “no thanks” in your pocket for events or invitations that might not fit into your schedule. While we all have obligations that are pretty mandatory this time of year, if you’re feeling swamped, take a good look at everything on your calendar and ask yourself if you might politely extricate yourself from something in order to facilitate the rest of your agenda, even if that’s just getting enough sleep.
Some things you might consider including in your list of goals: catching up on (or even getting ahead on) school work in a challenging course, working on your college list (for juniors) or finishing up last-minute applications (for seniors).
You could spend some time researching and applying for scholarships, summer programs or internships. If you’re a Junior who hasn’t yet begun to prepare for the ACT or SAT, now is a great time to start with a practice test.
Getting caught up on sleep should be a priority, especially if you’ve been skimping to get through exams. Sleep can help you focus, be more efficient, and even affect how well your flu shot works.
Finally, try to make time for something fun that you might not have time for when school is in session. Go ice skating, drink some hot cocoa, or visit the penguins at the zoo. Whatever you choose, aim for a balance of rest, fun, and productivity to make sure you’re refreshed and ready for 2017.
College Interview Tips
Most students will not be required to complete an interview as part of their college application process. However, many schools offer interviews, some going so far as to “strongly encourage” applicants to complete one – online, on campus, or in person with an alumni representative. Some scholarships applications also require interviews, even if the college or university itself does not. Here are some college interview tips for navigating the process.
Do your research. What is the interview policy for the schools on your list?
Some schools offer only informational interviews, which are a great opportunity to ask questions about a college, but don’t become part of your application. Preparing for an informational interview will quite different than preparing for an evaluative interview, which is the kind that does impact your application. Some schools offer interviews to all students, while some have a limited number. Some colleges and universities require interviews from only specific applicants, and some will invite a number of students to interview. Knowing how the colleges on your list approach interviewing will ensure that you’re prepared!
Practice, but don’t rehearse.
Get help with this part. Practice with a friend or family member. Give your helper a variety of questions, and let them choose the order, so that you’re not simply memorizing a script. Similarly, don’t try to prepare verbatim answers. It will be helpful, for example, to choose a book to discuss, but you’re better off being familiar with the book than memorizing paragraphs of analysis. Select some stories to tell about your life, your academic career, and your goals for the future. Feel comfortable with those stories, the way you might feel if you were telling a new friend about the time your dad tried to drive you to school and help you review for a calculus exam – at the same time. (Bye-bye, hubcap.)
Be friendly but professional.
The interview is a great opportunity for the school to get to know you – even more than the essay, this is your opportunity to bring life to the numbers and lists of activities that make up the rest of your application. Actually being a real person is an important part of that process. Be yourself. Try to enjoy the conversation and engage with your interviewer(s). At the same time, be professional. Dress neatly, give the interviewer your full attention, and keep your language appropriate to the setting.
Do your research. Be knowledgeable about the school and city.
Presumably, you’re going to an interview because you actually want to go to this college or university. Think about why you want to go, and if your answers don’t sound like interview material, come up with something a little deeper. Spend some time connecting with the school and its current students, if possible, and figure out how to explain what makes this particular place special. When the interviewer gives you an opportunity to ask a question of your own, be ready. Showing your interest and curiosity about the college is important, but it’s also a good chance for you to learn more about the school!
Will that post come back to haunt you? According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, “Certain violations on social media have the potential to completely end an applicant’s case for admission.” Depending on where you apply, the chances that your online presence will be scrutinized vary significantly. Some schools just don’t have the time, and some actually prohibit the practice.
The NY Times reports that, at Oberlin, “admissions officers may review only the material submitted by students as part of their application.” That means they’re prohibited from considering other information in making their decision. Washington College in Chestertown, Md., takes a more moderate approach. “Admissions officials do not proactively seek out candidates on social media. But while monitoring the college’s brand online, admissions officers often happen upon applicants who have publicly commented on the college, and they immediately forward those posts to Satyajit Dattagupta, the vice president for enrollment management.”
Do those posts affect admission chances? You bet. Dattagupta “looked favorably” on applicants who kept things positive, but was “troubled” by students who spoke negatively about any college online.
What Colleges Are Looking For
According to Kaplan, 35% of admissions officers look for information about students on social media, and 16% report that they have found things that negatively affected a student’s chances. Protecting online reputations has become big business – Forbes reports that companies may charge as little as $100/year for a simple service to alert them to problematic material, or as much as $1300/month to bury troublesome information on the third page of Google search results.
OK, you’re thinking, I know all of this. None of this is new. You’ve changed your privacy settings or even deleted your accounts. You’ve gone underground, and you’d challenge an admissions officer to even find any trace of you online, at all. You’re all set, right?
Maybe. Maybe not. You might be missing an opportunity. US News suggests using social media in your favor to support your application, demonstrate interest, and create a positive presence. Monitoring your privacy settings and removing photos of you holding a red Solo cup? That’s 101-level stuff. Let’s talk about the advanced version.
How To Use Social Media to Your Advantage
Is your application an ode to your service work? Post pictures of that work on Facebook. Passionate about sports or music? Upload videos of your performances. Are you proud of your writing or design skills? There are plenty of ways to create an online presence that reflects those things and will support your application, should your admissions rep go digging.
Social media can also facilitate networking with schools and demonstrating your interest and interacting with them in ways beyond the traditional campus visit. Consider seeking out programs that catch your interest, and even specific professors you’d like to work with, on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It won’t take much time, but it can make a difference to your admission chances.
ACT Essay Changes
Planning to take the September 12 ACT? If you’re signed up for the Writing portion, be prepared for some ACT essay changes! If you’ve taken the ACT Writing portion before, you’ve probably seen essays that looked something like this:
The old ACT Writing prompts were usually open-ended questions. The topics were usually related in some way to the experiences of high school students, and provided opportunities for you to state, and support, your opinion. Should students have access to cellular phones during class? Do you support school uniforms? The trick was to take a clear position on the question, support it with specific examples, and manage your time well enough to complete the essay in the time allotted – 30 minutes.
The new ACT writing prompts are a bit different. Instead of leaving the question open-ended, the prompt provides you with some options, or perspectives, on the question. The new task is to analyze the perspectives and provide your own point of view based on the three presented to you.
Based on the sample prompt provided by the ACT, the topics may have shifted away from things that are directly related to your high school experience and more towards broader social issues. The new writing portion is 40 minutes long, giving you more time to read, analyze, and incorporate the perspectives into your essay plan.
If you’re signed up to take the Writing portion, take a look at these sample essay responses and think through a strategy to prepare for test day. You will still need to develop a position, include appropriate examples, organize your points, and manage your time carefully. Critical issues like indenting your paragraphs, keeping your writing neat, and minimizing your spelling and grammatical errors will remain important. The major change is that you’ll be incorporating some specific perspectives into your essay, and analyzing the quality of their arguments. Good luck!
Tips for Surviving College Essays
Brace yourselves, kids! The Common Application went live on August 1. Of course, you already knew that. You’ve been chomping at the bit to get a peek at this year’s supplements for your top choice schools. Right? Right.
Of course, the Common App prompts have been posted on their blog since March, and many of them are the same as last year:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
These prompts are specific enough to help you brainstorm, but open-ended enough to allow for some creativity in how you answer. However, for many students, that essay is just one of many. Depending on your list of colleges (I’m looking at you, Stanford), you may be facing a seemingly endless list of writing tasks.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed. How does one even begin? What is this madness? You know “what outrages me,” Wake Forest? The fact that I need to write forty-seven essays.
Here are Ten Tips for surviving college essays to make your college essay writing experience less terrible. Trust me, it is possible.
- Take a deep breath. Close your eyes, inhale deeply. Exhale. Repeat. We’ll wait.
- Seriously, breathe. You skipped that because you didn’t think it was important, however it is. I promise. Your brain needs oxygen to come up with the words that make essays.
- Put this in perspective. These essays might seem like the most important thing ever, but they’re not even the most important part of your applications.
- Get organized. If you don’t have a solid college list, start there. If your college list contains 38 colleges, consider narrowing. Take stock of the essays you need to write. Make a list, or even a spreadsheet. (I know. I know. Trust me.) Include what school the essay is for, word count, and the prompt. Don’t forget essays for special majors, programs, or scholarships.
- Think about your experiences. The best essays are stories that only you can tell. Be specific. Your experiences don’t have to be huge, impressive accomplishments. They do have to be authentic and important to you.
- Are you still breathing?
- Connect ideas to prompts. Go back to your list. If you’ve decided you want to write an essay about how reading a certain book influenced your attitude towards life, where might that fit? Devise a plan that allows you to write less than 47 essays.
- Just write. You can’t revise a blank page. Set a timer for five minutes and don’t stop typing. Don’t hit backspace. Just write. It’s OK if you hate it. It’s OK if it’s terrible. Just write.
- Revise. Be ruthless. Cut superfluous words. You’ve got to get down to 650, or 500, or 250, or 50. You’ve got no room for anything that doesn’t have a purpose. Delete. Save your drafts. They might be useful later. Don’t get too attached to sentences. They might be beautiful. They might also be unnecessary. Go back to the prompt(s). Are you answering the question(s)? Get specific. Go deeper. Read it aloud to yourself. Does it sound like something you’d say? Record yourself. Play it back.
- Ask for help. It’s important that your essay be your story, in your words, but feedback is critical to any writing process. You might ask your teachers, friends, or family to read your essay and provide their thoughts. Get Smarter Prep is here to help, too. Our College Essay Writing course is designed to help you develop your ideas and write your best essays! Contact us for more information or to get started!
Tips for a successful school year
Summer vacation has come and gone, and whether you’ve spent the last three months watching Netflix in your bedroom or volunteering in Haiti, now is the time to focus on setting goals for the upcoming school year. Regardless of where you’re at in your high school career, we’ve got a few tips for what to prioritize this year. For Part I of this series, which focuses on Freshmen and Sophomores, please click here!
For many students, Junior year is the most stressful of their high school career. Remember to balance self-care with all of your other goals. “Challenge yourself” is not the same thing as “destroy yourself at the altar of academic and extracurricular perfection.” Part of time-management is knowing when to take a break.
2) Continue taking challenging courses.
For many Juniors, Junior year means AP courses. Be realistic, but challenge yourself. Talk with your counselor about the right number of AP courses based on the classes you’ve taken so far and your future goals.
3) Pursue leadership roles within extra-curricular activities.
Stick with the activities you’re most passionate about, and consider becoming more active within those environments. Look for opportunities to pursue leadership roles and responsibilities
4) Create (or Narrow) Your College List.
If you don’t have a college list, now is the time to start. If your list currently includes every mid-sized private school with a decent psychology program, it’s time to start narrowing. Keep researching, evaluating what’s important to you, and work towards creating a list of schools that you’re truly excited about.
5) Visit More Colleges.
Take tours, meet professors, and sit in on classes. Visiting will help eliminate some colleges from your list and solidify the position of others, and it’s also a great way to demonstrate interest.
6) Get your test scores in order.
If you haven’t taken a Practice ACT, do so. If you have, and you’re happy with your score, take a real test, get an official score, and move on with your life! If you’ve taken a practice test and want to boost your score, work with a tutor to get the score you need.
7) Start thinking about recommendation letters.
Think about which teachers you might want to ask, and plan to do so in the second half of Junior year. Participate in class and make connections with your teachers.
1) Keep up your strong academic performance!
Senior course selection and grades are important! Remember, colleges are interested in your trajectory. Keep challenging yourself with difficult courses, including AP/IB classes, and keep your GPA up. How you perform in difficult classes your senior year will give admissions officers insight into how well you will do in challenging college courses.
2) If you need to, take the ACT or SAT one more time.
Do you need one more point to get into the middle 50 for your top school? Go for it. Take one more ACT. Don’t take one more ACT if you’re “just wondering” if your score might go up, and you haven’t spent/don’t have any time to spend on prep.
3) Ask for recommendations.
If you didn’t do so at the end of Junior year, ask for letters as soon as possible. Your favorite English teacher is going to be asked to write recs for a lot of students. Writing good recommendations takes time, and bad recommendations are not going to help you.
4) Get organized.
Know your deadlines – applications, scholarships, everything. Make a plan and stay on task. Filling out applications can be overwhelming unless you break the process down into manageable steps. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for help.
5) Keep visiting colleges.
Even after applications are submitted, you may want to keep visiting colleges. If you apply to 6, 8, or 10 schools you’re really excited about (and hopefully you ARE excited about all of your schools), you may need more information to make your final decision.
Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.