Strong Relationships Produce Strong Recommendation Letters

Recommendations can make or break an application. Having read and written hundreds of them, I cannot stress the importance of cultivating a relationship with your recommender. Why? Because the first thing I look for in a letter of recommendation is evidence that the recommender knows the person well enough to provide an accurate and honest assessment. If I don’t see evidence of this in the letter, the strength of the recommendation plummets.
Make sure your recommenders know you well enough to write about you in a
personal- and therefore compelling and convincing- manner. Meet with them, find ways to work with them, and by all means do well in their classes. Also, when you approach a professor, employer, teacher or coach for a letter, ask them if they think they can write a strong recommendation for you. If they waiver on this, or are unsure, you are probably better off looking elsewhere because a lukewarm or even negative recommendation (yes, I have read them) is the kiss of death for an application. Once you have lined up people to write on your behalf, send them your resume, application letter and a little  background about you so that they can draw on these materials to strengthen their letter.
Last but not least, I cannot understate the importance of thanking  recommenders for taking the time to write on your behalf. Many former students send me thank you notes via e-mail and snail mail to catch me up on their lives. Their gratitude and willingness to take the time to write keeps me writing strong recommendation letters for them. And the better I know them, the better my letters of recommendation.

Don’t Let Your Ego Set Your College Schedule

You are starting college this month, and feel like you are at the starting line of a race, nervous and itching to get going, challenge yourself and give it your all. Feeling inspired and motivated, you sign up for five extra credits so that you can graduate earlier. You can do it, you tell yourself, if you stay focused and disciplined– and keep distractions to a minimum.

The semester starts, and you are off and running, super busy but at first able – but just barely- to keep up with your classes. Three weeks in and reality comes a knocking. Two of your classes require far more work than you expected. You pull a 34% on your first statistics exam. The student organization you joined- stupidly volunteering to be treasurer – is filling your evenings with meetings and events. You put your social life on hold, which is not going over well with you boyfriend. You begin to feel like you cannot keep up, that there are not enough hours in the day, that you are letting everyone down. You resolve to work harder, and free up more time by cutting down on sleep and cutting out exercise. You promise yourself you will make up for this after the semester. Your mood worsens and you have the energy of a tree sloth. You start to panic, turning to coffee and energy drinks to keep yourself going, which then make you jittery, irritable and unable to sleep even though you are exhausted. Two months in and you are a stressed out zombie not sure how you are going to survive the semester. You have not even started your microeconomics project, which is worth a third of your grade and due in two days. Your mom calls to tell you she is worried about you, and that your grandmother is in the hospital. The night before two huge exams in the your hardest classes your body finally pulls the plug. You go down hard, mentally fried and sick as a dog. Your best laid plans for managing a challenging first semester in ruins, you consider withdrawing from classes- and the university.

Everything listed above really happened to students I have known. Some even happened to me. The problem starts when we allow our ego- the person we plan or aspire to be- to make our college schedule. The same ego that convinces us to undertake impossible diets and exercise routines that never work has no problem telling us, “Of course you can handle six classes.” But our ego does not have to take the six classes. We do, and our struggle to make good on what the ego sets out for us is not because we are not strong enough or smart enough but because we are human.

John Lennon once said, “Life happens when you are busy making other plans.” When you make your schedule for that first college semester, make sure you allow space for life to happen. Make sure you plan to be human. The ego doesn’t know how to do this, as it is focused on the ends rather than means. It is the part of us that thinks we are robots, that comes up with ultimately self-defeating solutions like, “I just won’t sleep.”

So save yourself a whole lot of stress, misery and failure and scale back your first semester so you have enough space for life to happen. If you are not sure if your semester is setting you up for a pain mortgage, ask a faculty advisor or even another student further along in college to take a look at your schedule. Ask yourself honestly whether you have set up your semester for a robot rather than a real person. If the answer is yes, then your ego is running the show. And just like when the ego gets the best of runners at the starting line of a marathon, you will go out at a pace that you cannot keep, hit the wall, and either slow down drastically or stop altogether. I have seen too many students flame out trying to finish hellacious semesters set up by their egos. You will be much happier, healthier and ultimately do much better in your classes if you don’t allow your ego to make your college schedule.

Why You Need to Get to Know a Professor

A recent New York Times article on developing the skills necessary to succeed in college advised students to approach at least one professor after class. Doing so, the author argued, would empower students to cross the invisible barrier that often exists between professors and undergraduates. Having been on both sides of this equation, I can attest to how hard for students to cross this line; it can feel as awkward as someone out on a date.  That said, I could not agree more with students becoming comfortable with approaching professors. I would take this a step further, though, and recommend that students get to know at least one college professor– personally. Here’s why.
Going to college is a lot like visiting a foreign country in that the best way to experience a new place is to learn from the ‘locals’ where to go and what to do.  Many new to college see upperclassmen as locals, consulting them about everything from what classes to take to where to live to what to major in. But professors are the real locals, and as such have amassed a boatload of experience and knowledge about college as well as how to help students get the most out of it.
This kind of knowledge is rarely imparted in a Chemistry 101 class crammed with a hundred students.  Instead, it gets shared in face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, in many college classrooms and lecture halls professors are often neither expected nor able to get to know their students personally.  Students and professors alike pay a steep price for the institutional and professional distancing, as it prevents them from forming the kind of relationships necessary to truly appreciate, trust and engage each other in finding answers for questions that while not on the syllabus are the most pressing and important for students.
Getting to know a professor means they will get to know you, and in doing so the more invested they will become in helping you figure out how to realize your dreams and aspirations.
Getting to know a faculty member connects students with a university insider who can help them navigate increasingly fragmented and expanding universities.  Given the explosion of college majors and the rising number of students entering college without declaring a major and/or changing majors, having someone who can inform students’ decisions can save them from floundering in the wrong classes, majors or programs.
When it comes to getting the most of college, getting to know a professor can mean the difference between not only getting a degree and getting an education. In my next post I will share two more reasons –as invaluable as they are overlooked– why students need to know, and be known by, at least one professor.
Because faculty are much more likely to mentor, lifeguard and advocate for students they know personally.  Research supports what I have experienced as a professor: developing a personal relationship with a faculty member can profoundly impact student’s college experience and life after college.  Here’s how.
Mentoring makes all the difference in college.  Faculty, as the permanent residents of universities, can pass a great deal of advice and knowledge about programs, majors and classes on to students.  Students change their minds- and majors- during college, and professors can help students find their footing and a compelling way forward.  Along with the more practical advice, professors can support students by helping them understand that what they are going through- change and growth- is a normal and expected part of college.
Professors are more likely to look out for students they know personally, effectively acting as informal lifeguards that can step in when students might be getting in over their heads.  Professors that know students are more likely to notice when something is not right, and step in before a student’s problem or situation snowballs out of control.
I also advocate for these students as they apply for internships, positions, scholarships and jobs.  Having written and read hundreds of letters of recommendation, I can attest to the fact that the best letters always convince the reader that the recommender knows the candidate as both a student and a person.

CombStudent problems snowball quickly in college,  spent endless- and enjoyable- hours helping students I have come to know choose classes, majors and for that matter career paths.  I also advocate for these students as they apply for internships, positions, scholarships and jobs.  Having written and read hundreds of letters of recommendation, I can attest to the fact that the best letters always convince the reader that the recommender knows the candidate as both a student and a person.
Students can never have enough lifeguards in college, by which I mean people who know them well enough to sense when they are in over their heads academically or personally.
Unfortunately, the first two kinds of learning often conspire against students and faculty forming the kind of personal relationships that facilitate this kind of learning.  This can mean the difference between getting a degree and an education.  For while a degree may change your resume or the type of job you get, an education changes how you understand and live your life.
Students are often afraid of faculty because of the power that professors have over them in terms of grades.

Climbing Mount College Essay

Writing your college essay is a lot like climbing a mountain: what looks easy or straightforward from afar is anything but when one gets up close and stares up at a steep, forbidden face that disappears into clouds. Since college essays are short, it is easy to underestimate the amount of time, preparation and work it takes to write a strong one.

And once underestimated, a college essay can become as dangerous as Mount Everest. Having encountered more than a few students struggling and stranded on Mount College Essay over the years, I have developed a handful of guidelines to help anyone considering an ascent of Mt. College Essay reach the summit and not disappear into thin air.

1. Begin Early

If I had a nickel for every time students informed me that they were giving themselves a weekend- or even a week- to write their college essay, I would be a rich man. Many students learn to write fast rather than well in school, which often values quantity over quality. Good writing takes time, so be sure to give yourself enough of it to carefully and methodically craft your essay. Otherwise you will end up rushing and taking short cuts that will compromise not only your essay, but also your chances of getting into the college of your choice. Starting three months from the deadline for the application to write the essay will allow enough time for you and your team (yes, it takes a village) to produce a quality essay. If you have only a month or week left to write your essay, keep reading. The guidelines that follow will still help you- even if you have to condense the process a bit.

2. Assemble Your Team

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to climb Mount College  Essay. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since your name is the only one on the essay that other people should not help you write it. Let me be clear, though, that by ‘help’ I do not mean others write it for you. There are plenty of people and businesses out there willing to do just this- or even sell you an essay- but in my experience this often ends up backfiring on students because admissions officers have a sixth sense that allows them to sniff out disingenuous or phony essays a mile away.

The first step in assembling a team is finding a guide, by which I mean the one person you can trust to make decisions about the overall structure and thrust of the essay.

An optimal guide would have experience writing, helping others write and helping students write college essays in particular. Teachers – especially those in the humanities-and guidance counselors often fit this bill. Look for someone that not only has the expertise to provide you with good feedback but also has the time to do so. Ask them if they might be willing to help you, being clear with them that helping will mean reading multiple drafts of your essay over the course of several months.

Help your guide help you write your college essay by setting up meetings and deadlines for drafts and feedback. This signals to them- and you- that you are invested in and serious about this and want them to be serious about it too. Clear expectations and deadlines also hold everyone accountable, which can make all the difference. A former student of mine at Emory, Olivia Murray, taught me the importance of guiding your guide when she was applying to graduate school from Emory University. She sent me her essay early and set up several meetings with me. I read and commented on several drafts of an essay that became so tight and compelling by the end that she had her choice of top doctoral programs. A strong writer, Olivia could have churned out an acceptable essay in a couple of hours. Instead, she began early and guided me to help her produce a stunning essay that did the trick in terms of getting her into the school of her choice.

Once you have a guide you can then assemble your rope team- in this case, others writing their college essay. Writing can be a very daunting process, and I have always benefitted from having a writing group to keep me motivated and moving. Writing by myself is like attempting a solo ascent of a mountain– it is easier to get sidetracked, lost or to just give up when the going gets tough. Assemble a small team- three has always worked for me- and set meetings times and deadlines. Read each other’s work and cheer each other on.

When reading other’s work, keep in mind that your goal is not to find mistakes but rather to help them find their voice. Having been on the receiving end of feedback that felt more like an attack, I cannot stress the importance of starting with the strengths of the essay and then moving to suggest what might make it stronger. Writing takes courage, and your feedback should help the writer imagine a way forward. Be honest, but don’t be harsh. Personal essays are just that- personal – so remember this when you are raring to rip someone’s essay apart. Frame your advice humbly, in the form of suggestions or even questions. Let the writer make the final call. Do as much of this as possible face-to- face so you can see their reaction as you offer feedback. The last thing you want to do is paralyze them, so keep an eye on their face to ensure that they are taking your criticism constructively rather than destructively.

Another thing to keep in mind is to leave the line editing- spelling and punctuation- for the last draft. Focus on the story and ideas first, and clean up  the prose later. Focusing too early on spelling and punctuation can lead to flat, yet error-free, essays.

3. Scout the Mountain

The college essay is a strange and particular form of writing, so understanding what it is- and is not- will enable you and your team to chart a course towards  the summit. There are mountains of books, articles, and blogs on the anatomy of a strong college essay and a quick search will turn up tons of resources. Poke around on the web, and find a few sources that seem particularly helpful. I have found college sites like this one at Johns Hopkins explaining why certain essays worked particularly helpful for students because they offer actual examples of successful essays and concise tips for writing a strong essay. If you are writing an essay for the Common Application, be sure to find examples and have a clear sense of the length of the essay. Have each member of your writing group identify a strong essay and dissect it to see how sentences and paragraphs make it work. What is the author doing with each sentence? What is the point of a particular paragraph in terms of what it says about the writer as a potential student? I like the Johns Hopkins page because admissions officers comment on what they liked about particular essays. As you will notice as you read the admissions officer’s comments, they do more than read the essays; they read into the essays to get a sense of you.

4. Scout Yourself

The best college essays are compelling, unique and genuine. You are too, but capturing you in three pages can be daunting. I have witnessed very strong  writers retreat to rather formulaic college essays that do not do any justice to them as writers or as people. Trying to look brilliant, original or smart, they resort to dragging out big words and laying down long, convoluted sentences. What oftentimes goes missing in these showy essays is precisely what makes the writer interesting- and memorable. Your transcript will give admissions officers a good sense of your head, so use your essay to show them your heart. Figure out what one event or experience can best give them a sense of who you are as a living, breathing person. Colleges are increasingly interested in admitting whole and real people rather than brains, so use your essay to  show them that you are indeed much more than a GPA.

Many students tend to overlook the most compelling or unique aspects of their lives and instead write what they think an admission officer wants to hear. Worried that their lives are not unique or interesting enough, they tend to play it safe and write flat, formulaic essays that are as tedious to read. Search inside of yourself for the story, passion or perspective that a complete stranger just has to know to grasp the essence of you. You will know you have found it when you feel great energy behind it…and that committing it to paper makes you feel a bit vulnerable. If writing about it feels a bit risky, then you are most likely on the right track. At the same time, don’t wade into political, religious or moral waters that might put off a reader who has different beliefs.

5. Write Your Embarrassing Emergency Essay

One of the biggest obstacles to finishing a college essay is…finishing a college essay. As silly and circular as this sounds, I have found in my own writing that  completing a draft of an article, essay or even book brings a huge sense of relief. The pressure off, my mind relaxes and is able to refocus on the task at hand. As a writer, I have found that pressure can be a double-edged sword. While in some situations it can bring out the best in me, it can also cause me to leave the best out of my writing.

Worried more about whether or not I will meet a deadline, I seem to forget to write what is most unique and compelling. Finishing a draft frees me to focus on process rather than the product.

So with this in mind, I often recommend that students write an embarrassing, emergency first draft in one sitting. Most students are used to working under  pressure and having timed writing assignments, so I task them with churning out a personal essay in two hours. Sometimes I even let them sit in my office and write it, as the added structure helps them to not chicken out. I have them turn off spelling and grammar check so as to not have anything that will slow them down in terms of producing a draft. I also have them turn off their phones. I ask them to work and write forward, by which I mean not going back to delete or revise their work until they have completed the entire draft.

Some students prefer to use paper to prevent them from the easy deleting that computers make possible. The point is to write fast and with feeling, and not worry about the words behind you. Trust the process, and keep putting one word after another until you are done. It is not easy, but finishing a draft brings with it a huge sense of accomplishment and relief.

Before writing their emergency essay, I ask students to have given some thought about what they want to lead with in terms of the narrative, as well as having a good sense of what makes for a strong essay. Don’t worry about word count, because the point is not to produce the essay that will get you into college but rather an essay that will have the seeds of a strong essay in it and take enough pressure off so one can write it.

Following these five tips should set you up to craft a compelling college essay. While there is no precise formula for a strong college essay, there is a formula for putting yourself in the position to write one. Giving yourself adequate time, assembling a team, scouting the essay and yourself and doing a practice run will increase your chances of successfully summiting Mount College Essay. I wish you good luck in your ascent. Keep in mind, though, that much like in mountaineering the point is to put in the work beforehand to minimize your reliance on luck.

Take Your Transcript To Lunch

Take your transcript to lunch

Take Your Transcript to Lunch

Before sending your high school transcript out to a college or university do yourself a favor and take it out to lunch.  It could make all the difference in terms of your getting in to the school of your choice.  Why?  Because far too many times applicants send their high school transcripts to colleges without ever sitting down and getting to know them.  They make the mistake of thinking that since they know what the transcript says in terms of grades and classes that they know what the transcript says about them.  The latter is what colleges will be after when they review your transcript, so figuring out what your transcript says about you will help you to craft an application that raises your chances of getting in rather than red flags about you.  Here are several tips for learning what your transcript says about you.

Tip #1: Get your Transcript

Full disclosure. When I applied to college- and graduate school for that matter- I sent my transcripts to schools without  looking at them.  I considered my transcripts a done deal, the part of the application that I could not change so not worth reviewing.  I knew what the transcripts said because, after all, they listed my classes and my grades. What I didn’t know is what my transcript said about me to universities.  Besides, I could not have looked over my transcript because I could not put my hands on a copy of it.  So my transcript ended up going from one school to another without me ever looking at it.  While I cannot be certain, I believe my applications suffered from this oversight.  Having been on the other side of the equation as a professor on an admissions team, I have looked over applications scratching my head about the disconnect between what applicants say about themselves and their academic aspirations and what their transcript says about them.  The first step in preventing this disconnect is obtaining a copy of your transcript.  Print it out and take it to lunch.

Tip #2:  Forget Your Transcript

On your way to lunch with your transcript imagine that you are in the movie Men in Black.  Picture Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith putting on their dark sunglasses and holding up that little device that then flashes your mind blank, causing you to forget that the paper in the seat next to you is your transcript.  Sit down for lunch with the goal of learning as much as you can from the transcript about the person behind it.  The better you can pretend that your transcript is someone else’s, the better you will be able to see what it says about you to a college.

Tip 3#: Ask Good Questions          

Keep in mind that colleges use your transcript to infer things about you.   Since you are not sitting there in front of them, they look to the transcript to get an idea about you as a person and student.   Asking the following questions of your transcript will help you to get a sense of what your transcript says about you.

  1.  Does your transcript point up or down? 

Transcripts often have trajectories in terms of student performance, and colleges prefer ones that point up rather than down.  An overall upward trend in grades tells colleges that you have, over time, become more serious your studies and learned how to work harder. Colleges extrapolate from your transcript, and prefer students who to appear to be on the way up rather than down.  Take a close look at your grades over your high school career to see if there is a trend.  If it is not readily apparent, make a little graph with GPA on the Y-axis and year of school on the X-axis and plot your performance over your four years.  If there is an upward trend, great, as this should raise your chances of getting accepted.  If the line slopes downward- let’s say that overall you did worse as a senior than as a sophomore- this might raise a red flag to colleges that might need to address elsewhere in your application.

2.  Does your transcript have any peaks or valleys?

Run your eyes across the following grades.  A, A, A-, B+, A, F, B, A.  Which one catches your attention?  The “F” does because it is an exception and outlier to an otherwise strong and even transcript.  Peaks and valleys in your transcript can work for or against you, so knowing if there are any in your transcript can help you address them elsewhere in your application.   For example, if you earned  an “A” in Honors Calculus when no other math grade on the transcript is above a B- and you are applying to be a math major, you might want argue why this is a better indicator of your mathematical potential than your other grades.  Find the peaks and valleys in your transcript by running your eyes down the grades for any outliers.  If any catchy your eye, consider finding a way in your application to control the story they could tell about you.

3.  What is the degree of difficulty in your transcript?

Much like in gymnastics or diving, the overall significance of your grades or grade point average depends in large part on the difficulty of your course of study.  In other words, an “A” in basic math does not count the same as say, an “A” in Calculus 9, if there is such a thing.  Colleges look to see if you took tough classes, and weigh your performance accordingly.  Here again, you can look for a trend in terms of the degree of difficulty.  For example, if you took more challenging classes over the course of your high school career you might note this in your essay to answer potential concerns about a slightly downward overall trajectory in terms of your performance.  While many high schools weight classes in terms of calculating your overall GPA, you should be aware of whether your transcript might say about whether  you challenged yourself over the course of your high school career.  The last thing you want is to write an essay about  being willing to challenge yourself as a learner and have a transcript heavy on cupcake classes.

4.  Where does the transcript lean?

I look at transcripts to try to gain a sense of two things about students- what compels them and what they excel in.  I look to see if the transcript is heavy in any subject area, like math,  languages, or art.   In my case, my high school transcript leaned heavily towards science in terms of quantity of courses, degree of difficulty and performance (except for chemistry, but that is a long story).  It leaned away from languages, which I am still kicking myself for every time I travel to Mexico with my Taco Bell Spanish.  It is not hard to look at any of my transcripts and figure out what subjects I liked and excelled in as well as what subjects I avoided and struggled in.  To be clear, what subjects you like and what subjects you are good in do not have to be the same thing, but keep in mind that applying to an engineering program with a transcript that says you struggled in the most basic math raises the question of whether you will able to hack the math it takes to become an engineer.  In other words, if your transcript leans one way and your college aspirations lean another you might want to find a place in your application to explain why.

           Putting these questions to the transcript across from you at lunch will give you a good sense of what colleges might make of it- and you.  Keep in mind that while you cannot change what your transcript says,  knowing what it says to colleges about you can help you to craft an application that answers any questions or concerns raised by your transcript, thereby raising your chances of getting in.   So get up the guts to ask your transcript out to lunch.  I am willing to bet that it will gladly accept your invitation and that doing so will increase your chances of getting accepted to the college of your choice.  And stay tuned, because after taking transcripts to lunch we will be asking our admissions essay out to dinner.