Tag Archives: Mod Squad Julie

Essays, smack-talking siblings and a big college deadline

We are parents of a high school senior and we are in the midst of college application season.

Our oldest child worked his way through applications two years ago, acquainting us with the rhythms of deadlines and the components of transcripts, tests, essays, and recommendations.

Yet, even within one household, each student’s specific experience—in college prep coursework, activities, and his or her approach to the application itself—makes this process as singular as the student.

My husband describes the application process as complex project management. The student bears the responsibility for the content of the application; we can teach project management and help make sure not a single element of the project gets missed.

Our current senior, Mod Squad Julie, is already a skilled project manager who needs little more from us than an occasional schedule check. I may be able to help with some details, but Julie has an extraordinarily good handle on reality, what she wants to do, and what it takes to get there. Near the top of her task list now:  completing drafts of essays.

Seeing the student for who she is. Here’s where we think we can help Julie—and it’s not writing essays for her. There are two points to college essays:

  1. To see if the student can actually write at the level required by the college; and
  2. To help the college gain the best understanding they can of what each student is like.

Admissions officers will see so many similar numbers—on GPAs, SATs, SAT subject tests, APs. Well-crafted recommendations, extracurriculars, and interviews can help provide a more complete perspective of the student. Essays, though, are the student’s primary opportunity to include his or her own voice in the application package, and that “voice”—which can encompass writing style, turns of phrase, vocabulary, and philosophy, as well as choice of topic—can (and should) be as unique as the student.

Those essays can be tough to write well. Besides trying to show who they are without telling, many high school seniors mature rapidly through the year and are still trying to figure out who they are for themselves. It’s also tough on parents:  we want the best chances for our children, so there’s a strong temptation to push to make sure the essays put them in the best possible light. Yet putting every student in the best possible light defeats the purpose.

We are trying to help Julie see the young woman we see. We’re not about to tell her what to write, but we can describe to her the seventeen-year-old we know. We can remind her of how the present Julie connects to who she has been all of her life. Sometimes these conversations strike a chord; it’s very cool when her eyes light up as she thinks of a way she could write about herself that is true, genuine, and important to her self-identity. Even when our long-ranging talks don’t lead to inspiration for an essay, they provide us with something we absolutely cherish:  time with our daughter.

Missing the girl already. Here’s the biggest thing about having gone through this before. During our son’s senior year we anticipated his leaving with a parental mixture of trepidation (for us) and joy (for him). His excitement helped overcome our dismay… until he left and we missed him dreadfully. It doesn’t matter much that he lives seven miles away and we can see him often. We miss the impromptu piano recitals, the booming music heard through the walls when the car pulls into the garage, the gallons of milk that disappear, and the crazy smack-talk among three teen siblings.

College move in day

August 2012, helping the first one move to college.

We know now in a way we didn’t before—it’s seared into our hearts—that Julie will leave. We won’t have her presence in our daily lives: Julie’s insistence on “real meals” and a wide variety of fresh fruits, her sprawled out books and notes in at least four rooms of the house, her dry humor catching us unawares, girlfriend-movie-nights, basketball games, quick flashes of an almost-grown young woman. She will keep in touch, but she won’t be here.

Our relative composure about how Julie handles deadlines disappears when we think about the one with the biggest impact: eleven months from now she’ll go to college.

We accept that it’s our job to help her leave. We just will not pretend to like it.

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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Filed under Getting In, High School

First day of senior year: she looks forward. Me, not just yet.

Our school begins today. Writing this the night before, I feel confident predicting that we will be rushed, packing lunches, eating breakfast (or carrying it to the car), feeding the dog and bird, gathering school supplies, pausing for a quick photo, and dashing out the door.

And since we’ve been to this rodeo before, I feel confident predicting that’s the way Mod Squad Julie’s senior year will go, too:  dashing from Back-to-School night to Spirit Week, submitting early applications, basketball practices and games, submitting regular applications, midterms, receiving college decisions, making her own decision, AP exam weeks, and graduation. Just like that.

first day of school

The Mod Squad’s first day of school, a few years ago.

This is when I stop dashing for a moment to look backwards…

Back to a full year during preschool when Julie proudly added an “h” to her [real] name, because she liked the letter so much.

Back to watching Julie and her fast-speaking, ever-smiling girlfriends ice skate in French immersion elementary school.

Back to an infamous middle school science project, when she ran out of things to say about Mme. Curie, so she transformed it into an art project spelling out radium in a variety of languages.

Back to her first days in a high school of 1100 students after an eighth grade class of fifteen, when she wondered how M.S. Pete (a junior then) knew so many people.

Back to now, when she’s excited about senior year and looking ahead to next year when, as Michael Gerson puts it, her life will be “starting for real.”

We’ve watched Julie mature from a quiet freshman to a strong, confident young woman. She scheduled her senior year so it serves as both a capstone to high school and a half step toward college. She’ll have a heavy course load, yet more free time than ever, excellent training for a college schedule next year.

For now, though, as we head into this first day, I wish her a great, safe, fun senior year. I hope we can all appreciate every moment of it.

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3 Quick Tips for Completing the Common App (including this most important one: take it slowly).

Oct. 20 UPDATE:  The 2013-14 Common App has proven to be buggy and unpredictable. See Got Common App problems? Here’s what we’re trying.

Spring training is over. On August 1st, opening day for the 2013 application season, the new Common App went live.

Opening Day, Fenway Park

Opening Day at our favorite baseball park.

I agree with the independent college counselors who advise early submission: “Apply well before the deadline when everyone is still fresh, eager, and focused.”

However, there’s no need to rush (yet) and many arguments against it. Here’s what UVa’s admission blogger (aka UVaDeanJ), wrote last year when the App went live:

It’s too early to submit an application.
Every year, there’s some eager student who submits their application soon after the Common App launch. While I think it’s fine to poke around the Common App website and fill out the forms, I don’t think you should submit anything right now.
Fill out the forms. If you’re one of those students who worked on essays over the summer, that’s great. Put those essays away for a few weeks and look at them with fresh eyes just a little bit closer to the deadline. You may find that a little distance will help with the editing process.

The promised tips:

1.  Do your homework before you begin.

Update and complete your resume first. Take some time to update and organize your scholastic, extracurricular, and work details into a document on your own computer. You can work in a format that’s familiar to you (Word, Google doc or Pages), help ensure you don’t forget aspects you’d like to include, and build a worksheet of data for the Common App interface. Plus, you may want to upload the resume as part of the application. [N.B. You can only attach a resume if a specific school asks for it.]

2.  Start now and take your time.

Create an account, complete some easy stuff in the Profile section (personal information, address, contact details, etc.), sign out, and walk away. There. You’ve begun. Later today or tomorrow tackle a few more sections. Moving around between different sections will make the interface more familiar–and somewhat easier–each time you work on the app. [N.B. While I prefer printing out the blank form and working through a draft on paper, you can’t do that with the Common App; you can only print a pdf preview of the completed app right before submission.]

3.  Find help before you get too frustrated.

The far right column shows help topics related to each section you have open. Bookmark the Application Help Center; its “Knowledgebase” section provides an index of topics, including what the green check marks mean:

Common App help

Who knew?

If you use Twitter, follow @CommonApp. Like the Common App Facebook page. The application process offers endless opportunities for confusion and frustration, most of which are amplified the closer we get to deadlines. The Common App tries to help by providing these resources. Explore them.

Now, just a minute:  Before anyone thinks we’ve totally got it figured out here at StrangeCollege command center (aka my desk), let me clear up that confusion as well. Yesterday I urged Mod Squad Julie to create a Common App account (not yet done), print out a blank form (can’t be done), update her resume (in the works), enter some basic profile info (not yet done), and save the app for future updates (cannot be done; the interface automatically saves if you use it correctly).

Clearly, there is work to be done. Yet it’s hard for me to tease Julie about it, since she’s a mile or so ahead of where M.S. Pete was at this stage of the game two years ago. As he put it the other day, “I’m retroactively jealous of how far along you already are.”

Good luck working your way through the App!

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Filed under Getting In

No more “Topic of Choice” in Common App essay prompts

Mod Squad Mia, glad she doesn't have to write essays.

Mod Squad Mia, glad she doesn’t have to write essays.

The Common App Board updated their essay questions for the 2013 application season and–in the most significant change–removed the wild card, “topic of your choice.”

Your choice must be one of the following:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • 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 place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family?

The other significant change for this year’s applicants: essays must be within 250 to 650 words. No less, no more. For any newbies, previous prompts suggested a length of 500 words, but since the process involved uploading Word documents, the application accepted any length. Application readers may have been perturbed by over-long essays, but that’s another matter.

The announcement from the Common App folks suggests that this year, rather than uploading a document, an applicant will paste the essay text into a word-count-restricting interface.

When writing about deadlines recently, I corresponded with a number of independent college counselors. Almost all of them strongly recommended that seniors complete their essays before school starts.

That gives Mod Squad Julie and her classmates about four more weeks.

Last I checked, Julie had drafts in-progress for most of the supplementary essays, but not for the main Common App prompt. She wasn’t wild about any of the options, so she checked to see which one M.S. Pete chose a couple of years ago… Of course:  topic of your choice.

Essay-writing resources up next. Which prompt would you choose?

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Filed under Getting In

Three big reasons to visit colleges during Private College Week

The Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia offers three very compelling reasons to visit participating colleges next week:  three application fee waivers.


“Washington College at Lexington,” by Henry Howe. NYPL Digital Collection.

July 29th – August 2nd has been named Virginia Private College Week by the Council, and they offer a pretty sweet deal: Visit any three of the twenty-four participating colleges during the week and you will receive three application fee waivers for any three Virginia private colleges of your choice.

What’s in it for you:  Potential savings of $150 or so + more information from colleges that interest you. Nothing beats a college visit for getting a feel for the school.

What’s in it for them:  Colleges really want you to visit their campuses. You will hear their best pitch. You might accept their story on how and why their school is the best for you. You might decide that private colleges compare favorably to public universities. You might fall in love with their school. You might apply and, by boosting application numbers, help drive selectivity ratings, which help increase US News & World Report ratings.*

Here’s the list of participating colleges and universities:

  • Averett University
  • Bluefield College
  • Bridgewater College
  • Eastern Mennonite University
  • Emory & Henry College
  • Ferrum College
  • Hampden-Sydney College
  • Hampton University
  • Hollins University
  • Jefferson College of Health Sciences
  • Liberty University
  • Lynchburg College
  • Mary Baldwin College
  • Marymount University
  • Randolph College
  • Randolph-Macon College
  • Roanoke College
  • Shenandoah University
  • Sweet Briar College
  • University of Richmond
  • Virginia Intermont College
  • Virginia Union University
  • Virginia Wesleyan College
  • Washington and Lee University

Learn more at Virginia Private College Week. They provide profiles of each of the member colleges and specific information about scheduled information sessions.

This is simply a public service announcement. Do any other states offer something like this?

I wish we could take advantage of it, but Mod Squad Julie is finishing up an internship and the rest of us are trying to get our work (and play and summer reading assignments) done to head out of town for a family reunion. And maybe write a post about college essays if there’s time…

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This just in: summer vacation!

Yesterday was the final day of school for the local school district, but the summer break launched in stages for our household.

Mod Squad Pete’s first year of college ended May 10th. He came home for a night, then headed off to South Carolina for Beach Week with friends from school.

South Carolina

South Carolina

M.S. Linc graduated from middle school at the end of May. Four days later he traveled solo to visit family in the Midwest.

The farm

The farm

M.S. Julie completed her junior year on June 6th and left for the North Carolina beaches the following day.

North Carolina

North Carolina

All that to say:  happy summer! Turn up the volume! (We’ll deal with reading requirements, internships, camps, and application essays soon enough. Next week, right, Julie?)

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No more Middle School, and a new High School, for the Mod Squad.


It’s not just the graduation that’s a blur. What the heck happened to the last fourteen years?

Last night Linc, the youngest member of our Mod Squad, graduated from 8th grade. Like his older siblings at the same age, he is more than ready to move on to high school.

While our oldest child, M.S. Pete, continues to push us into new realms of parenting (Hello, college — whoa, where did that first year go!), the third child closes doors on familiar territories.

Walking down the aisle, moving the tassle from one side of his cap to the other, Linc ushered us out of middle school. He will also usher us into a new high school experience, since Linc will attend a STEM-related academy in the fall. The Math, Engineering, and Science Academy is hosted by a high school in our division, just not the same HS Pete attended and Julie will be a senior at this August. Ahem. In June.

In preparation for an academic schedule we anticipate will be demanding, Linc will take a couple of courses this summer — PE via summer school and Health via an online course — and open up time in his schedule for study hall.

For now, though, we’ll celebrate rather than anticipate.

Congratulations, Linc!

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