Essay Lab: Day Two Prompts

Yesterday, we kicked off our series on essay writing with prompts from best-selling writers Firoozeh Dumas and Ellen Sussman. If you're just joining us, we'll be posting a couple of prompts each day for students who may be in the throes of writer's block or have fallen prey to procrastination.

To recap, one of the ways to get “unstuck” and develop some good material 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.

Can writing exercises like this help you? They very well might. Some of them even have the potential to work for the open-ended "Topic of your choice" essay.  Give them a try.

Today's prompts -- and some excellent advice:

Irena Smith, writing teacher and independent college consultant

How Do College Students Learn?

One of the most important things to evaluate about prospective schools is their academic life. After all, you will be spending a lot of time in the classrooms of the college where you eventually enroll. There are lots of ways to do this: you can investigate majors, sit in on classes, check out the faculty on, and even arrange meetings with teachers while you're visiting campus.  Another research tool for applicants is the National Survey on Student Engagement, a survey of students at hundreds of colleges that examines their participation in the classroom and academic life -- including how many hours a week they study, whether or not they participate in internships, and even how many books a year they read and whether they contribute to classroom discussions.  The results are provided to the participating colleges, which may or may not publish them. But check and see if the colleges to which you're applying make their results available.

Media Madness

A recent Opinion piece in the New York Times titled Athletes Are The Problem, begins:  "Like it or not, 40 percent of the class at most top colleges are reserved for "hooked" kids…"

This is the kind of media madness that students and parents find so discouraging. For example, we question much of the data in the piece. Regardless, the implicit message is that if you want your student to have a competitive advantage with athletes -- legacies, minorities, fill-in-the-blank -- then you had better find your own ace in the hole and hire a private counselor.  But applying to college is not about gaming the system.

Instead, let's focus the public conversation where it can be most helpful -- on the best way for students to move through the process in a healthy and productive way.  One way to start? Ignore the hysterical headlines.

Paying for College

Mark Kantrowitz, founder of, is answering reader questions about student and parent loans and scholarships at the New York Times' Choice blog. Kantrowitz will be blogging all week on many aspects of paying for college, including Stafford and PLUS loans, custodial accounts, the impact of trusts on financial aid, and more.

Things We Like

This Goodreads quote of the day from Shel Silverstein: "Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” In the midst of all the do's and don'ts of the application process, remember to get excited about this next step in your life. Because the possibilities -- academically, socially, intellectually -- are endless.

Happy Veterans Day!

Happy Veterans Day! "How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!" -Maya Angelou. Hat tip: Matchbook Magazine.

And coming soon to our website: An update to our book on Applying to the Military Academies.

"Work Your Butts Off": College Advice from Michelle Obama

You won't find any politics in First Lady Michelle Obama's visit to a "college immersion day" at Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University, where she shared this terrific advice on the college application process. We couldn't have said it better ourselves. Thanks to Jenna Johnson's Campus Overload.

Things We Like

Speak Up—Project Tomorrow’s annual survey of educators, parents, and kids—asked K-12 students to create their ideal mobile apps for learning. Here are 5 of the 15 winners -- chosen from more than 200,000 entries. Our favorites? The Real Thing and Just Learn It. We'd buy those apps! Hat tip: Menlo-Atherton High School Parent Education Series

Rhonda Cratty at reviews College Admission! "I have found the book I wished I had when my sons were in High School. College Admission From Application To Acceptance, Step By Step..." See the full review on our Media page, as well.

Weekend Reading

Don't miss this terrific guest post on the Washington Post's College Inc. blog from David E. Drew, chair of the School of Educational Studies at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA. Yeah, yeah, it's yet another discourse on the value of a college education -- but this take on the subject goes long and wide, looking at the lionizing of dropouts, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors, and student debt.  And while we're on the subject of STEM majors, in this article from the NY Times Economix blog, Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, posits that what you study is as important as whether you go to college.