Meredith Reynolds - Head Start College Blog

Archive for September, 2008

Personal Statement: Be Personal
September 26th, 2008

The dreaded essay…articles such as the one below are precisely why it is so “dreaded”. How many kids have sat on a step in Bhimanagar with a cut forehead…or have beaten cancer…I promise you, that students do get into Stanford (and the other 2,999 colleges and universities) even if they haven’t found 3500 year old artifacts.
MOST IMPORTANT is to share that moment in time or book or activity or class that lets the college or university know and understand who you are deep down, and from that determine if you’re a good match for their school community.  Help the colleges get you to the right place…it is a Personal Statement…be as personal as you can.
 The Stanford Magazine.
Let me introduce myself
First lines from the application essays of Stanford’s newest class.

CAPTION OPENING: Caption goes here

Photographer’s Credit

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a high school student in possession of a good résumé must still be in want of a personal essay. In the best of times and the worst of times, first impressions matter. Any student who hopes to be the hero of his own life will strive to write a great opening line.

Picture the dark and stormy nights and the rosy-fingered dawns during which college applicants for the Class of ’12 took pen in hand. What would work best—a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream? A screaming comes across the sky as lines are written, then abandoned. The rewriting and editing seems to last till the clocks strike thirteen.

But at last their personal statements for the Common App are crafted. The undergraduate admissions staff, while evaluating students on their total merit, take notice of the first lines that make essay-reading a particular pleasure. We asked them to share some of their favorite openers from those students who, starting in September, can write, Call me Cardinal.

Unlike many mathematicians, I live in an irrational world; I feel that my life is defined by a certain amount of irrationalities that bloom too frequently, such as my brief foray in front of 400 people without my pants.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Bhimanagar slum dwelling in Bangalore, I ran my fingers across a fresh cut on my forehead.

I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001.

When I was 8 years old, I shocked my family and a local archaeologist by discovering artifacts dating back almost 3,500 years.

When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.

While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?

The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.

I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.

Cancer tried to defeat me, and it failed.

I stand on the riverbank surveying this rippled range like some riparian cowboy—instead of chaps, I wear vinyl, thigh-high waders and a lasso of measuring tape and twine is slung over my arm.

I have old hands.

Flying over enemy territory, I took in Beirut’s beautiful skyline and wondered if under different circumstances I would have hopped on a bus and come here for my vacation. Instead, I saw the city from the window of a helicopter, in military uniform, my face camouflaged, on my way to a special operation deep behind enemy lines.

My younger sister, Jessica, arrived home one day reeling about the shirt that her friend had worn to school. It had simply read, “Genocide, Homicide, Suicide, Riverside.”

I’ll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality. Sword in hand and clad in medieval samurai armor, I dragged myself into the battleground as I faced my opponent, a warmongering giant.

Good Grief! You never would have guessed that an unassuming meek lovable loser like Charlie Brown would have an influence on anyone; but indeed he has.

Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.

I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first time thoughts of death ever crossed my mind.

As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.

Journey to Gulu’s outskirts and you will uncover the scene where education was raped 11 years ago; some Ugandan teens also lost their innocence in exchange for their lives.

I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.

On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.

I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.

Wall Street Journal– College Applicant, Beware:Your Facebook Page is Showing
September 18th, 2008

High-school seniors already fretting about grades and test scores now have another worry: Will their Facebook or MySpace pages count against them in college admissions?

A new survey of 500 top colleges found that 10% of admissions officers acknowledged looking at social-networking sites to evaluate applicants. Of those colleges making use of the online information, 38% said that what they saw “negatively affected” their views of the applicant. Only a quarter of the schools checking the sites said their views were improved, according to the survey by education company Kaplan, a unit of Washington Post Co.

Some admissions officers said they had rejected students because of material on the sites. Jeff Olson, who heads research for Kaplan’s test-preparation division, says one university did so after the student gushed about the school while visiting the campus, then trashed it online. Kaplan promised anonymity to the colleges, of which 320 responded. The company surveyed schools with the most selective admissions.

Admissions officers have acknowledged looking at social-networking sites like Facebook to evaluate applicants.

The vast majority of the colleges surveyed had no policy about when it was appropriate for school officials to look at prospective students’ social-networking sites. “We’re in the early stage of a new technology,” Mr. Olson says. “It’s the Wild, Wild West. There are no clear boundaries or limits.”

The lack of rules is already provoking debate among admissions officers. Some maintain that applicants’ online data are public information that schools should vet to help protect the integrity of the institutions. Others say they are uncomfortable flipping through teenage Facebook pages.

Colleges’ recent interest in social-networking sites is leading many aspiring students to take a hard look at their online habits and in some cases to remove or change postings. With a high-school graduating class nationwide of 3.3 million students, colleges are expected to be sifting through a record number of applications this year.


But Kaplan and many high-school guidance counselors say students often don’t restrict public access on social-networking sites and, in any case, damaging information can find a way to leak out. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a professional organization, says schools don’t have time to scour the Internet systematically to check out thousands of applicants. But he says admissions officers at times receive anonymous tips, which may be from rival applicants, about embarrassing Facebook or MySpace material, such as a picture of a student drunk at an underage party.


Well I was surprised that 10% of highly competitive colleges admitted they took time to look at Facebook. (I guess I wish more used their time offering interviews and rereading essays.) Given that data and the debate concerning privacy, I am guessing that colleges in addition to the honest 10% look but didn’t want to admit it. Particularly, troubling to me was the suggestion in the article that fellow students (or parents) might suggest to an admissions office to check out student X’s Facebook. Hard to believe, but remember cheerleading stories in Texas?

SO WHAT TO DO? Seniors clean up your Facebook pages. Turn them into just another peice of your application…in case we lose touch do the same in college when you apply for internships or jobs…to use a very non-techy phrase. “Better Safe than Sorry”.

DREADED “Personal Essay”: No More Fitting In, Be Unique!
September 17th, 2008

[Annually,   I attend this UC sponsored conference, I gain not only information as to changes in the application process and trends in admission acceptances, but also new perspectives on the UC application and the California higher education system in general. Over the next few days I will be reviewing my notes and sending topical summaries.]


DREADED “Personal Statement” As Explained by UC Admissions[1]…when our goal was Fitting In…now we need to be Unique!



             To follow are some insights I gained regarding the DREADED   “Personal Statement”.


Parent:            “What IS the Personal Statement…IS it the college essay?”

Meredith:        “It’s their (UC) name for college essay.” (before today)


Today’s speaker finally gave REAL meaning to the term “Personal Statement”…it’s called that because it isn’t just a college essay often written in English class for a grade…

But INSTEAD…they want it to be PERSONAL above all else…even more important than perfect spelling and grammar! (but WE will have perfect grammar and spelling)


High school seniors have spent the past 4-6 years trying to “FIT IN ”.  Understandably, they find it very uncomfortable to write an essay that focuses on them as an individual, how they are unique…most have never given that a thought!


Recognizing the challenge ahead the presenter offered a “metaphor” for approaching the problem.  The college essay is a “sales opportunity”.  Student is the product and the salesman. College/University is the buyer.

 “Why should the college choose you?”



 Important in this metaphor:


1. Knowledge of product/student: (student has spent time collecting and reflecting on their high school years: step one—what he/she did, step two—why and how they did that.)


2. Knowledge of buyer/ university: (mission/values of college, data on students accepted, AND prompt…that’s what they want answered…answer it)



Moving to PROCESS I will list helpful suggestions in no particular order:


1. “Self promotion and Introspection”


2.  “You are the star. Anyone/thing in essay is there to make you look good. If anyone or thing is stealing the show write them out of the script.”


3.  Personal Statement Writing Step by Step:

            a. Gather Information: activities, hobbies (resume, brag sheet etc)

            b. Critically review and discuss whys and hows  of  “a”

            c. Develop topic / thesis

            d. Draft / feedback / redraft


4. Clear and direct prose / not overblown: style more like news article than English essay.


5.  Essay progression: Facts / Interpretation / Meaning & Significance…BINGO!


6.  Don’t be concerned with word limits in the beginning. Write freely and within that work you may find the beginnings of an essay.


Hope this summary gives you some added insight into the DREADED  “Personal Statement”. …so let’s go out there and strive to be unique!




[1] UC Counselor Conference 2008:”The Personal Statement: Strategies for Supporting Freshman Applicants”; UCLA; September 17, 2008

Perhaps most important for the entire family, the Head Start College program paces students to complete their applications by Thanksgiving.


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