August 26, 2008

Does Your Senior Year Really Count?

Welcome to your senior year. It’s an exciting time full of change and celebration. Many people may have told you how unimportant your senior year is. For example, they maybe told you that your grades don’t matter one iota, (although they usually stress, ironically so, that you should do better in the first semester than the second). Or, maybe, they told you that colleges will not look at your grades from senior year because they already have accepted you based on your 9th-11th years. Well, my young, goal-oriented high schooler, THESE ARE LIES. Your senior year counts. Not only does your senior year count towards your high school graduation, it counts towards the trend that you have worked so hard to set over the past three years and that you promised you would continue to achieve when you applied to college.

But, fret not. The senior year, although it does count as a significant factor in the college admission decision- as far as the strength of your curriculum, your GPA and your class rank are concerned- it is not unlike any of the other years that you have entered. My advice is the same for seniors as it is for freshmen: it’s better to get an A in a regular-level course than a C in an AP course; it’s better to challenge yourself with courses that reflect your intellectual interests than courses that you feel pressured to take (i.e. if you really want to take anatomy-physiology instead of physics, go for it!).

The senior year is about you getting comfortable with directing your own academic pursuits. Don’t do what your guidance counselor tells you to do if her/his reason is “you HAVE to take this class for college”. Instead, take a constructive balance of courses that shows you are academically serious but also intellectually curious. If you have taken AP courses in the past, take an AP course or two. You may also consider taking a more creative course or pursuing an internship. Whatever you do, don’t fill your schedule with courses like “study hall”, “teacher’s assistant” and/or “typing”. These are courses that just demonstrate laziness and a lack of curiosity.

The worst thing that you can convey to colleges is that you are not taking your senior year seriously. Remember, at most schools, your senior year WILL count as 25% of your academic history. At some, it will count as even more (33%), as many universities do not calculate your 9th grade year as a part of your overall academic GPA and history. In other words, continue to work as hard as you always have, in classes that similarly challenge you.

August 20, 2008

A Winning College Essay

Granted, most high school seniors find the most difficult part of their senior year to be brainstorming the ideas for their college admission essays and then, once they’ve got their topic chosen, writing it in the preferred amount of words. Before I go any further, let me say here what I know to be true, the application essay(s) are the most important component of the applications. The point is not to be well-organized with the transition sentences and the specific number of supporting arguments. The point is to be creative and execute whatever you undertake to write (a poem, song, short story, typical essay, etc. . .) with style and verve. Take a risk. Challenge yourself.

That’s the point of pursuing a college education, right? It’s one big risk. You have to move away from home, live with a complete stranger, eat in the same place all the time, get yourself to 8am class, live on hardly any money, choose for yourself what you want to get involved in and be happy about it all—and when you’re not coping with the pressures of this transition, recognize it yourself and seek out your own help. See, college is all about testing YOUR limits. May as well start testing yourself during the application process.

Believe me, I understand how difficult it is to sit down and write about a specific topic, especially when the topic is personal. Writing about oneself is THE most difficult. The only people who seem to be really effective at this are politicians and I don’t know if any of them truly write their own books anyway. Then again, they have lots of practice talking about themselves. The everyday layman, however, does not. This doesn’t mean you don’t have some really interesting or tragic experiences to write about. And, if you can’t think of any- no worries. I always tell my students, the topic doesn’t have to be brilliant. You could write 1,000 words about staring at a fish in a bowl. Just so long as you make it fascinating. You see, the essay is a different type of exam. Though it is by no means standardized, the admission essay does test your ability to say something important about yourself (your terms) but in a regulated number of words (their terms). It’s sort of like your chance at an interview. But it’s also a bit like your first true test of expression.

In high school, no one cares about expression. Your assignment is never to write a poem or a passionate stream of consciousness piece, right? Correct. Your job in high school is to comply with the various and varied standardized tests and write all assignments in such a manner that you’re constantly preparing your organizational writing skills to look like this:

Paragraph 1- Present your generic point of view

Paragraph 2- Present your first supporting argument and example

Paragraph 3- Present your second supporting argument and example

Paragraph 4- Present your thi- . . . and on and on and on

Conclusion - Conclude your paper by re-stating your point of view but don’t present any new facts.

Wow! Doesn’t this just bleed creativity? I know that I, for one, am fairly confident that if a student can write creatively in order to express him/herself caring not whether every thesis statement is perfectly positioned in the first paragraph (as students are taught in high school to be the ONLY proper way to create an introduction) but that the thoughts are organized in a manner that promotes flow and easy understanding for the reader, they will not have to be taught the concept of written expression as it pertains to communication in the post-high school years. And I don’t think there is a single university professor out there who is anxiously awaiting a group of really inept freshmen writers hoping to teach them all how to write a creative and well-thought paper. You see, every person must be able to express emotions and ideas on paper if, for no other reason, than the fact that he/she wants to become effective in the professional world (not to mention one’s personal life where writing and written communication are becoming more and more necessary with the advent of email). I have conversations all the time with both students and parents, alike, where the ability to effectively communicate inevitably comes up as a significant concern of both groups.

The biggest concern for most parents is that their student(s) cannot express themselves on paper. Have they ever been taught? Regardless, this is not the issue. In my opinion, if a student is an avid reader, whether or not he/she has ever had good writing instruction, the level and reading ability comes through in his/her writing. Writing is so unique in that it is not really a teachable craft. I believe that grammar is teachable and a basic knowledge of it certainly will benefit any writer. However, to truly be able to convey a message, one cannot be pushed or prodded but instead must be creatively inspired and practiced. In other words, start writing NOW! Write for ten minutes every day. Write poetry: haiku; limerick; stream of consciousness, etc . . . Write fiction using creative first lines to get you started. If nothing is coming to mind, try this: “Stuck. She was experiencing another case of writer’s block and this time . . .”

Seriously, go for it. Write away. Oh, and don’t forget, the key to all good writing- err, at least the key to all things written well is READING. You’ve taken the first step by reading this blog. Now, go read something more interesting. Then, if you finish your fiction and poetry writing and you are, for whatever reason, craving another assignment but cannot conjure up any ideas, drop me an email, and, if you want me to read it (and respond), make sure that you have expressed yourself clearly and creatively. I’ll look forward to great things from you in the future.

August 7, 2008

Where I've Been

Greetings, College Enthusiasts!

Alas, I am working from a computer at the library as my new laptop has been delayed in shipment, yet again! For those of you who don't know- and may care- my laptop was stolen right out from under me, literally, at the San Francisco Airport, two weeks ago. What a tragedy, eh?! But I have recovered and the sense of a new school year will help me even more.

Being that I'm at a library, it has made me notice what, exactly, the young people are doing. Is it just me or has gaming absolutely infected the current high school generation? In hearing from a colleague at North Carolina State University a few months ago, I found out that gaming is the #1 reason for students in the engineering and computer science programs to drop out. That was absolutely shocking. In accord with the previous blog, about Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, I have decided to act as responsibly as I can and incorporate into my education curriculum, a new educational program called High School Hikes. After reading Louv's book and hearing, seeing and feeling the evidence of sedentary lifestyles all around me, I believe that if I can do something to open the eyes and minds of some young people, I can help in the fight against nature deficit disorder. Starting now I am soliciting for students to join me on the maiden voyage: most likely a drive up to the Great Smokey Mountains for a few days of exploration, introspection and good, old fashioned fun! What a wonderful world we will discover-- after the 12 hour drive, that is.
Wonderful nonetheless. Be in touch. Ask questions. Read a book. Never stop learning. Never stop growing!
Be well.