About Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer has been a member since April 8th 2011, and has created 629 posts from scratch.

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Answering the Common App Essay Prompts


essayOver the past five years I have read and commented on hundreds of essays from students all over the country. As a result of that work, I have two categories of advice: general essay-writing tips (which we’ll discuss soon), and specific ways to make the Common App essay prompts work for you.

The big idea here is that the story you want to tell matters a lot more than the prompt you attach to it. Most stories are about more than one thing, so yours might be about identity and failure, or about contentment and coming of age. So write the story first, and then figure out how to pitch it to an admissions committee. Having said that, it’s still useful to understand the questions. So let’s look at them in detail:

1. 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.

There are several ways to read this question:  Is your ethnic, racial, cultural, or linguistic background central to your identity? Do you have a specific story you can tell that illustrates that in an engaging way? Sweet. Try it and see how it goes.

But that’s not the only thing way to answer this question. It can also be about what it felt like when your family moved from Oklahoma to NYC, and how that move made you who you are today. It could be about the birth of your little sister the summer before your junior year, and how becoming one of her primary caregivers changed your perception of yourself.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

One way to think about this question is that’s not really about the failure at all, but rather, about the response to failure. It’s an opportunity for you to tell the admissions officers how you respond to adversity. What’s nice about this question is that you don’t have to pretend that your failure was actually a success, or any of that job-interview nonsense. If you face-planted in epic style, write about that, as long as you then write about how you dug all the gravel out of your face and kept going.

You can also add to your understanding of this question by thinking broadly about what it means to fail at something. You could write about failing tenth grade chemistry. But really, it would be a lot more interesting to write about how you came to the realization that no matter how hard you worked, your feet would never allow you dance on pointe. One of my students wrote about how she came to accept that fact, but that in doing so, she also discovered not only how to dance for pleasure again, but to enjoy other activities, too.

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Just like the question about failure, this question should be understood as broadly as possible. Don’t limit it to school. Do your parents believe that financial security is the only consideration in choosing a career, while you want to be an actor? Do your parents want you to follow your dreams, while you want something grounded and practical for yourself? Does your school worship athletic prowess, while you think social action is more important?

Stories about standing up to bullies or publishing an article in the school newspaper that the administration didn’t want you to are great examples, but bravery isn’t always loud and public; sometimes it’s quiet and private.

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

What’s your favorite TV show? (Quick – just pick one.) Now, think about what makes that show your favorite. Is everyone in it happy all the time, and good friends all the time, and nothing ever happens because there’s no drama? A lot of my students have said things like, “I feel really content while playing the piano because it lets me lose myself in the music,” or “I feel really content in my grandmother’s kitchen.”

But being content doesn’t really make for a good story. So for this essay, try to think about why you feel content somewhere. One of my students wrote about being content in the dance studio at her school, and the process that led her to feel that way. She hadn’t always felt content there. In fact, for a while she had felt intimidated there. The essay turned out to be about how she grew into herself, both as a dancer and as a leader.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Just as the failure question isn’t really about failure, this one isn’t really about the accomplishment or event: it’s about how you fit into your community. So you can write about your bar or bat mitzvah, or your quinceañera, but you could also write about your first job, or the time you had to put your dog down, or what you learned from looking after your younger sibling.

Remember when I said that the story matters more than the prompt? That’s because all the prompts are really the same prompt, asking for the same story: “Tell us how you’ve grown and matured over time.”


­Today’s guest post is by Rachel Shulman of Shulman & Hill, LLC. Rachel is a passionate teacher, and her students often comment that this passion and excitement for her subject makes them more interested, sometimes in spite of themselves. She has helped students achieve their goals in all three AP History classes and both AP English classes, as well as on the Reading Comprehension and Writing sections of the ACT and SAT. Since the fall of 2010, she has edited over 300 college application essays, working both on her own and with independent educational consultants.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History, Rachel also holds an MA in History and an MS in Library and Information Science, both from the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign.  

Based in the Boston area, but with students all over the country, Shulman & Hill specializes in standardized test preparation, high school English, History, Math, Physics, Biology, and college application essays. We provide individualized learning plans tailored to the student’s unique learning style. Our goal is to leave our clients prepared for independent academic success.

Motivation for Students Starts at Home


helping without harmingAfter finishing high school, which means the end of the obligatory studies, some students struggle to maintain a positive attitude towards learning, especially if they have found a job offer. If you were to ask them, “what do you prefer,money now or money in 10 years,” you’d find out how some of them are so impatient that they prefer the money now, even if it’s a smaller amount. That’s why us, parents, have to be there to motivate them to go to college or to study an occupation and in that way in which they don’t believe it’s only a mandatory thing imposed by adults. In this post we’ll see how to motivate our kids from an early age to always choose to study:

The family is the environment in which our child’s education begins, and also the main model of values and behaviors that guides the cognitive and affective student’s future development. Here’s where parents have the opportunity to get that their children enjoy learning.

Everything should start by educating by an example to follow. Parents who show interest and enthusiasm for their child’s learning tasks and express their curiosity to learn new skills convey this attitude to the student naturally. Several researches say that parental behavior can influence the motivation or demotivate their children to learn, so it’s important too to adopt this disposition in leisure time: parents should teach their kid from an early age to look for the answer to questions, to participate in activities with enthusiasm and to get satisfaction when they get significant achievements in life.

Family should also encourage and appreciate this effort over the results; if we want our child to be motivated in its tasks, they need to suit its capabilities and to increase the difficulty as the student gains new skills cause otherwise, if he’s always required to do the activities he doesn’t understand yet, it’s easy that he feels frustrated and demotivated if he sees his efforts were not worth it. In these cases, it’s necessary to teach him to overcome his problems through perseverance and constant work and to be confident in his skills.

Now, regarding formal education, parents can also influence their children’s motivation by helping them with homework, in order to teach them to deal with problems and to have a good relationship with their teachers. If parents and children share objectives and strategies, the interest of the children to learn will always win.

Wednesday’s Parent: Stress, Stress and More Stress


stressThere is nothing more stressful than college prep while dealing with teenage drama. Following are the “best of” tips from Wednesday’s Parent on stress.

Surviving Standardized Tests

Nothing speaks more stress than standardized tests. Those two words or their acronyms are yelled, and screeched and treated with disdain in every college-bound household. Those two words cause fights, stressful days and nights, frustration over the teen’s lack of commitment, and absolute terror in the hearts of most college-bound teens. Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes taking tests.

For some tips on dealing with stress from the parent’s and the student’s perspective read more.

Pushing Buttons

Raising teenagers is stressful. Kids, especially teens, know exactly how to push your buttons. It might be back talk, or constant complaining or eye-rolling, but whatever the behavior, nearly every parent will experience the tactic of pushing buttons. Instead of giving my own advice on this topic, I’ve taken from two sources that should help you see both sides of the coin and perhaps help you deal with this inevitable conflict.

For tips on dealing with all the buttons teenagers push and seeing how parents in return push buttons as well, read more.

The Stress of College Prep

Stress. It’s a killer. Parents and teens deal with stress on a daily basis; and when the college prep season arrives, the stress intensifies. Do you know what to expect and how to deal with it? Just as with any family situation, anticipating problems that can or might arise should help you respond properly and deal with stress during college prep.

For tips on how to react to stressful college prep scenarios, read more.

Sibling Rivalry

Siblings. The very word conjures up thoughts of rivalry. A house with siblings is a house with sibling rivalry. As with any family, competition among siblings begins at an early age. They compete over just about everything: toys, bedtimes, gifts, food, clothing, and the list goes on and on. It’s only natural that the rivalry would increase during the college prep time, thus increasing stress. But is the rivalry between the siblings of their doing or are you initiating the rivalry by comparing one child to another?

For tips on how to deal with sibling rivalry, read more.

Read Wendy’s post: Wednesday’s Parent: Favorite Lines and Tips


Wednesday’s child may be full of woe but Wednesday’s Parent can substitute action for anxiety. Each Wednesday Wendy and I will provide parent tips to get and keep your student on the college track. It’s never too late or too early to start!

The bonus is on the fourth Wednesday of each month when Wendy and I will host Twitter chat #CampusChat at 9pm ET/6pm PT. We will feature an expert on a topic of interest for parents of the college-bound.

Wednesday’s Parent will give twice the info and double the blog posts on critical parenting issues by clicking on the link at the end of the article from parentscountdowntocollegecoach to pocsmom.com and vice versa.

Mom-Approved Tips: Does It Matter WHERE You Go to College?


where you go to collegeMuch is debated about college names and prestige, especially among parents. It’s logical that parents want their kids to have the best opportunities available. It’s illogical that they place more value in the name than in the education itself. But so many parents encourage their kids to make illogical college choices. Where you go to college is not as important as you might think.

A rose by another other name is just as sweet

The college education itself is more important than the college name. Your student can get an excellent education at a community college, a small liberal arts college, or are large state university.

Attitude means more than status

If a student isn’t invested in college, the college reputation won’t make him any more committed to the education. Attitude is everything. A student who desires a learning and life experience can make that happen in any college environment.

There’s more to an education than the cost

Expensive institutions would want you to believe that their price is high because your student will receive a better education. That is not the case. There are over 400 four-year universities and colleges in this country providing quality education.

Employers don’t care about the names

A colleague of mine told me that some of the best government contractors will shun Ivy League graduates over those of the state colleges. Here’s on recruiter’s perspective:

Sometimes the poor kid who had to pay his way through Chico State has the most pluck and is the most driven. These types of employees are sometimes the most successful of all, because they are used to working hard from the get-go and did not come by anything in life through their dad’s connections. They have no sense of entitlement, so are willing to get their hands dirty for the mission.

Read the rest of the article and you’ll see why a college name doesn’t always fly with job recruiters.

Bragging rights for parents doesn’t translate into a good college investment. What matters most is the fit—does the college fit into your student’s wants and needs academically, financially, and socially. Plopping down big bucks in the hopes of a big payback after graduation is not a wise decision unless all the criteria are met.

Debunking 6 Scholarship Myths


truthEveryone has his or her own opinion about college scholarships. But the truth is most of those opinions are incorrect. Don’t believe what you hear from skeptics. Here’s the real truth about scholarship myths.

Myth 1

“Only low income families get help paying for college.”

Truth: Absolutely FALSE!

There are all sorts of reasons for scholarship awards: academics, special interests, talents, achievements, personal qualities, activities, skills, family heritage, geographical location, and the list goes on and on!

Myth 2

“Most scholarships are for athletes or minority students.”

Truth: Categorically FALSE!

Minorities and athletes encompass only one small portion of the scholarship landscape. For instance, there are scholarships for surfers, filmmakers, horse groomers, southpaws, and even descendants of revolutionary war and civil war vets; just to name a few.

Myth 3

“Only the smartest students win merit awards.”

Truth: Completely FALSE!

Many of the best scholarships are designed for students who devote time to music, performing arts, foreign languages, community service, web design, science projects, leadership, amateur radio, writing, photography, oratory, and even part time jobs.

Myth 4

“Once you’ve graduated from high school, it’s too late to apply for a college scholarship.”

Truth: WRONG!

Even if you’re already in college there are still scholarships to apply for. They may be a bit harder to find, but they are out there.

Myth 5

“Past actions and choices pre-determine scholarship success.”

Truth: FALSE if you utilize this tip!

Turn weaknesses into strengths. What your teen does from this point on can make all the difference. You can’t change your past but you can certainly use it as a tool to show others that you learn from your mistakes and rise above them.

Myth 6

“It’s best to just apply for a few awards because that maximizes your odds of winning.”

Truth: Extremely FALSE!

It’s a numbers game; apply for as many as you can. You never know which application will hit pay dirt.

Before you dismiss searching for scholarships, you should know all the facts. Don’t believe what the skeptics tell you. There are too many students attending college on scholarships to believe any of these myths.