Three Ways to Start Your College Essay

Have an idea, but don’t know where to begin? Starting the college essay is half the battle. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. You can always go back and revise.

In general, make the first sentence count. It’s your one and only change to snag the reader’s attention. Think about articles that have caught your attention recently. How did the writer engage you? Were you surprised by the first sentence? Intrigued? Startled?

Here are a few ideas of ways to get your first sentence on the page.

1. Start with a fact or figure. If your passion is planes, for example, tell us something you have learned about them. An average Boeing 747 weighs in at at about 836,000 pounds. Then tell us why this is important. The first plane I flew weighed a mere 1,300.

Here, we might read this and think: Wow. I didn’t know that. How does this person know so much about planes? Why is it important to his or her story?

2. Start with action/sensory detail. From where I sat, the engine’s roar was like thunder combined with the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display.

With this starting sentence, the writer brings the reader right into the moment with what he or she heard and felt. It also packs a punch by showing through a comparison with something that we can all relate to: fireworks and thunder.

3. Start with a quote. “You don’t have enough speed!” my flight instructor screamed over the engine’s roar.

Again, this starting sentence brings the reader right into the action of what’s happening. Plus, because it’s pressing, it makes the reader want to know, OK, so what happens next?

The first sentence should make the reader want to continue on to the second sentence. It’s your chance to grab his or her attention. Make it count!


Test Prep: Top 6 Things You Can Do On Your Own Time

I’ve been hearing from a few families that want more homework, and I’ve come up with a few ways you can improve your test scores absolutely on your own, in small ways every week.

1. Keep a missed homework questions notebook. Put every single math question you’ve missed (even the stupid ones, especially the stupid ones) in the front of the notebook with the correct solution. It’s ok if you have to try a few ways to do it before you get the correct solution. But make sure you eventually put the correct solution there. Then at the back of the notebook, keep a log of what you need to do next time to get the question right. Examples include: “Be careful when dividing to divide each term” or “Remember to use your calculator even when doing subtraction” or something more specific, like “When answers have variables, don’t forget to plug numbers in to make it easier.”

2. Give yourself 5 new words to learn a day. Even if you’re taking the ACT. Sure, there’s not as much vocabulary, but you think it’s not going to help you understand the hard passages when you’re pressed for time? Think again. Any language work will help your brain.

3. Read more difficult writings. They don’t have to be long. They don’t have to be boring. Just read something that makes you think a little bit. Every day. Go on to Google News, NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, BBC, The Atlantic, or any other number of places with good writing, and pick any article to read. Just one. (Alternatively, you can Like us on Facebook and have the articles posted every day).

4. Play  number games in your head. If you have to remember an address, try to make something work with the numbers. E.g. the address 1145 you could say: 1*1+4 = 5. If you’re bored in class, look at the clock and do the same thing. Not all numbers will work out, but it will get your brain more comfortable with numbers.

5. Try to compute the change, tips, and/or percentages off in stores. What’s the fastest way to compute any percentage? Knock off two zeros to get 10% and multiply by whatever you need to get up to (x2 for 20%, x3 for 30%, and on).

6. Play memory games as you copy your notes in class. See how many words you can hold in your head and still get 100% of them right. You might fail from time to time, but the exercise will build your working memory skills, which is possibly one of the most important skills to have on these tests.


I’d love to hear from you any other ideas you may have. Please leave comments at the end of the article if you do!


5 Tips for Starting Your College Essay

If you haven’t yet started your personal essay for your college applications, don’t worry—there’s still time! If you are applying via the Common App, the 2014-2015 application was published this week, which means all of the essay prompts are now available. Create an account and check out the prompts. The UC application for Fall 2015 is also now live, so check out the UC prompts if you are applying to the UC system.

Check with each individual school on your list to see if it accepts the common app, or if it has its own essay question(s).

The essay is your chance to set yourself apart and share information that can’t be found anywhere else on your application. Try to choose a topic that will allow you to show something interesting about yourself that is unique to you.

But where to begin? Here are a few tips to help you get started.

1. Start by making a short list of personal traits and characteristics that make you who you are. Start with 5 traits. Keep these as a check list so that once you start writing, you can go back and make sure you included examples to demonstrate each of those personal qualities.

2. Start with one essay, even if you are applying to more than one school. First think about your personal topic, then worry about the prompt. Almost any idea you have will lend itself to one of the prompts, and you can edit your essay accordingly.

3. Choose a “story.” While your statement can include more than just this story, it’s useful to have a specific situation or anecdote that can bring the reader into your world. Many students choose competitions. See if you can think of a defining moment that no one else can claim as his or her own. The more individual, the better.

4. Write your first sentence. The first sentence is half the battle. Even if you being to feel “writer’s block,” push forward on that first sentence. It doesn’t have to be perfect; you can always go back and revise it after you get under way with your draft.

5. Make the first sentence count. It should be to the point. Something catchy. Like the opening line to a really interesting article or book. If there’s any chance someone else could have come up with the same first sentence, it’s probably a signal that yours is not original enough. Avoid cliches (“my heart sank”).


Your College List

Do you know where you’re applying yet? Do you have a list yet? Have you started the list?

Wherever you are in the planning process, chances are that your list could use some refinement. With any given list, there are likely schools you’ve overlooked or have never even heard of that might be a wonderful fit for you. We’re often guided by what Johnny said or how Kara felt about her freshman year at XYZ University, when Kara or Johnny might have completely different value sets and might be the worst possible people to be taking advice from. Our goal at the end of the day is to maximize your chances of getting into a “right-fit” school – one that serves your best interests and your best chances of success and growth.

List Creation

So, the first thing we should do is make sure we have a list in the first place. Whether the list is 2 schools long or 20, we have to start somewhere. Put it in an Excel-based app, as this is a fabulously easy way to store things and edit them later. Ideally, you would put it into Google Docs, so you can easily share the information with anyone who’s helping you.

Next, create a column that highlights what makes those schools interesting. For example:

School Interest Reason
TCU  Major, Campus, Spirit
U of South Carolina  Size, Major, Spirit
UC Berkeley
Wake Forest
Santa Clara
Cal Poly SLO


Figuring out why you’re attracted to a campus is perhaps the most important step you can take to position yourself for success. It will allow you to find additional schools that meet your criteria as well as help others suggest schools you may have overlooked.

List Building

The next step is actually researching other schools that would also satisfy these particular interest reasons. Even if it’s out of your range of scores and GPA, add it.  If there’s a school that has a strong major but is in the “wrong” climate, add it in.  Add in suggestions from your parents, your guidance counselor, or anyone who wants to offer their suggestions. This is the step where we build in everything and anything. No stone unturned. Take at least a day before we move onto the next step.

List Refinement

This step is slow, as in take it slow. You can do it quickly, but that won’t serve you well. Don’t go crossing off schools willy-nilly because you heard so-and-so didn’t like it there.

Don’t cross off schools if:

  • your friend/teammate/neighbor just “didn’t like it there”
  • you can’t afford it (often there are little publicized scholarships available!)
  • you’re a little bit out of the score range

Do cross off schools if:

  • so-and-so didn’t like it because x AND you did internet research and this a common complaint that would bother you
  • you don’t like a particular aspect to the school AND you did internet research and it’s a common experience that comes up
  • you’re significantly out of the score range (i.e. your GPA is a 3.3 and they have 90% of the student base at a 3.8+ and your SATs are a 1600 and their median percentiles are 2000-2200

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

You’re going to want to repeat the last two steps over and over again, as many of your values will change as you go through this process. Maybe you thought school size was super important to you, but then you found a school that’s much smaller (or larger) than what you were looking for that has the perfect program for your major. This would imply that you should open up the list to all of the size schools that have your preferred major as a strength, not just the original ones you listed.

So add, pare back, add, pare back, until you’re 100% satisfied that you have your perfect list.

Next Steps

After you have your list, it’s all about getting organized. We’ll talk about that one in our next post. Any questions in the meantime? Email, text, or call me and I’ll be happy to help!