Monday, August 24, 2015

Great College Essay Topics

Great College Essay Topics
Looking for just the right college essay topic? Now that the college application season is here, essay topics for the Common App, personal statements for this school or that have become part of our daily household conversation. I have several great college essay topics! But my son has rejected them all. That's fine, he really needs to "own" his essay, right? Maybe they are right for your child.

1.     What I learned after my freshman yearbook photo became a viral meme.
2.     How I plan to use my White Privilege to better the world.
3.     The moment I realized that my father really does know best.
4.     Affluenza, the scourge of my generation.
5.     #MyLifeMatters.
6.     What I learned after I put an end to my mansplainin' habit.
7.     In-home wifi: right or privilege?
8.     How I found out that Snapchat messages don’t really disappear and what I learned from the experience.
9.     The most meaningful participation trophy I ever earned.
10. My parents suggested I put pen to paper to write the first draft of this essay. You won't believe what happened next.
11. Straight Outta Suburbia.
12. #Winning: The week I got myself out of bed without my parents needing to wake me up for school.

Did you catch that episode of Modern Family a few years ago in which Haley was applying to college? As part of her application, she was supposed to write an essay about "the biggest obstacle she's overcome in her life." Haley bemoans the fact that her life has been so charmed that she has never had to overcome anything. (That was in 2011, but certainly jives with current conversations about the oversensitivity and high level of anxiety among today's college students, which is speculated to be an outcome their oversheltered early years.)

Haley's mom, Claire, takes her on a drive promising to share a family secret. When they are out in a rural area, Claire pulls off the road and points to a tree that she says has a secret message from when she and Haley's dad were dating. Claire acts like she's going to take her daughter to see it, but after Haley steps out of the car Claire drives off leaving Haley to find her way home, without money or a cell phone, so that her daughter would have something to write about.

I'm not going to that kind of extreme-nor do I need to. Despite my casting aside my incredibly awesome prompts, my son has some meaningful topics of his own. And I know once he gets serious about writing (and rewriting and then rewriting yet again) his essays, they will be fabulous, original, heartfelt and truly his.

Also, my prompts are dripping with sarcasm and in some cases not true. You think he ever gets himself up for school?! (I'm kidding.)(Sort of.) His yearbook photo did not become a meme as far as I know, he never got in trouble with Snapchat, and even as a child, he felt a disdain for rewards he did not earn. True story: his favorite trophy was actually a very large, shiny one he picked out of a "free" bin at a garage sale.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do You Need to Hire a College Admissions Counselor?

A friend wrote me the other day asking if I thought she should hire a college admissions counselor to help guide her child (and her family) through the application process. I gave her such a long-winded answer that I decided to polish it up and turn it into a blog post. So,

Do You Need to Hire a College Admissions Counselor? 

Probably not.

I should clarify, do you need to hire a college counselor at a cost of several thousand dollars that equal the amount I paid for my first new-to-me car? I doubt it.

Do you want to hire a college admissions counselor?

Yes, maybe.

Do you need to shell out thousands of dollars? Probably not.

When it comes to the college application process there will be plenty of other expenses (test review materials, tutors or classes, college visits, and application fees) to name a few.

Oh, and let's not forget the added fee for registering late for the SAT Subject Test which some highly selective schools request, especially, it seems, for STEM majors. Is my child going to apply to a highly selective school? I'm not sure, but we wanted to keep the option available. But back to those late fees, typically they were due to his lack of organization, not mine, so he paid the fee.

On a related note, did you know you could register for one of those tests and simply not take it without it harming the child's record? Yes, but if it wasn't your fault that the child wasn't prepared, that child will reimburse you for the fee, at least in my house.

I didn't even know about SAT Subject Tests until I did a series of three Google Hangouts with college admissions counselor Susan Goodkin. There's not much to watch, but you can listen to them via my YouTube channel. I learned a lot from our discussions; maybe you will, too.

Search online and you'll find a lot of useful information. Some counselors like Susan (disclosure: I didn't pay her nor did she pay me) also offer free or low-cost webinars in addition to one-on-one consulting services.

Check your local library, community parent group, and of course your child's school for additional information. If you do hire an admissions counselor, I'm thinking you could trim the budget by going in as an informed consumer.

Before you jump into the college search and admissions fray, read Frank Bruni's book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be. It's a common sense reminder that a child, even your special snowflake, can thrive at just about any institution of higher learning if s/he is motivated to do so.

Also, know your support system. Learn who you can talk to about the college search- friends who are level-headed and good listeners with sound advice. Avoid those who drive you into a subtle game of one-upsmanship, a dizzying spiral of insecurity. Why isn't my kid applying to Harvard? Why didn't I insist on three years of hard-core summer school? I've done it all wrong!

My older son asked me to sign him up for a fee-based ACT review class at school. The course met for several weekends for several hours each time. He would have hated it on many levels. I also suspected an online review would be too distracting because, internet! I bought him a review book for $25 instead and told him to spend at least 10 or 15 minutes a day on it in the days leading up to the test. Which he mostly did with a bit of parental nudging. Should I have insisted on more? He set a threshold score and met it on his first try. Sweet relief!

That said, I can easily get thrown into the spiral of should we insisted on a more disciplined approach? But then I also think, would an extra point or two make or break his future? In his case, probably not, but your mileage may vary. I think most admissions officers would rather, say, see his app in the App Store(!) than get an inkling of the hours he might have devoted to making an incremental increase on a standardized test score...but I'm not a paid professional.

These days many kids take the ACT, which is popular in the Midwest, two or three times! Why? Because colleges may only consider the best set of scores or pick the best section score from each test and "superscore." It's good for the college board ($) and it's good for the schools because they can they claim to higher test scores on behalf of their students? Is it good for the kids?

Oh, and by the way, Stanford insists on seeing all standardized test scores, so there's no hiding the bad ones from them.

When it comes to my younger son, I will likely sign him up for an ACT class. Not because I learned some lesson from the first go-round, but just because he's a different child with different strengths and needs. I think he'll benefit from the structure and advice (which will no doubt includes the words, "Slow down and take your time with each question.").

So back to that admissions counselor....

If your child has known since 5th grade that he wants to attend a Big 10 School, it might not be hard to find the right one or two for her on your own. Does your child want a college that it larger or smaller than his current high school? Rural or urban environment?

IMO, you don't need to hire someone to walk you through these questions. There are plenty of free online materials and books to guide this piece of the process. Speaking of which, does your school have Naviance?


Naviance is a whole suite of tools to help guide the college search process. If your school provides Naviance, take advantage of it, especially to note your child's activities and honors as they go through school because by the time senior year rolls around those details from freshman and sophomore years can be pretty fuzzy.

For all it's helpfulness, Naviance can also be like that toxic friend who sends you into fits of anxiety---but for different reasons. Naviance provides scattergrams, data visualizations that reveal patterns of student acceptances rates at a given school. The data points are anonymized, so that, for example, you know Student X got into the University of Illinois with an ACT score of 28 and a GPA of 3.9 and so did Student Y with an ACT score of 20 and a GPA of 3.4.

However, you don't know about the details of the students' backgrounds, nor do you know which college within the university each was admitted to. Or if Student Y was maybe recruited to be on the Division 1 baseball team, etc. So the data only provides a partial picture.

And, BTW, that picture is based solely on historical data from your child's school. So, for example, my friend who has a son at a highly competitive public school told me with no small amount of anxiety in her voice, that even kids with 4.2 weighted GPAs don't seem to be making the cut for Ivy League schools. Naviance is freaking her out.

On the other hand, my boys attend a very mixed public school that has a small number of students applying to the most selective schools. Because of the low numbers, some of these schools don't even have scattergrams. For example, if only three students applied to MIT last year and only one gained admittance, I could figure out who that data point represents, so the information isn't shared at all. Hmph. In this case, Naviance simply isn't helpful except to wake that sleeping giant bear of anxiety called, must one choose between socioeconomic diversity and a high quality education or can they co-exist? (see also, as noted above, I've done it all wrong!) which, let's be honest, is not at all helpful.*

Okay, I've gone even farther afield than the email it was based on and I still have more to say. So, stayed tuned for Part 2!

In the meantime, prepare yourself for when those acceptance letters come with this etiquette post from my friend Alexandra Rosas and Peyton Price.

*This is issue is too big for my blog. I'm working on a novel that, like many first novels, is a fictionalized version of my own life about our (mis)adventures in public (and private!) education. I'm tempted to make it a choose-your-own-adventure book and explore things like a version of life where we move to the Lake Wobegon-like affluent, white neighborhood before my boys started school. Or explore what life would have been like if we homeschooled with the fantastic co-op in our area. Or what might have happened if my son got this teacher instead of that one. Or... you get the idea.

Friday, July 17, 2015

My Knees Went Weak When I Read the Email

My heart is still pounding and my knees are still weak from the email that landed in my inbox this morning. It should have gone directly to my son, but it came to me first. Sh*t's gettin' real y'all.

"We are now taking applications for the 2016-17 freshman class..."


I thought August 1st marked the start of what I shall call Application Season. Apparently that's the date for most schools, but not this one. I tried not to bug my senior (too much) about working on his essay for the Common App, a common application that is accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities. Many schools require a bit of additional information, but even with supplements, the Common App makes it easy to apply to many schools.

Which is why a growing number of students apply to a growing number of schools. The Common App does limit a student to 20 schools. But applying to that many schools seems kinda crazy. I'm hoping our son applies to no more than 8. Okay, 10 max.

The more schools a student applies to, the less focused his or her search is. Ideally your child has a vision, if not a strong preference, as to what type of school they are looking for in their post-secondary institution.

But think about yourself at that age. Did you have that laser-sharp focus?

The school that's now taking applications doesn't have an application fee, doesn't require an essay, and is "non-binding early action." Meaning that he can find out in December if he got in and what kind of merit aid they will grant him without being committed to accepting their decision. I think my son might have sent a set of scores to them already, so even that expense is lowered. I think he'll wind up applying.

Oh, wait up. I just Googled something and learn that some schools have non-binding early action, but don't want you to be applying to other schools early action nonetheless.

What? I dunno. He'll probably apply anyway. Will this come back to bite us in the butt? This is why it's great for your kids to have a short list of schools by the end of the summer before senior year.

That said, I've been assured that my child will grow and mature a lot this final year in high school. So the colleges that appeal to him now, might be less appealing by next April.

In short, I only have a vague idea of how this works. This process will be the nearly-blind leading the completely blind person who insists he can navigate on his own, but mostly would rather be at the computer doing something he enjoys instead finishing off his essay and applying to college(s).

Stay tuned for our next adventure.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What's Happening in My World

Every now and then this blog starts to feel like a ghost town. Let me assure you I haven't gone offline, I'm just putting my words elsewhere. Well, this didn't involve a lot of words, but it did take several months of planning with a fabulous team at the Skokie Library--I co-hosted a Teen Appathon!

Inspired by my friend Debi Pfitzenmaier and her San Antonio Code Jam, I've tossed about the idea of some kind of youth coding event or challenge for a few years. Chicago already has a vibrant Scratch Day program, mostly geared at middle school students. I wanted something for a slightly old crowd.

On The Maker Mom, you can read everything you might want to know about the Teen Appathon, including tips for hosting your own, just click here. Short on time? Skip to the video in the post. It provides a nice visual summary of the day.

Speaking of videos, this one featuring Tesla is proving to be a hit.

And I did my fist "unboxing" video. Have you heard about these? It's a thing; a genre. Top unboxing YouTubers are supposedly making six figures just by posting videos of themselves opening boxes of toys and whatnot and showing off what's inside.

There's so much wrong with my video including my lighting, make-up and hairdo. For the first time in almost 25 years I've grown out my bangs and am not liking still getting used to the look. Also, people over 35 shouldn't have to broadcast themselves in HD. Then again, I guess there's no need to show my face in a true unboxing video, so maybe I'll continue on this seemingly bizarre path.

At any rate, I'm showing off the contents of a Doodle Crate, part of the Kiwi Crate Family. I'm an affiliate of their subscription box program. They have monthly maker and STEM kits designed for kids ages 3-16. I'm looking forward to making the Doodle Crafts next week with one of my nieces.

Watch and reveal the mystery craft!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Don Quixote by the Royal Ballet at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre

photo credit: ROH / Johan Persson, 2013

"I am Don Quixote; the man of La Mancha," is the refrain I recall from the musical of the same name back when my high school performed it in the 1980s. That was the all-singing all-dancing version. This week I'm headed to see the all-dancing version performed by the Royal Ballet, accompanied by live music performed by Chicago Sinfonietta at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. My husband and I will be guests of the Auditorium Theatre.

Performance June 18, 19 and 20 at 7:30 PM with a 2PM matinee of the 21st. Tickets begin at $32.

On Saturday, June 20, there will be a family-friendly matinee. How family-friendly? Well, for each adult ticket you buy, you'll receive a child's ticket for 50% off using code FAMLY. Child, being a person age 17 or under.

Even better, with tickets to the June 20 matinee, your family members can participate in a movement workshop with a former dancer from the Royal Ballet, David Pickering. He currently works as their Learning and Participation Manager. The workshop runs from 12:30 - 1:30 and is free with June 20 matinee tickets. How cool is that?! Click for details.

For tickets, call 800-982-ARTS (2787) or go to the Auditorium Theatre website.

Monday, June 08, 2015

She Lost Her Child at Target

So I was at Target with the other day when an older woman pushing a baby stroller with an infant passed by calling out "Carolyn...Carolyn!"

I stopped her, concerned about her lost child (or maybe grandchild, but I wanted to err on the side of caution; maybe she had late-in-life babies?).

"Is Carolyn your daughter?" I inquired.

She paused and gave me an odd, confused look before answering. "Yes," she practically whispered.

"Would you like me to help you find her?" I offered.

Then she smiled. "Oh, Carolyn is my daughter, but she's 30 years old. This is her baby," she said as she pointed to the contents of the stroller."

"Uh, okay. I guess she can manage safely on her own until she's found then."


Friday, June 05, 2015

Our Dog Reacts to Frontline Plus

Although our dog has a stomach of steel, which is to say very little upsets it, his skin is much more sensitive. In general, his immune system is delicate, or perhaps I should say supercharged, ready to react to...stuff. Allergies have been an issue. Late last summer was an especially miserable time for him. We haven't pursued testing, but he's likely got environmental allergies.

We keep him on a grain-free diet. That is, until he gobbles down a bagel someone left too close to edge of the kitchen counter, raids the garbage can, or one of his doggie grandmas buys him treats with ingredients he's not supposed to have.

We've been using Frontline Plus for flea and tick prevention on him without incident since we first received it from his vet nearly two years ago. Two months ago we received a sample of NexGuard, a chewable "treat" put out by the same company, Merial. In April, I gave him the NexGuard to try it out. He gobbled it down with no ill effects.

In May, I gave Tesla our last remaining dose of  Frontline Plus. I was pretty eager to be done with it and move to the chewable, despite the additional expense. Tesla always tries to scratch at the area where the stinky Frontline Plus is applied, but this time it seemed to bother him more than normal.

He'd rub his neck either by going belly up on his pillow and wriggling around or scratch with his back claws. I noticed the spot where I'd applied the Frontline was looking bad.

Normally it's a bit greasy looking for a day or two, but this time the hair was matted down and looked a bit dusty. When I went in for a closer look, it was clear that something was going on underneath his matted fur, but I couldn't tell what. It looked nasty, though. Oozy and maybe infected. Tesla let me know the area was tender to the touch. I did my best to clean it off and then covered it with as much antibiotic ointment as I could.

The next day I got him in the shower and was able to gently shampoo the whole area, but I still couldn't get a good look before I covered with ointment again.

Finally, we visited the vet the day after Memorial Day. They shaved him down and cleaned him up, and did a laser treatment that they said would help heal the area. They decided to put him on antibiotics and a short course of steroids. (He also had something going on with a back paw, but I'm not sure if it was a cause or effect of the Frontline Plus, or possibly unrelated.)

Because the spot is on his neck, we couldn't cone him, but I did cut the sleeve off of an old t-shirt and used that to cover up the spot and preventing scratching while it was still raw. We also had some prescription powder on hand.
I called Frontline to make an official report on the issue. They told me that a dog can have a bad reaction to Frontline Plus at any time, even if they've used it without incident previously. Still, the company is only aware of reactions if people (or their vets) report them. So if something like this happens to your dog, be sure to call their hotline and let them know!

PS Tesla is going fine now. The area is clear and his hair is coming in.

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