College Search Strategies
Portola Valley, CA
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College Search Strategies Blog

Essays... where do I begin?

Summertime-- and I'm supposed to write essays. Wait! That's not how the song goes!! But it is how summer seems to go for the rising high school seniors of today. College applications are looming and getting an early start on the college essay can make the "application season" easier. Where to begin? 

The Personal Statement, or college essay, is the opportunity--really!--to tell admissions readers and decision makers something about you that cannot be found anywhere else on your application. You've heard again and again not to write about your sport, but when that is where you have spent a lot of your high school career, how can you avoid it? Find a moment in that sport or choir rehearsal or summer vacation with your family, when you faced a challenge of some kind, or failed to meet your expectations, or challenged the rules of etiquette. And something other than you failed to win the game. How about when you failed to swing at Strike 3 because you were thinking about who was on the airplane flying overhead? Or you swam your best time, but forgot to wait for the relay touch before you had taken off from the starting block? Or when you knew your music so well, and you began to sing after taking a quick breath only to realize you came in too early? Well, you get it, right? You can also write about the club or foundation you founded and why it means so much to you.

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Seniors are graduating! Juniors, you're up next!!

It's been a fun week talking and reflecting with the seniors I've worked with over the past year or two. They are older, more mature, reflective and grateful for the journey. Many have said they are surprised how much they actually ENJOYED the application process, in hind sight. It was a time to learn about who they were and who they wanted to become. A journey of where they had been, where they wanted to go, and a process of figuring out how they'd like to get there. I am grateful to each and every one of them for allowing me to be on the journey with them. It has been an honor and a privilege. 

Now, it's time for the Juniors to step up and begin in earnest their college process. Some have visited colleges while others have not. Some have had challenging junior years, while others have tried new things and new approaches. Some have done really well on the standardized tests, while others not-so-much. It's all good, and it's all going to work out. Ask the Seniors. 

Just this morning I was thinking about what is key to a successful college journey. Is it finding the ideal Ivy League school? Is it working the system? Is it doing all the "right" and expected stuff? I guess we have to think about how to define "success." The seniors would tell you that it's about being your authentic self, being real, telling the truth. Try to trust that if you do the work--take the necessary steps--follow the highlighted path--it will work out. Perhaps not exactly the way you imagined, but you'll get pretty darn close, and you may find you enjoy the experience in the end. 

Probably the best thing you can do at this juncture is to begin to explore what matters to you. What is important? What makes you excited to get up in the morning? What do you enjoy? What puzzles you? How are you curious? How are you unique? What do you believe in? What do you question? What is your sense of humor? These and many other questions are worth exploring on a personal level as you consider how and what you will WRITE for that Personal Statement--essay--college application. Again, be honest. You don't need to discuss it with your parents or friends, because this time it is really about only you and how you fit, or don't fit, into the world. 

So, Juniors, you're up next!! Your time has come to pursue this next stage of your lives. You know you can do it because, after all, you just managed to survive and maybe even surpass expectations for your Junior Year! You are now Rising Seniors!! The summer will fly by and your last year of high school will be upon you. You'll be fine. Do the work.

And, parents? Trust your kids. They know who they are--or at least they have a pretty good idea. They have their futures to define. They'll finish applications, complete senior year, and move on in their lives. Give them a hug, a pat on the back, a gentle smile. Those moments will go a long way toward helping them as they take the next step. 

My Sweet Tea Tour of South Carolina

For the past week I have been touring 13 colleges, mostly in South Carolina, with 41 other high school and independent college counselors and consultants. As the guests of these great schools, we saw how interesting and unique each one is in its own right.

The big question is "would students from California be interested in some of these Southern colleges and universities?" I have to say "yes!" In some cases the educational opportunities are so personal, as at Furman, Wofford, Converse, and Presbyterian. All of them offer wonderful state-of-the-art facilities. In the cases of U of North Carolina-Asheville and Western Carolina University, we saw brand new buildings that will be opening this Fall! No "outsiders" had set foot in them yet! We were the first! (Ah, the smell of new carpet!)

Clemson University showed us their new Architecture building which opened this past Spring! All of the new buildings we saw are Green, Green, Green! And if they don't have the LEED status yet, they will! From Gold to Platinum.... Warren Wilson College is a special place unto itself where students work on the farm, in the blacksmith shop, the recycling center or in the kitchen (to name a few jobs), as well as go to classes and earn their bachelor's degree.

From the southern charm of College of Charleston to the rah-rah football stadiums at Clemson, U of South Carolina and Western Carolina University... students today have many choices and often at a great value.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip! I did drink sweet tea---and for a short while, found myself speaking with a southern drawl! If y'all want to know more, contact me at

--Nancy Wigley