Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Writing that college application essay

Just about every college or university application these days requires the student to write an essay. The whole point of these essays is for the student to make himself or herself come alive - be an individual - in the mind of whoever reads it. One thing to avoid is repeating information the admissions committee already has - grades on the transcript, test scores, application information, etc.

The first thing to be careful about is to follow the specific directions on each application. Some schools ask applicants to write a biographical sketch (pretty broad topic!), while others ask specific questions and expect responses that address those questions. Follow those directions explicitly! Anything off-topic indicates to the admissions committee for that school that the student cannot (or will not) follow directions.

There are many places online to get help writing that college app essay. One of the best places, of course, is at The College Board's website: Just click on For Students (at the left) and then, a little right of center on the next screen, click on College Essays in the Apply to College section. The Dos and Don'ts on their College Essay Writing Tips webpage are excellent.

Other places to get help can be found by going to (or any other search engine) and searching for college application essay or college admission essay. Just be wary of any that promise to write it for you or that want to charge you for entering their site, "mentoring" you, or proofing/editing your essay.

And then there's this from the Washington Post:
What an excellent collection of don'ts from this writer!

If anyone out there is writing a college app essay and wants input or feedback, just let me know. Post your questions in comments.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

SAT-prep, etc.

About now, college-bound high school juniors (and their parents!) are thinking about making sure they're ready for taking the SAT or ACT or whatever other tests are required by the colleges and universities to which the students are thinking of applying. Seniors should be well into this whole process, but late-starters aren't too late. They'll just have to move a little faster!

One of the first websites to meander through is the College Board's site - since that is the company that heads up the SAT (as well as the Advanced Placement tests). Once at, click on Prepare for the SAT, and choose from several good practice options.

1. Official SAT Practice Questions, from which you can choose Critical Reading, Mathematics, and/or Writing.

2. The Official SAT Question of the Day - You can either go into this each day or you can sign up for the QOTD to be sent to you in email each day. The latter is obviously easier on you! In addition, once you've submitted your answer for each question, you have a choice to go on to further questions.

3. Official SAT Practice Test - You can take one of the released tests from past administrations: Print the test out, answer the questions online while reading your printout, get your score, and get explanations of answers and see sample essays.

All of these are excellent resources for students preparing for the SAT. I think all college-bound students should at least sign up for the Question of the Day AND go through the Practice Test process. Then, if the score isn't as high as is wanted, students and their parents can make decisions about whether to take a course at a local college or buy the online course ($70) or buy one of the prep books online or in a bookstore. (You can also go to a good search engine, search for SAT practice, and find other sources of prep materials. Just be careful of the junk that's out there!)

If a student is considering a college or university that requires the SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT II or The Achievement Tests), then here is a good place for further information, practice, etc. -

Another good resource at the College Board's website is for PSAT, AP, and other tests. Just click on For Students at the home page, and you'll find a link to these tests near the top left of the screen. There are many other uses of the For Students section, including Plan for College, Find a College, Apply to College, and Pay for College.

And finally, from the home page, there's a good section For Parents - excellent information in here and their new Parent Email Service.

If students are thinking about taking the ACT as well, just go to for many of the same kinds of information the SAT website has.

And Texans should be sure to check out this website:

Please post questions in the comments section.

Monday, May 14, 2007

School's almost out

What to do with kids for a whole summer looming ahead?







Weekend trips.



Math practice:
Intermediate/middle school
High school <~~two separate links here!


Science fun.

Trip to northern New Mexico?

History fun and review

I guess those would be enough to keep kids busy. I hope so anyway!

If you have any questions or suggestions, please post in the comments.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Really good, helpful website

This morning, through a fellow tutor at Jiskha, I found this amazing website. Its title is fairly mundane, but the approach is wonderful: straightforward and startling!

There are subtitles and attention-grabbers such as these: "Write Better. Right Now." and "Stop. Writing. Junk."

Just use the different links in the section above the red stop sign to navigate the website. For example, this morning there was a question on Jiskha about the use of the article the. I looked in several of my other stand-by grammar websites, but I couldn't find anything that approached the student's particular question.

So now I have a new website to add to my list of grammar websites, and perhaps this one will be at the top.

Questions? Be sure to post them in the comments.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

How to use [sic]

Interesting error here - and it seems to be a common one whenever most people give it a try: the misuse of the abbreviation sic within brackets inside a quotation.

"A rousing round of complaints and emails later, Berry posted an apology on his blog. It says in part: 'When I’m wrong, I’m big enough to admit it. (sic) I was simply wrong.' "


The abbreviation sic is to be italicized and used in brackets [ ] not parentheses ( ), for one thing. For another, it is to be used to indicate that the writer understands that the original speaker or writer (the quoted person) made an error. The bracketed abbreviation - [sic] - is then to be inserted immediately after the error. Is that what's going on here? I don't really know. There is an error there (the vague use of the pronoun it), but is that what she is recognizing? If so, her post should have read like this: A rousing round of complaints and emails later, Berry posted an apology on his blog. It says in part: "When I’m wrong, I’m big enough to admit it [sic]. I was simply wrong."

It would certainly be nice to be able to get inside this writer's head and find out what she thought she was writing! Maybe I'll ask her.

Penmanship -- who cares?

One recent type of assignment for my grandchild in fifth grade is to write his spelling/vocabulary assignments and quizzes in cursive rather than manuscript (printing). That’s an assignment that just blew him away at first, poor baby. I hadn’t realized that no one had ever taught him how to make the letters correctly, much less how to connect them smoothly. His major problem has been connecting letters that end high (such as the cursive o or v) with letters that begin on the line (such as the cursive s or r). He really struggled. Of course, I wrote words out for him and showed him how to make the letters and the connections, but for a child who has spent the past 4½ years printing, it’s been difficult. I went to the D’Nealian website and printed out a sample page. That helped greatly with the lower-case letters, showing the progression from manuscript to cursive. But the upper-case letters aren’t available on that particular website, so we practiced writing those ourselves. All the upper and lower case letters and printable practice sheets are available here and here.

My grandchild in first grade is being taught D’Nealian manuscript (printing). I don’t know if that’s a conscious choice on the teacher’s part, but I’m very happy about it. She will have a much easier time transitioning to cursive than her brother is.

Who cares what children are taught in school? We all should. Obviously, just about all these children have and will continue to have access to computers, but throughout their school years, the legibility of their handwriting (manuscript or cursive) will matter. What my grandson needs to understand is that, if his teachers cannot read what he’s writing (or printing), they won't know what he really knows. In other words, if they can’t read it, it’ll be marked wrong.

To me, writing (cursive, that is) is much faster than printing. I know that to other people printing is all they’ve done, so it’s become quite fast. Others employ a mix of printing and writing, and for the most part it’s legible and fast. Still others have such poor results – printing or writing! – that about all we can do is hope they have access to computers for everything except signatures!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pronunciation and Spelling II

I wrote before about how the spelling lists for first and fifth grades in my grandchildren's school are organized primarily by similar sounds and/or similar patterns. I think we've had good success this year for two reasons -- spelling test scores are rarely under 100% for either child and (more importantly) once they learn something, such as the spelling of a word, they rarely forget it.

There was an exception last week. I thought we had it conquered, but I was surprised when my fifth-grade grandson missed a word on his test the previous Friday. He had misspelled families as famalies. Hmmm! So, of course, I asked him to say the word aloud, and sure enough! He pronounced it with an "a" sound in the middle of the word. So we talked about pronunciation again, and he seemed to have it straight. I know it was only one word, but it's a very common word, and he needs to know it as thoroughly as he knows his basic math facts. I doubt he'll make that mistake again.

All this also depends on what kids hear around them, too, outside their homes and outside the classrooms. In songs, for instance, I often hear the word heaven pronounced hea-vun. And in jest, I've heard (and seen in print!) the word whipped pronounced wupt! Some are funny; others aren't, but they're always fodder for helping kids learn the real pronunciation and therefore clean up their spelling.

Pronunciation is key for most words in English, thank heaven. If parents and teachers are good models for their children, they'll help in this language-acquisition process.

Don't forget: If you have questions about anything regarding your child's/children's English assignments, or just questions in general, don't hesitate to post them.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Like ... are you tired of it yet?

I know it isn’t news that the word like is terribly butchered and misused these days. I guess what pushed me over the edge is the latest self-promoting ad on The Weather Channel for their new special show called “Epic Conditions.” (It’s probably just as awful as their “It Could Happen Tomorrow” and “Climate Code” programs are!)

In that self-promoting ad, the word like is misused at least six times in less than six seconds! It just grates against my ears!!

So how should the word be used? The word like has more than one definition and use, just as many words in English do. At present, I think the best place to look up words, terms, and phrases is, so I went there and looked up like – and it tells me that this word can be correctly used as a verb, a preposition, an adjective, an adverb, and a noun. Phew!

As a verb: He really likes his steak and potatoes.
As a preposition: He is very tall, like his uncle.
As an adjective: Those three students have like interests in electronics. (meaning similar)
As an adverb: She drove like crazy to get her injured child to the doctor’s office.
As a noun: In describing a person, you can include her likes and dislikes.

If you go to the link above, take a look at the fourth definition under adv. You’ll find the word Nonstandard. This is the slang that shows up in our children’s and teenagers’ (and too many adults’) speech these days! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard kids misuse this word, I’d be rich!!

“He said … and I was all like, ‘Wow!’”

I’m like gonna go into WallyWorld now. Bye!

She has like five shirts that are all the same.

Rich, I tell you!! I'd be like richer than Bill Gates!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I ran across a strangely done blog post yesterday. [NOTE: At some point after I first wrote this, the blogger corrected the error. At first there were no paragraph indications at all; it was just one l-o-n-g paragraph! Now there are paragraph divisions, but (as is usual in blogging) the paragraphs are not developed fully, as they should be in academic papers.]

It's the first time I've seen a blog post or any news article which is not divided into paragraphs. It might have been a technical error on someone's part since other posts at this particular blog aren't like this. But it reminded me of an uncountable number of student papers I've seen over time -- one long paragraph! Every time I see something like this, my mind just shuts down. In my classes, I'd just hand the paper back with no grade and tell the student to rewrite it with the proper paragraphing. For a blog post, though ... I just can't read it!

How does one know when to begin a new paragraph? For an academic paper, the answer goes back to the pre-writing stage -- especially, the brainstorming and planning steps. If a student does complete brainstorming and then plans or organizes the ideas in the paper (in outline form, usually), the individual paragraphs will be indicated beforehand. The student will know when to begin the next paragraph if he or she is following the plan or outline.

What should a paragraph include? A decent guideline is about 6-9 or so sentences that focus on one sub-topic in the paper. It'll include a topic sentence, several supporting-detail sentences, and a conclusion/transition sentence.

There is no cut-and-dried formula to follow for every single paper, but the guidelines will work if the student learns them, follows them, and alters them to fit the ideas he or she is trying to make clear. The point is that everything in each paragraph demonstrates development of the main idea of the piece of writing.

Questions? About anything? Post your questions in the comments section.

Monday, January 08, 2007


One of the funniest cartoons I've seen lately is "Dilbert," in yesterday's paper. Here's a link to it:

I know that a living language is always going through changes of various kinds, as well as additions to the vocabulary. In recent years, most of the new vocabulary in American English has come from all the advances in science and computers that have occurred and still continue. However, when people make up words that aren't necessary, it really makes me laugh ... for a while anyway.

One of the most frequent errors that I heard for several years was the use of the non-word orientate. We already have the words orient (the verb) and orientation (the noun), but I guess some people didn't believe the verb could have fewer syllables than the noun!

Anyway -- enjoy the cartoon, and please don't go around making up non-words to confuse people!

Remember: The comments section is for any questions or comments you may have about English, especially if you are trying to help your child with his or her homework and you're up against a wall with it!