How to Write a Private High School Application Essay Worth Reading

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If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember:

Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.

Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.

But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay, I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.

Remember Your Private High School Application Essay Audience

The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is. Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.

This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before. It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.

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One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you.  You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.

But all too often students, especially in the application process, forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.

From private high school applications to college ones, this is information that your child will be using for many years. We want to keep up with their journey, so click here to get updated resources and tips so we can help them every step of the way.

The Importance of the Essay Topic

What is the root of this cause? The topic.

If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.

So, how do we accomplish this?

It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.

Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.

“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”

Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”

While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.

What Your Topic Should Be Instead

When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”

Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.

So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.

The Essay’s Opening Paragraph

Don’t believe me?

Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?

1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”

2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”

Next Steps: Your Perfect Admissions Essay

Okay, now you have the framework.

First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.

Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.

If you found this article helpful, click here for more free resources and tips that you can use to prepare your child for any application process that comes up next!

Your Private School Application Timeline (Here’s how to prepare, step-by-step)

private school timeline image 1The first step to finding the best private school match for your child is to understand the timing of the process.

Although the timeline varies a bit from school to school, the following schedule is a good overview of what to expect and when to expect it.



  • Begin to compile a list of schools that meet your criteria. Request catalogs from selected schools and peruse their websites.
  • Take an SSAT diagnostic test. Request a test now!
  • Review diagnostic scores to determine if prep is needed and if so, when to start.


  • Fill out online applications for the schools you are considering. Begin the financial aid process.
  • If you haven’t already done so, attend an open house or go on a tour. (Note: Some schools require an application to be submitted prior to touring the school.)
  • Schedule interviews and shadow days.


  • Request letters of recommendations.
  • Register for the SSAT or any other necessary testing to be completed in December. If you need accommodations, plan about a month ahead to make sure you have all the necessary documentation.
  • Submit the candidate questionnaire (usually for grades 7-12).


  • Complete the interviews and shadow visits. Send thank-you notes afterwards.
  • Complete financial aid forms.


  • Final opportunity to take the SSAT.
  • Submit applications and send in all supporting documents for schools with December deadlines.


  • Be sure all applications, testing, and supporting documents have been submitted. Beat deadlines by a week or more.


  • Stack rank your schools.
  • Wait for the admission letter, unless the school is on a rolling admission schedule.


  • Watch for decision letters, which usually arrive via email early to mid-month.


  • Plan revisit days to the schools to which your child was accepted.
  • Make a final decision.
  • Inform the schools that your child won’t be attending of your decision.


When in doubt about a particular school’s timeline, give them a call directly. Admission departments are always happy to help!

Webinar: Does The PSAT Count? Here’s what you need to know

All the time we get asked by parents of high school sophomores and juniors:

“Do we need to pay attention to the PSAT?”

And the answer is… it depends.

Now it is true that your score won’t be seen or count towards college admissions, but there are a few reasons why you may not want to give it a pass.

The PSAT is an opportunity to:

  • Prepare for the actual SAT and get direct feedback on where you need to improve before you do
  • Get used to the test format and the test environment
  • Get put into consideration for the National Merit Scholarship

So in that light, we decided to put together a free webinar this coming June 15th, hosted by Ann Dolin, M.Ed., to help you sort out how to best take advantage of the PSAT.

In the webinar with Ann you’ll learn:

  • When should my child take the PSAT (and why)?
  • Who sees the scores once they take it, and do they count for anything?
  • What’s the National Merit Scholarship and does my child have a chance?
  • Should you prepare for the PSAT, and how do the scores translate to performance on the actual SAT?

To register for the June 15th webinar (held from 12:15 to 1pm eastern), just click the link below and enter your name and contact information.

We’ll email you with a link and the confirmation details so you can easily join in on the 15th.

See you in the webinar!

Categories SAT

Webinar: Learn How To Ace The SSAT

If you’re a parent, and you’ve started the process of looking at private schools for your son or daughter, there’s one thing that’s clear:

You care deeply about their education.

You want to give them access to the best teachers, the best curriculum, and the best opportunities for getting into top colleges and going on to be successful in life.

But your biggest problem right now?

Figuring out how to get them IN to your top choice private school in the first place.

And one of the biggest hurdles to doing that is…

…the SSAT

Now you probably know at this point that the SSAT is the entrance exam most private schools in the D.C. area use to decide (among other things) to accept or deny your child when you apply to attend.

But there’s also a good chance you don’t know too much about it beyond that. (Who has the time to keep up with all of these standardized tests anyway?)

When it comes to the SSAT, a few things that are true for most families:

  • You know it’s a requirement, but you don’t know what it is, or what’s involved in getting ready for it
  • When you finally do start looking into it (maybe after your kid takes a practice test and the results that come back are NOT stellar), it’s usually too late to do much about it other than some last-minute crash study sessions
  • And this all ultimately puts pressure and stress on you AND your kid(s), because you’re all well aware that most competitive schools want to see strong scores

We know this all too well, so we decided to put together a free webinar this coming June 14th to help you sort out the whole SSAT process now, so you can be ready when it counts.

In the webinar with Ann you’ll learn:

  • What’s on the SSAT and how it’s scored, so that you know what to have your kid(s) study ahead of time, and the types of questions they should be prepared for
  • What a “good” score is and how important it is in the private school admission process (so that you know where you stand, and what your chances of getting in are)
  • The easiest ways to IMPROVE your child’s scores if they’re not up to par, with step-by-step recommendations on how to maximize their score by the time the actual test rolls around

To register for the June 14th webinar (held from 12:15 to 1pm eastern), just click the link below and enter your name and contact information.

We’ll email you with a link and the confirmation details so you can easily join in on the 14th.

See you in the webinar!

The August SAT: 3 Steps to Take Advantage of One of the Rising Senior’s Last Ditch Efforts…

For years, SAT and ACT exams took a summer break along with students, meaning that students could get away with taking a short break from preparation before taking an early fall exam.

But no more!  For the first time ever, the College Board has announced that there will be a summer SAT, which will take place on August 26th.

What does this mean for prep? If your child is a rising senior, it means that this is one of her last chances to take the test before she begins applying to colleges. She has likely taken the test once or twice already and is looking to get that score up in order to get into her target schools. If your child does not take advantage of the summer downtime and begin preparing for the test, the summer slump is likely to kick in and those scores can drop. So the pressure is on to recognize the urgency of preparing this summer.

Have your rising senior follow these 3 steps to ensure she is ready for the August test:

1. Prioritize your areas of focus.

This means that you have to decide which sections you need to review the most.  Do this by reviewing your previous score reports (and if you don’t have previous score reports, take a practice exam ASAP!!). See which sections you did the worst on and start reviewing concepts from these sections, since there’s the most room for improvement, waiting a couple of weeks to revisit the sections you did well on.

2. Start prep NOW and make a study calendar!

This means TODAY—not next month.  Remember that the first step to preparation is making a timeline and scheduling when you’re going to study, complete homework, and take full length practice exams. Treat your preparation like a class, penciling in a couple 1-2 hour study sessions on your calendar every week.

3. Take full length practice sections and exams multiple times.

Taking full length sections is the ideal follow-up to a study session.  Furthermore, taking a full length practice exam after every 4 weeks of prep is essential to conditioning you for the exam and giving you more information regarding your continued areas of struggle and improvement.  Don’t forget to add deadlines for taking full length practice exams and full length sections on your study calendar.  This will help hold you accountable to actually completing these tasks.

And of course, don’t forget to make sure your child registers for the actual SAT exam here.

Worried your rising senior isn’t ready for her last ditch effort? Let us help!  Email our test prep manager, Payton, at [email protected] or submit a Get a Tutor form today.

New Summer SAT Date Announced! Should My Rising Junior Take This Test?

Your child just finished 10th grade and now he wants to prepare for the first-ever summer SAT—what?! Is this a good idea, or a wasted effort?

Now that the SAT has announced a late summer test date—August 26th—for the first time ever, you might be wondering if this should be your rising junior’s first attempt.

Taking the August SAT might be a good match if your child

1. Has Determined the SAT is the Right Test.

Before taking the SAT or ACT, you will want your child to take a practice SAT and ACT to determine the test that is the best match. Do not use the actual August SAT as a “practice” or “trial” run. Sign up here to take a free full length practice test of both the SAT and ACT before school is out to determine the right test for your child.

2. Took Pre-calculus/Trig as a Sophomore.

Math on the SAT goes up to trigonometry, so your child should not be taking the SAT unless he has already taken pre-calculus. You don’t want your child to take his first real exam before he has been instructed in all the content.

3. Is a Recruited Athlete.

If your child is a recruited athlete and tests must be completed prior to spring, then preparing for and taking the August SAT is a slam dunk move. Utilizing the summer for prep leading up to the August SAT will allow your recruited athlete the knock out an exam before school even starts, giving him another 1-2 chances to take the test again in the fall.

4. Has Heavy Spring Commitments.

For children with heavy spring commitments—including sports schedules, band or orchestra events, or other training and travel commitments for an extracurricular—taking the summer SAT as their first time and then subsequent tests in the fall will leave their schedules open in the spring. Taking the August SAT, or an early fall ACT if that is the test of choice, would alleviate stress for your child who will need and want to devote time and energy to his extracurricular activities come spring time.

If we can be of help in designing a test preparation program best suited for your child, or if you are interested in learning about the services our tutors can provide, email our test prep manager, Payton, at [email protected] or submit a Get a Tutor form today!

Learn the Basics of SAT/ACT Preparation

If your child is in 11th grade or headed into 12th grade soon, it’s time to start thinking about the SAT or the ACT.

But where to start?

Should your child take the SAT, the ACT, or both? When should preparation begin? How many times should the test be taken?

If you’ve got questions like these and are early in the test preparation process, listen to Ann Dolin on WTOP giving an overview of the basics of the test preparation process or read the transcript below.



These tests are on a lot of kids minds this time of year. When exactly should students be taking the SAT or ACT?

Most juniors will take the test twice, in the spring of their junior year and if they’re not happy with their score, in the fall of their senior year. Usually, they take it the two to three times just to make sure that they can get the best score possible.

We’ve got the SAT is coming up again on May 6th, June 3rd, August 26th. And the ACT dates are April 8th, June 10th and September 9th. Most students give themselves about three months leading up until a test date to prepare.

Should kids take both tests?

No, students should pick one and just study for that test, otherwise, they’re splitting their focus. Every single college in the country that requires testing accepts both tests, so there’s no need for kids to put added stress on themselves studying for two very different exams.

It used to be that most kids took the SAT, but that’s not the case any longer. In 2011 the ACT overtook the SAT for more tests administered. And since the SAT changed their format last year and there was so much uncertainty, we saw even more students elect to take the ACT, and we’ve seen that trend continue.

What is the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

The ACT is a faster paced test and includes a lot of questions in a shorter amount of time, but the questions are straight-forward. There’s a math, reading, writing, and science section (which mostly reading comprehension and data interpretation). A perfect score is 36.

The SAT is more a test of critical thinking skills. Although there are fewer questions on the SAT, they are longer and a bit wordier and take more time to answer. Like the ACT, there’s reading, writing and math (which includes a section in which kids cannot use a calculator), but there’s no science section. The highest score you can earn is 1600.

What is the best way to prepare for these tests?

There are three ways for kids to prepare: buying a book and prepping on their own, taking a group class or getting one-to-one tutoring.

In addition to practicing the content and strategies, one of the best way to boost your score is to take practice tests. We (and many other organizations in the community) offer these for free on the weekends.

Practice under simulated conditions are beneficial for a number of reasons. When kids are just starting to think about preparing, taking a practice SAT and ACT can help them determine which test is their natural strength. And once they decide, taking a few of these mock tests along the way helps with fatigue issues – because these tests are four hours long — and this type of practice decreases anxiety because kids know what to expect when they go to take the actual test. And when kids are less stressed and more prepared, they score better.

If you are interested in having your child take a free diagnostic ACT and/or SAT, sign up here or call us at 703-934-8282.

SAT NEWS FLASH: The Accommodations Process Just Got Much Easier!

SAT LogoIf you know anything about what it takes to go through the approval process for accommodations on the SAT, you’ll be thrilled to know that things just got simpler.

Accommodations refer to adjustments made to the administration of the SAT based on a particular student’s needs.  Common accommodations include extended time, extra breaks, large-print testing booklets, and even multi-day testing.

In the past…

In order to be approved for accommodations like the ones listed above, you had to have your child go through psychoeducational testing, which takes time, money, energy, and can cause stress.

But here’s the good news…

If your child receives accommodations at school (like through an IEP or a 504 plan) and the school will vouch for this, your child will qualify for those same accommodations on the SAT without the need for any additional paperwork. A representative from the school will just need to communicate with College Board to certify that the student receives accommodations.

Also, if English is not your child’s first language, College Board is offering additional accommodations including the option of reading directions in the student’s native language and receiving assistance on vocabulary.  By fall of 2017, non-native English speaking students can also get extra time and the option of testing in a space with fewer distractions that the main testing room.

Check out the original College Board announcement here.


Choosing & Preparing for the ACT or SAT

Our Test Prep Tutors evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses during their first session. Each session targets areas where improvement will have the greatest impact on test scores. But what happens if you’re unsure of which test your child to take? When do you start preparing for these exams? What even is the difference between the two!?

Our Test Prep Coordinator, Payton Marshall, let’s us in on everything you and your child needs to know when preparing for college entrance exams.


What is the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

The ACT and the SAT are two very different tests.

The ACT is a much faster paced test and includes a lot of questions in a shorter amount of time. It is formatted similarly to tests your child takes in school right now. The content is information they have learned throughout their high school career.

The SAT is more of a strength test and tests your child’s critical thinking skills. She has to use the analytical side of her brain. Although there are fewer questions on the SAT, they are longer and wordier and take more time to answer.


Should my kid take both tests? How do I know which one is better for them?

There is no need for your child to take both the ACT and the SAT. All colleges across the country take either the SAT or the ACT, and one is not looked at as better than the other when determining your child’s acceptance.

Some parents will ask, “Does it matter what my son wants to major in? If they’re going to be an engineer, should they take this test over that test?” It makes no difference. Both tests are looked at equally, so your child should pick the test that is better suited for him or her.

To find out which test is better suited for your child, it’s best to look at a practice ACT or SAT score, his PSAT result, or other practice tests he may have. Our Test Prep Coordinator works to compare scores from different tests to determine which test has a higher score. Some kids also know which test they would like to take because they have a preference for one over the other.

Once the preferred test is selected, your student can begin preparing and channel all of their focus on that one test, which is must more advisable than dividing attention and energy over preparing for both tests.


When is the best time to take the test? How many times should my kid take the test?

Most Juniors will take the real test for the first time in the spring of their Junior year. Usually, Juniors will take it anywhere from two to three times later that spring and early summer. Sometimes they’ll take it one more time in the fall of their Senior year. Typically, if you can get all two or three tests out in the spring of their Junior year, it’s best, because most kids aren’t extremely diligent about preparing over the summer for a fall test. Usually, they take it the two to three times just to make sure that they can get the best score possible. Maybe one day the testing room was too cold, or they had a bad headache or something like that. By taking it two to three times, they can maximize their score. By the spring of their Junior year, they have learned all the academic content that they need to be prepared for the test.


What is the best way to prepare for these tests? When should you start if you want to take a test in March or May?

The first step is to determine where your child is in the process and where he wants to be. Take note of which schools he wants to apply to and what kind of exam requirements they have. Have a conversation with him about what his score goals are and where they are regarding completing that goal. If he is planning to take the test in March, for example, then January – after the holidays – is the best time to start preparing. Our test prep tutors would encourage him to take the test in March, then again in June to compare scores. Since slow and steady preparation is the best approach, doing one session per week leading up to the test is one of the best options. He can sleep on it overnight, practice throughout the week and then meet with the tutor the next week to review.

Obviously, there’s more than one way to prepare for tests. You can, of course, prepare on your own. If your kid is good at self-study, she can pick up a book and prepare herself. There are plenty of free online sources out there that help with this kind of test preparation. While most high school Juniors are not that self-driven, some are indeed able to do this.

You could also sign up for a group class. There are plenty of group classes available. However, group classes are at the mercy of the group. Everyone gets the same curriculum, and the instructor goes through the class at the group’s pace, not the individual student’s pace. There is also the one-to-one approach, where the tutor focuses directly on your student to find his or her strengths and weaknesses and work on their weaknesses to try and increase scores.


If your student needs guidance on which test to take, contact us at 703.934.8282 to speak to our Test Prep Coordinator.

Our January Tutor of the Month is…

When it comes to helping students with college entrance exams, organizing homework folders and binders, or studying for Algebra II, Nana Abrefah can do it all. Since October 2016, Nana has worked with students prepare for their upcoming ACT and SAT exams, improve grades in Algebra II and Pre-Calculus, and helped younger students straighten up backpacks and binders. With all his success, Nana is our January Tutor of the Month!

We spoke with Nana to see how he manages his time with students and helps motivate them to complete difficult homework tasks and problems.

What’s the #1 way you engage your students?

The best way I have found to engage students is incorporating their interests—both immediate and long-term—into our sessions. To me, an immediate interest is something like a favorite sport or favorite band. Long-term interests can be goals, like matriculating at a very selective college. For instance, one of my students likes hockey. Thus, to work on English skills (reading comprehension, argument building and analysis, diction and structure), I have him work with newspaper articles on hockey that should be at or above his reading level. He practices active reading and must effectively explain the content and structure of these articles. I have found this method keeps him engaged even on days when he does not have much schoolwork for us to work on together.

This approach can apply to any student; even the most motivated students sometimes benefit from remembering that what they are learning does not exist in a vacuum and probably relates to many things they already like or would like to achieve for themselves. For test prep students who put so much time into studying for one test, it cannot hurt to remind them of all the doors they are opening for themselves!


What is one thing you tell students who are preparing for the SAT or ACT?

As cliché as it may sound, be confident! These tests are not measures of how smart or worthy you are. They examine specific skills that colleges believe are central to successfully taking on a college curriculum. Even better, these are skills you have been exercising throughout your academic career! You have all the tools to do well; excelling is not an impossible task.  Especially working together with a tutor, you can improve content areas and timing issues if you take the time. It is only natural to feel nervous about the ACT or SAT (top test takers feel this way, too). However, never forget that you are capable and that you have put in the work to succeed! Less time spent worrying also means more time to check your work.


What’s the number one study strategy you use in your sessions?

I think my favorite study strategy is the “Tolerable 10” because it is so broadly applicable. The Tolerable 10 is ten undisturbed minutes of work followed by a short break or debrief. For students who have a harder time focusing, it provides a sustained work period and time to decompress. It gives the lesson a little more rhythm. For test prep students, it also works very naturally to improve timing on different sections, and afterward, we can open a dialogue about the work they just completed.


How do you inspire confidence in your students, especially if one of them is feeling deflated?

To keep my students confident, I try to remind them of precisely why I am there—to help them understand the material regardless of how many methods it takes! Schools obviously must operate on some timeline; I think a common source of failing confidence among students is a feeling of being behind. But when we as tutors are working with students, they have no reason to feel this way! I try to establish this with each of my students. There is nothing wrong with being confused and there is no need to stay quiet or apologize for not understanding something. We are working together to learn and apply that knowledge.

To work with a great tutor like Nana, give us a call today at 703-934-8282!