Helping Students Apply Themselves

National Honor Society (NHS) and student council advisers have unique insight into a distinct group of college-bound students—the ones who typically model exceptional scholarship and leadership. Consequently, as an adviser, you are often on the front lines—right along with parents and family members-when it comes to supporting the most high-caliber students in their college application journey. You wouldn’t think this group of students would experience anxiety when it comes to completing a college application, but it may be their high-achieving tendencies that cause them to get so stressed.

To help students prepare for various aspects of the college application process, NHS launched a virtual college application essay-writing workshop series this school year. The workshops are highly interactive sessions with writing prompts. Sessions could be viewed live or on demand, and all workshops have been recorded and are now available for viewing by any NHS member. (Your members will need your school affiliation number when they sign on, so be sure to make the number available to them.)

Several workshop presenters offered advice, so we’ve summarized their recommendations. Their insight is universal and serves as guidance for any student completing an application. Share this sage advice with your students.

Dispelling Panic

Crystal Newby, who hosted the “Perfecting the Personal Statement” workshop, explains in her presentation to students, “I really have been in your shoes. I went through the college search process and experienced the anxiety of preparing for the SAT and filling out college applications. I remember the nervousness of waiting to get back my test scores and waiting to hear if I had been accepted.”

Her expertise comes from a unique vantage point. “I used to be an admissions counselor and had the pleasure of reading thousands of applications during my tenure,” says Newby, who is now assistant director of education and training for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

When it comes to the application itself, she says, some admissions representatives take a holistic approach. “It means that they look at the whole picture. In addition to looking at grades, class rank, and test scores, schools that take a holistic approach might also look at letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and an essay or personal statement,” she says.

For some, she says, the essay sparks “a moment of panic while students rummage through their brain figuring out exactly what to say. How much should you share? Should you tell them how many siblings you have? Your favorite color? Your favorite food? The name of your first pet? This moment of panic is sometimes evident when students are asked to write a personal statement as a part of a college application.

“It can be difficult to talk about yourself, showcase your strengths, and basically convince someone why you’re the best fit as a member of the incoming freshmen class,” Newby says. During her workshop, she shared a few activities to help students.

The Life Map

“Draw your life map. It’s a pretty simple concept where you put yourself in the middle and link to the people, places, and things that are most important to you.”

Once you’ve drawn your map, she recommends that you “ask your family and friends to share their perspectives of you. Send a text or pick up the phone. Ask them for the first five words that come to mind when they think of you. Looking for outside perspectives is a great way to see just how awesome you are!”

Consider using pictures for inspiration. “With social media being so popular, we pretty much document everything in our lives,” she says. “Pictures are a great way to remember significant events in your life and that can translate to a personal statement topic.”

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

In a workshop session called “Discover Your Voice,” Marilyn G.S. Emerson, a certified educational planner, recommended 10 things students should avoid in their writing.

  1. DON’T be boring. A great essay should paint a picture of a special moment. Rather than giving a laundry list of their activities, students should focus on a single story, interaction, or a skill learned.
  2. DON’T list honors or awards. An applicant’s activities list already gives an overview of his or her main accomplishments. Students should use the word count to help the reader get to know them through a story.
  3. DON’T write about sensitive topics. In other words, stay away from politics and religion.
  4. DON’T talk about sports. This one may surprise athletes. Why avoid sports? Well, it’s too predictable. Almost everyone knows that the story will be either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Unless an applicant’s story is truly unique, the topic should be avoided.
  5. DON’T try to use humor.This may come as a surprise, too. But seriously—applicants should not attempt to be funny. If humor comes naturally, that’s great. But don’t force it.
  6. DON’T discuss volunteering and trips. This is one of the most popular essay topics. Since so many students write about it, it can be a boring cliché. Students who do decide to talk about volunteering should pick a single moment in time.
  7. DON’T write an anti-essay. Intentions may be good, but students should stick to the traditional essay format and let their creativity show through the story they choose to tell.
  8. DON’T explain bad behavior. Bad behavior should not be the focus of an essay because it is not the focus of who the applicant is as a person.
  9. DON’T blame or credit others. Students should take responsibility for their experiences. While a passing mention of a role model or a positive influence can show humility, the essay should focus on the applicant.
  10. DON’T talk about tragedies. Topics like death and divorce are exceptionally difficult to write about. So, if this topic is chosen, applicants should keep the focus on themselves and make sure to address the issue with maturity.

Tackling Scholarship Applications and Essays

Once the college apps are done, many students choose to pursue scholarship options. In the “Sharing Your Story Through Scholarship Application Essays” workshop, Andrea Elzy, an educational leader and curriculum design consultant, offered five tips to help students successfully tackle those applications.

  1. Do your homework. Students must know what scholarships are available. Scholarship options include those earned for academics, sports, and extracurricular/co-curricular activities. Students must discern which scholarships might apply to them based on the scholarship’s terms and their particular attributes.
  2. The more applications, the better! The application process can be tedious, but it can also be fruitful. Students may opt to apply for one large scholarship, but many small scholarships can add up to big dollars. That said, students should not limit their options. They should apply for as many scholarships as they can to maximize their chances of receiving aid.
  3. Stay organized. Many scholarships have very specific requests for information, including transcripts, personal statements, and other materials. Creating a chart can help outline scholarship amounts, GPA requirements, requested materials, important deadlines, etc.
  4. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Students must understand that scholarship deadlines are hard deadlines. If a student fails to submit his or her application on time, it may be rendered void. So, students should avoid submitting an application late after spending a considerable amount of time to complete it.
  5. Read, create, and complete a purposeful application essay. No matter what the scholarship is for—academic merit, sports, or individual attributes—it is critical to completely read the terms of the scholarship and provide all information requested. More than likely, the scholarship application will require an essay. Students should consider the following 10 questions while writing their essay:
      • Have I outlined the reason(s) why I am qualified for this scholarship based on its terms?
      • Does my essay answer the questions outlined in the scholarship application?
      • Am I accurately and honestly painting a picture of myself and my reason for applying?
      • Does the essay express my need and/or what compelled me to apply for the scholarship?
      • Does the essay follow all guidelines (formatting, word count, etc.)?
      • Have I appropriately introduced myself to the application reader?
      • Does the essay outline and highlight my strengths? (Students want to be sure they are being competitive in their essay.)
      • Does my essay discuss my intended future academic and professional endeavors? (Remember, scholarship program readers want to know what they are financing. What will the student be studying and how will this scholarship help the student achieve his or her goals?) Have the application and essay been edited? Are they error-free?
      • Have I reread the application and essay prior to submission? (This helps to catch any possible errors.)

All workshops are available on demand for members, faculty, and school counselors. Visit www.nhs.us/virtualNHS to watch any session.


Terry Lowe-Edwards is a senior copywriter with mdg, a full-service marketing agency specializing in solutions for association and event clients.