Category: school

Admission Essay Tips

I’ve had several friends and family members mention their children are working on admission essays for college right around now, and it’s made me nostalgic. Back in the day, I moonlighted as an admission essay advisor. (Actually, I checked to see if my old company is still kicking around, and it is. They specialize in law school applications, and they’re now charging $895 for the full service. Honestly, when you consider how important it is to some aspiring lawyers to get into “the right” law school, and what that might do for them long term, I think it’s a pretty good investment. They end up with some pretty stellar essays, if I do say so myself.)

I won’t go into detail about what we would talk about during the drafting process. It’s too complex to really get down into a blog post, probably because in many ways, it felt much more like therapy than it did like simply drafting an essay. I think many people expected us to just say “write this,” but we’d start right at the beginning with coming up with the proper topic. Something that represented the person and was compelling. That’s harder than it sounds (and it sounds pretty hard.) We’d ask them to do a ton of free writes on various topics, and then we’d sift through those free writes for nuggets that could be used later on.

I did that for a few years. I was never as good at is as the founder (who was just fantastic), but I think I did an okay job. And from my experience with it, I do have a few recommendations for people who are looking to write a good essay for a college application.

  • Be yourself. Honestly, I think this is one of the biggest principles people should keep in mind. The rest of your application will detail all about how smart you are, the classes you took, your extracurriculars. The essays are a chance for you to literally show the committee who you are beyond those facts and figures. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. Everybody’s doing that. I know you might not think you’re unique. You’re wrong. It’s just that it can be hard to see yourself accurately enough to realize the things you do that are really you.
  • Don’t fall into the rut of just rattling off the first topic that comes into your head. These usually fall into tropes that a whole slew of people are also writing on. The Big Sports Game. How Hard My Life Is. How I Overcame That Hard Thing. I’m not trying to say you can’t write on those topics, but if you do, you raise the baseline of how good your essay needs to be to stand out. Think of it like this: the committee is reading through hundreds of essays. Which will be easier to stand out with: one of a hundred essays that talk about The Big Sports Game, or one of the only ones that discuss how hard it was to give up your addiction to broccoli? I guarantee you one of those will be more memorable than the others.
  • Show, don’t tell. I know, it’s a principle that’s been repeated so many times it seems trite, but it’s repeated because it’s true, and it’s a huge key for a good essay. Here’s the thing. The committee doesn’t know you. If you use your essay to tell them who you are, then they are liable to question your claims. If, instead, you show them who you are, then they will believe it so much more easily. I could tell you I’m a hard worker. Great. You might or might not believe me. But I could also tell you that I worked sixty hours a week for a charity drive for the last three months of my junior year, all while keeping straight A’s and taking care of my ailing French poodle. (Note: not actually true.) But if I tell you that story, you will likely come to the conclusion that I am a hard worker. If I don’t have to come right out and say it, it’s so much more powerful.
  • Provide details. This is connected to the Show Don’t Tell principle. Get specific. Don’t tell me the room was messy. Describe the mess. The smell. The way the molding potato chips squelch under your feet after three months.
  • Keep it focused. Decide what you want the takeaway of the essay to be, and then make sure that’s what it’s centered around. You don’t have a lot of space. It’s going to have to be tight to have it be good. Too many people try to throw in everything they can think of to try and fill all that space. If you’re doing it right, you’re going to be bemoaning how little space you have to get it all done.
  • Take time. When I was working with clients, I would work with them for weeks. Months, sometimes. Lots of people sit down and try to bang out an essay in an hour or two. If you wait until the last minute to do it, then that’s what you’re stuck with. If you start well ahead of time, you have so much more time to get it done right.
  • Don’t worry too much about the prompt. Most of them are pretty generic on purpose. Write a great essay, and then tailor it to the prompt if you absolutely need to. But they’re almost all there to try and get you to show who you are. Start with that.
  • Be careful about what you include. The wrong sentence in an essay can stick out and erase everything else you had in there. You might have a gorgeous essay that’s just incredible, but if you throw a quote from Hitler or Stalin, that’s going to be the one thing the committee ends up remembering about you. “Do you remember the kid who quoted Hitler?” (Hint: that’s not a good thing.) In other words, watch out for sexist, racist, elitist language.

Honestly, this is a topic I could probably write three or four more posts about easily. I think the biggest takeaway is to remember that the essay represents who you are individually. It’s your chance to show the committee why they simply have to have you come to their school. So many people will be trying to just wow them with the same themes, over and over. Make yours unique and well-crafted, and you’ll really stand out as an individual.

Please Remember to Vote YES

It’s the latest round of public voting on the school budget today. This time, we want the budget to PASS. So please vote Yes. Voting times are as follows:

Chesterville Town Office, from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Farmington Community Center, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Industry Town Hall, from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
New Sharon Town Office, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
New Vineyard Smith Hall, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Starks Community Center, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Temple Town Hall, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Vienna Fire Station, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Weld Town Office, from 4 to 8 p.m.
Wilton Town Office, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In Which a School Budget Meeting Goes Right

Denisa and I went off to yet another school budget meeting to vote on the latest proposed budget. (For those of you playing along at home this is for the 2017-2018 budget. The one that started in July. Yes, we’re still trying to get it set. This has been a doozy of a year.)

After the last such meeting went so horribly wrong, I was left discouraged and pessimistic that any chance of turning things around would be within reach. I honestly felt like throwing in the towel, and my post after that meeting reflects that. I concluded with this:

Democracy is decided by those who show up. It doesn’t matter in the end if they show up because a little yellow sign told them to or because they did extensive research into a subject. Their votes count the same, either way. And either way, we will have a school budget that the majority of voters in our community support. The question really becomes “Who cares more?”

But then the community poured out for the vote, and they overwhelmingly came to the budget’s defense. So we got essentially a do over. A Groundhog Day-esque chance to redo that horrendous meeting, and that happened last night.

And it was wonderful. 300 people showed up to the earlier meeting. 550 showed up last night. 200+ of the people voted to slash the budget at the earlier meeting. 500+ voted to support the budget last night. It was completely overwhelming. A massive tide of school supporters that simply flooded the gymnasium. They had to keep putting out more chairs and bleacher seats to keep up with the people who kept coming.

The meeting still took 2.5 hours, but the tone of it was very positive. For the most part. There were two significant blips in that. The first is the traditional voice of confusion embodied by one lone voter who inevitably rambles her way through the same tired questions time after time. She doesn’t believe she’s getting honest answers. She doesn’t really seem to understand any of the answers she does get. So she keeps asking the questions each time. It’s frustrating for everyone. She’s clearly upset, and so is everyone else who’s forced to wait through her muddled queries. I’m typically patient, but I’ve sat through enough of these meetings to see this for what it is.

The second blip was new. A voter (sorry: DOCTOR) from a local town who was very aggravated about the fact that the school budget had been attacked, and who had shown up to defend it willfully. You could tell he was frustrated with the glacial pace of the meeting, and while I can certainly relate(!), I also believe we can look for more polite ways to handle it. (For those of you who are new to the area and didn’t get the repeated references he was making to where he works, might I point you to his web site, which I present without further comment? He does have a doctorate in biochemistry, after all.)

In any case, it’s done. The budget is set again and ready for a vote. It appears the opposition has thrown in the towel, but we simply cannot lull ourselves back into complacency. We need that many people showing up time and time again. Because you never known when the opposition will come back, and our schools’ budgets have been slashed enough. Perhaps with that amount of support, we can begin to start bringing in new initiatives to not simply keep our students’ heads above water, but to start branching out into new directions.

A guy can always hope.

The vote is October 24th, and this time, please vote YES.

Thank You to the Voters

The slashed budget came up for a vote yesterday. It was representing almost $1 million in cuts for the coming year, and I was very concerned what would happen if it passed. Needless to say, I was on edge the whole day. My gut told me the budget hawks were already bringing out as many people to the polls as they could. The big question in my mind was how many people the school supporters could really turn out. We’d seen some great response the last few weeks, but none of it matters if people don’t show up to vote.

The result?

Our opposition increased their turnout by 12.5%. They had one of their strongest showings, with 1,608 votes in their favor. But that’s about where they’ve fallen in before. Our side increased turnout by 124.3%. Read that number again. We more than doubled our support, bringing in 2,893 votes. So we ended up defeating the slashed budget by 1,285 votes. 64% opposed to 36% in favor.

Naturally I’m ecstatic. It felt so validating to have so many people turn out to show their support. Though I will admit 36% is still a very concerning number to me. It means that a full third of the community was totally ready and willing to accept the massive cuts that were on the table. I recognize many of them thought it was a bluff. That the school board would never really cut sports, drama, music, arts, and more. Up to 30 teaching positions. But they heard all of that and decided it was worth the risk anyway.

That’s troubling, and I think it speaks to how serious they are about the need to reduce spending. When a third of the community feels like that, I believe they should be listened to. Not that we should go through with all the cuts they wanted, but they need to be recognized and feel like their voice was heard. Otherwise, the rift only grows greater.

And we’re going to need some mended fences to come together, because we’re not done yet. From here, the school board goes back to the drawing board to see what sort of a budget they want to propose next. (The fourth such proposal.) That will then go to another budget meeting, where the public can vote to approve it or change it. And then that final budget will need to be voted on one more time.

Hopefully, that budget will be one that spares the schools from massive cuts, but reassures voters who are concerned about spending increases. Communication will be key.

And turning up to vote, both at the meeting and at the polls, will remain essential.

But for today, I’m just relieved and happy. Celebrations are in order, and then it’s back to work. Thanks to everyone for their words of support and encouragement. It really means a lot.

A Comparison of School District Budget Spending in Maine

There’s a consistent complaint aimed at my school district: it’s spending too much. It’s out of control. It’s trying to compete with rich districts in southern Maine. And budget hawks come up with any number of statistics to try and support this. The budget is up millions in a few years! Our administration has gotten huge raises! Grab your pitchforks and torches!

On the flip side, I’ve heard school supporters continually claim we’re well below our peers, and that the district is very careful with its money.

Both sides can’t be right. So instead of buying into the hype on either side, I did what I wish everyone would do in cases like these: I looked into the matter myself. The Department of Education in Maine publishes all the relevant data. You can look at it all here. And with a bit of research, you can interpret that data by region, comparing it to a map of the districts here. For 2015-2016′s budget (the most recent published), I compared my district to each of the surrounding districts, going on the assumption that those districts closest to us would be the fairest peers to compare ourselves to. Here’s how it broke down

  • RSU 9 (Mount Blue): 10,277.85
  • RSU 58 (Philips/Strong): 10,947.24
  • RSU 74 (New Portland): 11,305.85
  • RSU 59 (Madison): 11,712.27
  • RSU 54: (Skowhegan) 11,111,91
  • RSU 18 (Belgrade): 10,504.59
  • RSU 38 (Mount Vernon): 11,127.93
  • Fayette: 9,980.68
  • RSU 73 (Jay): 11,094.05
  • RSU 10 (Rumford): 14,470.53
  • Average: 11,348.78

And here’s that in graph form:

Per Pupil

You’ll see numbers that don’t match that graph. It’s because they’re made up by people who want to tilt the scales one way or the other. The official Per Pupil Operating Costs are calculated by the state by excluding major capital outlay, debt service, transportation, and federal expenditure. Why is it calculated that way? Because it’s the best way to compare apples to apples.

For example, our district recently constructed or renovated two buildings. The state pays for the bulk of the cost (something like $5.5 million of the $6 million cost), but that isn’t reflected in the bottom line of our budget, which shows *all* costs of the district, including those covered by the state. To include that number when trying to compare per pupil operating costs would warp the data. It would make it appear Mount Blue is spending far more on its students than it actually is.

Which, of course, is why budget hawks try to do just that when they do their calculations. Try to tell them about the state figures, and they get all huffy, trying to discredit the state. “They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s all mumbo jumbo.” Well it isn’t.

We’re told our district’s budget has been skyrocketing while every other district’s in the state hasn’t. Again: not true. The average annual increases for the past fourteen years?

  • 3.2%
  • 4.0%
  • 5.0%
  • 2.9%
  • 1.0%
  • -0.3%
  • 0.4%
  • 2.6%
  • 6.1%
  • 6.5%
  • 5.7%
  • 5.5%
  • 4.3%
  • 5.4%

The dip in numbers is around the Great Recession. Which was the last time the school board was under fire, except back then it was because they were trying to cut the budget too much(!) It’s just getting more expensive to teach kids in an age of rapidly advancing technology and rising utility costs. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. And that applies across the board.

The fact is, every single time I try to look into what’s actually happening in the district, I discover the school board has been open and honest in its presentation, and the detractors have been warping and misleading the public. Their whole campaign to reduce the budget is built on misinformation and outright lies. (What’s the difference? I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt when they first state something. That’s just misinformation. But when they’ve been corrected and shown the accurate information and persist in spreading that misinformation? Then they’re just lying.)

Don’t buy what they’re selling. Vote no today!

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