16 Easy Ways for Improving Your College Essay (Before Bringing it to the Writing Lab)

Beaker Beaker

I never cease to be amazed at the number of students who don’t use the Writing Lab — a free service (well, it’s included in your tuition) offered by my alma mater— especially since it doesn’t require making an appointment (which is why I hardly use the Lab at my current uni; I’m a fan of “first come, first served”).

After my first semester of community college, I ran everything by the on-campus Lab; however, I loved sending my creative pieces (for my poetry and creative writing classes) to the OWL (Online Writing Lab), as I received such thoughtful feedback. One of the pieces I submitted (“A Memoir of Mother Goose,” which has since been published on Medium) won first place in the college’s annual writing contest; the Writing Lab Supervisor helped me tighten up the structure, making it not only something I could be proud of but something that honored the people whose stories I told.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to see my rough draft — only my polished one — and for this reason: the fewer small mistakes there are, the more likely that whoever reads my paper will catch the big mistakes. If your tutor is having to wade through too many misspellings, punctuation errors, and/or too much bad grammar, they might miss things like content and structure.

At the Writing Lab, I tutor college students (not just in English, but in history, science, and even graphic design — as they pertain to writing), I’ve noticed a lot of things students could do that would make their session even more productive and help them become better writers. I realize many hate writing, and that’s unfortunate, but to do well in school and at many jobs, you have to write capably, such as the cover letters and resumes before hire and the emails you may have to write after. 

As for college writing, here are 13 things all students should do with their paper before they come to the Writing Lab.

  • Outline your paper, on paper (not on your phone). This way, you’re not starting with a blank page. Craft your thesis and topic sentences. Once you have those and your paraphrases and/or quotations, you can structure your paper and fill in the blanks. However, if you just need help getting started, the Lab is great for that, too. After all, the Lab was where I learned how to construct an outline. Once I learned thesis statements, topic sentences, and how to break something down to the smallest of details, I was able to write any research paper. These things made me a better writer, for I learned how to structure a paper and avoid parallelism.
  • Read the story (or whatever it is) before you start writing about it. Read all your sources, highlighting and annotating as you go. This especially helps if the book is long and/or boring. Post-its are great for marking paragraphs in longer works. 
  • Bring a copy of the assignment. Just telling the tutor you have to write an essay won’t help them help you. Are you writing a reflection, a literary analysis, a research paper? Tutors need a frame of reference.
  • Run everything through spell check, even if Google Docs isn’t flagging anything. Just do it. Then, copy and paste your document into Word and run a check. Some people like the Hemingway app, but I think it sucks (even though I still use it on occasion). Maybe if it was called the Shirley Jackson app, I’d like it better; Grammarly also offers a free app. Even though I know how to spell, and everyone knows I know how to spell, it is quite embarrassing when I publish something with a misspelling, especially since a handful of my friends have English degrees.
  • Write your paper as soon as you can, so you can leave time to put your paper away for a day or two and go back at it fresh. Let it be a smelly pile of rubbish — just get it out of your head and onto the paper/screen. Take notes while in class (you don’t have to type them up, as you won’t use them all, thus saving a step); don’t just scribble what the professor says, but what other students say and what you are thinking about what they are all saying. This has been a lifesaver in my American Lit class (where I’ve only liked one of the four books we’ve read thus far).
  • Print out your paper, so you can make marks on it, which leads to the next step. 
  • Read your work aloud. I do this with every paper that comes into the Lab unless the topic is a sensitive one (we have a private room for that if need be). The eye catches grammar, punctuation, and misspellings; the ear captures more content-related elements, such as how your paper flows. One of the students I did this with was catching her mistakes as I read, and she was amazed at how much of a difference reading it aloud made. I want the students who come in to remember my advice and use it, so they won’t keep making the same mistakes (but rather, different ones).
  • Make the changes to your paper that the tutor suggested and then bring it back for another read, so he or she has a clean copy. Ideally, you will get a second (and different) set of eyes to coach you on how to improve your document and writing skills. I remember asking my supervisor why the students could only check two categories (e.g., grammar, punctuation, sentence errors, content, structure, formatting, and documentation) rather than get it all done in one sitting, and she told that students would be overwhelmed at all the changes they would have to make at once. 
  • Remove contractions (unless they’re in a direct quote). Look on the sunny side: Doing this will increase your word count. 
  • Connotation matters. For example, don’t refer to children as kids (also known as young goats). Use academic language. 
  • Be precise. Don’t use the words “thing” and “stuff.” Spell out what the “thing” is. For example, instead of saying, “Writing was her favorite thing,” say, “Writing was her favorite hobby, pastime, activity, etc.”
  • Don’t use filler words/phrases. Some examples are “very,” “really,” and “just” (the last of which I am guilty of). Rather than saying something is “very important,” say it’s “paramount.” As for phrases, “to be perfectly honest” is the one I hate the most because of course, you’re going to be perfectly honest with your reader.
  • Properly format and cite. You don’t want to lose points on something easy. If you think this stuff is silly, remember, it’s all about attention to detail. I still think of the poor lady who lost a ton of money on Wheel of Fortune for saying “Seven Swans a-Swimmin’”, cutting the g off the gerund.
  • Don’t leave empty-handed. Get handouts from the Writing Lab on the particulars that confuse you (commas seem to be everyone’s Achilles heel), and keep the ones concerning formatting and documentation on hand. Unless you write college papers all the time, you won’t remember all the nuances.
  • Remember that tutors are lifelong learners. I still have to get help with something I am unfamiliar with sometimes. I remember a professor telling me that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one was that the former knew where to find the answer (and it’s not always Google or an algorithm).
  • Tutors will help you cite sources, but libraries will help you find them. When you find a source, copy and paste the link into a Google Doc so you can find it later. I’ve seen students who will have a great quote but will be unable to use it because they can’t find where they got it. If I’m getting my information from a book, I use bookmarks and sticky notes.

Doing these things before you go into the Lab just might make a letter grade of difference.

Sweet Little Nothings

If you are reading this you are beautiful and worth it chocolate

Meg Trundy was a sofa-sitting,
truffle-eating,
binge-watching pile of marshmallow fluff.
When the TV got crushed by a giant meteor
in the shape of a hard-to-find size 10 shoe,
she went to the library to change her lifestyle,
only to end up changing her life.

The Great Book Review Project

What I call “The Great Book Review Project of 2019” has been a grueling one.  I almost made it to the finish line before the official summer season ended, but I knew this would happen once I went back to school.  Though it’s been a fun challenge, I don’t think I’ll do it again, as the books I’ve chosen myself have a far better track record.  However, this process did expose me to books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. 

My biggest complaint?  When the message gets in the way of the story.  

Adults often want to teach⁠.  I had an early childhood education teacher who basically said if a book wasn’t nonfiction, it was a waste of time (for me, as a fiction writer, that was a sleight of hand across the face)⁠; she liked to “learn something from what she read.”  Reading fiction is a valuable way to spend one’s time; here is just a sample of what you get from doing so:  https://medium.com/@farrtom/the-real-world-benefits-of-reading-fiction-ccc7d8ab3f62

There were 7-10 books I didn’t end up reviewing, only because they were wordless picture books (I wasn’t quite sure what to do with those), they weren’t available at the library, or I didn’t feel I could give it a fair review because of the subject matter.  There was one that was so horrible (it promoted violence) that I didn’t even want to give it space on my blog. 

So even though I didn’t always enjoy the books (and neither did my daughter), I loved coming up with suggested activities to accompany the books.  This Christmas break (maybe), I will collect all of them and pick out my favorites, rechecking out the best books and completing the activities. This summer, we’ve just been grinding it out, trying to keep up with reading through them fast enough to get the next ones we have on hold. 

Interestingly, months after I completed this challenge, I would end up enrolling a “Literacy for Emergent Learners” class as an elective.  (Basically, I’m learning how to teach kindergartners and first-graders how to read; it’s worth it if I can just teach my own not only how to read but how to love books.)  I don’t have any desire to be a teacher (I’m way too shy for that); that is why tutoring is more my scene.  However, I do believe that taking this class will help me learn how to write for children, which is totally my scene.  

Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  It is something we can do privately without any fancy electronics.  I’ve always liked to say that books are greater than TV because all stories on screen have to first be written.  With the advent of YouTube, not so much anymore, but the great plays, films, shows, speeches, and songs must have talented writers. 

Writers matter.

Book Review: The Wall in the Middle of the Book

Wall

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

Take away the painfully obvious reference to Trump’s wall, and what do you have?  A dull story. 

This is another classic case of the message getting in the way of the telling.

The book has a fair amount of negative white space, which is a good thing.  However, what is there isn’t much; The Wall reads like a Dick and Jane basal reader, and the illustrations are ho-hum (or fee-fi-fo-fum).

That said, using the physical structure of the actual book to serve as the brick wall in the middle of the book is clever and the best part of it.

As I read this, I found myself not enjoying the story but rather trying to figure out what the author meant when the large (and typically scary) animals on the other side (who are trying to climb over the wall) freak out over a mouse, instantly making these rotund, exotic animals (who are more or less indigenous to the African continent) less scary.

The missing brick, for me, represented that no matter how good a firewall (or a border wall <cough, cough>) is, there is always a way around it (or under it, etc.).

About halfway through, the little knight is proclaiming how safe his side of the wall is while his side turns more and more treacherous the higher he climbs up the wall.  The animals disappear, and now there is a giant (seemingly scary) ogre on the other side.  However, the boy is so focused on how safe his side is and how unsafe the other side is that he doesn’t notice the dangers on his side until it’s almost too late, and the ogre saves him.

My take?  The water levels rising below the little knight with a shark ready to make a snack out of him represent global warming and Americans involved with child trafficking. 

The other side of the wall is portrayed as downright “fantastic”⁠—where ogres are lifeguards and wild animals are herbivorous and there is only imagined danger.  Apparently, people risk their lives to go to the little knight’s side because it’s so good on their side and not on his, and drug cartels are a myth.  I don’t blame anyone for wanting to escape from that.

The Wall in the Middle of the Book is not a terrible book; it’s not just a terribly interesting one.

Suggested activity: Most every child has an activity table (horizontal surface); let them have a wall (vertical surface) to mess up. Put up a whiteboard wall or paint a chalkboard one.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37969835-the-wall-in-the-middle-of-the-book

Book Review: Let the Children March

March

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

What I liked about this book is that it uses all of its real estate (a historical timeline with children holding up cards like protest signs is printed inside the cover; it was clever and visually appealing).

The illustrations capture that time period perfectly with its retro colors.  Let the Children March opens with a child’s-eye view of a chain link fence supporting a White Only sign.

Even though it is stated that Dr. King is in a church, a Bible passage that Dr. King also used should have been included (though I can understand the author wanting this book to appeal to more than just Christians, as equality is an issue that should transcend religion).  The page of Dr. King in profile behind the microphone with his Bible on the pulpit was a powerful image and a wonderful likeness. 

This book contains some of the best children’s illustrations I’ve seen, as so much depth of emotion is conveyed in the faces of the main characters.  

I can understand why the adults feel like they don’t have the freedom to march–as exercising that freedom would come with consequences⁠—out of fear of losing their livelihoods.  You’re told you have these rights, but if you exercise them, there are dire consequences.  No one should have to choose between their jobs and their freedom.  

March showed the fearlessness of children⁠—children who were able to do what their parents could not.  They represented an almost innocent sacrifice, though it is stated that Dr. King did not like children being put in harm’s way.  It is heartbreaking that children had to fight for what adults should have been able to fight for them rather than just be children, learning to read and playing with their friends.  How frightening it must have been to march towards the unknown, knowing only that it was filled with angry people who were much bigger than you.  

The aerial shot of the children surrounded by hate in the form of angry dogs and rushing water made my throat catch.  The policeman with the hat over his eyes, pulling the curtain on the windows to his soul as he pushed a little girl by the neck and locked these young children into a jail cell was chilling. 

Children need to see that Dr. King promoted non-violence as the news prefers to cover only violent protesters.  It would’ve been nice to include the song lyrics to the songs of freedom.

“For they are doing a job for not only themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind,” Dr. King says.  I think this was an important quote to include because what is not good for a certain group of citizens cannot be good for any citizen, as it promotes feelings of disenfranchisement and stirs unrest.  

The juxtaposition of the white parents whose children sat safely between them in the comfort of their own home, watching the television where this ugliness was not a part of their world but something they saw on TV with the black parents being separated from theirs, not knowing what might happen to them, struck a chord.  I could just feel love and relief emanating from the black parents who held their children in their arms as if they never wanted to let them go, contrasting this tableau with the white parents who didn’t have to hold onto their children so tightly, knowing that they would never be targeted because of their racial make-up.

I greatly admire these (fictitious but based on truth) followers of Dr. King, for it must have taken an amazing amount of grace for them not to become violent back; they gave their enemies no ammunition for treating them like non-persons.   

The last picture shows children in the park (bringing it back to the beginning), black and white, playing together; it was never the children who minded⁠—it was only some (not all) adults who wished for the races to remain separate.  

Let the Children March is a beautiful book that will help any child “walk in another’s shoes.”

Suggested activity: Read Dr. King’s most famous speech, but if you can, listen to it in his own voice. It’s all the difference between reading someone else’s poem to yourself and listening to the poet who wrote it, speak it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32510367-let-the-children-march

Book Review: Bowwow Powwow

BowWow

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

The only redeeming value of Bowwow Powwow was the title, with its nod to ablaut reduplication (https://www.rd.com/culture/ablaut-reduplication/).

I can understand why the author would make this book bilingual—if it was only published in the Ojibwe language, few would buy it, so including the English translation was smart.  

It has been said that in 100 years, the only languages that will be around will be English, Spanish, and Mandarin, which I think is a shame, for I do believe it is important to preserve languages (like animal species, trees, art, etc.), especially in this world that is becoming increasingly homogenized.  

The illustrations were awful—flat, without nuance, and downright creepy—all had a darkness to them and the people looked like something out of a cheap comic book.

The humanoid dogs and cats—wearing human clothing, marching, and playing the drum—was extremely creepy; closer representations to nature would’ve been appreciated.  And what was up with all the sunglasses when it was dark out? Was it to mask the windows of their souls? 

Though those who have an interest in Native American customs would probably give this book a look, especially those who are a part of the Ojibwe heritage, but there isn’t a story here; rather, the nonfiction portions would’ve been better rewritten as a passage in a World Book Encyclopedia or Encyclopedia Britannica, sans the illustrations.

I generally come up with a suggested activity related to the book, but when I hate a book this much, I just don’t have it in me to do that.  

Highly not recommended.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39665297-bowwow-powwow

Book Review: All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah

Jewish holiday

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019 

For those unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, this is an excellent introduction to one of its biggest holidays.  The most I knew about Hanukkah was from watching the 1959 film, The Diary of Anne Frank.  I don’t think the title does it justice (Gertie’s Hanukkah would’ve been a better title and made a lot more sense), but the illustrations worked (as the illustrator said, she kept them roughlike potato latkes); they reminded me a lot of Mercer Mayer’s (of Little Critter fame).  These earth-toned sketches fit the impoverished setting (life was hard if you lived in a tenement; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn came to mind, except the family was Irish rather than Jewish).

The title page is nice, but more NYC background throughout the book would’ve been great.  I have noticed in many children’s books that maps are sometimes printed inside the covers—I think that should’ve been done in this one, which would’ve added another teaching tool.

The story is simple and relatable—younger girl wants to do what the older girls are doing, which the youngest of any family could relate to. My daughter loved the page where all the girls are cooking—it is something she is quite familiar with.  All the illustrations should’ve stuck with a double-page spread layout.

Though this is set in the era of “children are seen not heard,” the mother—who appears authoritarian and much more masculine than her husband—should’ve tried to find something for Gertie to do—telling her child to look at a book or go play, rejecting her when she actually WANTS to help, was not nurturing at all.  Children want to feel included, not be exiled. Besides, Gertie can hear her sisters having fun while she is banished to her bedroom as punishment.  How was that supposed to make Gertie feel? A lot of things take longer with kids, but when they want to help, let them, because the time will come when they won’t be offering.  

But, Gertie’s dad understands and lets her have the job of lighting the menorah (with his help); the picture of him holding Gertie to light the candle was my favorite. 

I liked that a glossary was included but rather than putting it in the back, there should’ve been footnotes at the bottom of the page, as flipping back and forth disrupts the story. 

The deal with the dad asking Gertie’s pillow and library book where she was was odd—if you’re going to ask an inanimate object, ask a doll or stuffed animal—something with a face. 

I’m glad the author just stated that the blessings were done in Hebrew rather than including them.  I’ve never liked other languages (other than the occasional word, accompanied with a context clue) embedded in the story as they detract from the story; I often end up skipping over them anyway.

The last picture is heartwarming—I loved looking through their window, watching this large family sit around a table, enjoying a holiday meal.  I got the impression that the mother offered Gertie the first latke as a consolation prize/peace offering, which was her way of saying sorry without admitting she was wrong. 

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is the kind of book I like just enough to read around that time of the year.  

Suggested activity:  It is interesting to note that many miracles have to do with increase (i.e. making something last longer or increase in number).  Whether or not you’re spiritual or religious, show how being thankful can make what you have seem like more than you have, as it takes the focus off what you don’t have.  Have your child write down (or say) what they are grateful for—a reverse holiday wish list. You can even make a game of it by making it less serious (e.g. I’m thankful for the letter X because it gets me a lot of points in Scrabble).  Watch some of Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank you notes” for ideas.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31193452-all-of-a-kind-family-hanukkah