“I want them to find their own voice and develop their story so admissions officers want to know them better.”
— Laura Levitt
Applying to college can be a daunting process for high school students. First they must select challenging courses each year and earn the best grades they possibly can. They prepare for the SAT and/or ACT, often taking prep courses or hiring private tutors. While students are working to achieve success in the classroom, they are also supposed to participate in extra-curricular activities, student service learning and meaningful internships that define their career goals or personality.
During their junior year of high school, they should be exploring colleges and selecting their dream (or reach), match and safety schools. The summer prior to senior year, they gather applications and find the time to start writing those essays required for most college applications. Many families employ independent college counselors to help with the selection and application process. The local high schools, both public and private, also have college counseling services in their guidance departments.
Potomac’s Laura Levitt has carved out a support niche. Known as “AppCoach,” she inspires students to better understand themselves in order to write their strongest essay. Levitt doesn’t ask a student’s test scores or GPA, not wanting to make assumptions about their abilities. She concentrates on brainstorming, pushing hard, teaching students to edit and fact-check. She persuades her students to analyze who they are and encourages them to consider their skill-sets and personalities.
“Every student has a compelling story to relate to admissions counselors; they just don’t know what it is yet. And they don’t fully grasp how they are viewed by others, especially people they don’t know. The power of what one writes often becomes the determining factor in whether he or she is accepted into their college of choice,” said Levitt.
Some of the essay prompts on the Common Application for 2015-2016 are: “Option #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Option #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
Levitt said, “It is best if a student comes to me at the beginning of their junior year to begin the process.” She holds a kick-off meeting to meet the student and parents and to discuss expectations and procedures. “I’m tough,” she said, “And I let them know up front how demanding I am. I ask for their buy-in to my process and for their commitment to work diligently on their essays, to spend the time needed to make them meaningful and creative. After the initial meeting, we work by phone, email, text and with Google Docs so we can edit, refine, and edit some more. We seldom meet again in person, which is convenient for the kids, and by keeping myself at a distance I can be the stand-in for that unknown admissions person who is going to read their essays. Their first drafts are usually soft and overblown. I want them to find their own voice and develop their story so admissions officers want to know them better — and to admit them to their student body because they bring diverse thinking to their school. Then, the kids finish out their senior year with the skills they’ve learned working with me, and they go off to college with a more mature approach to their writing. It’s a tremendous advantage.”
Levitt has served as a college application writing coach for 13 years. She typically works with five high school students at a time; some are local, while others are out of state and have never met her. She also works with graduate students seeking admittance to business, medical, law, dental, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech, organizational psychology programs and more. “I help students apply to a whole gamut of schools,” she said, “and what’s been really gratifying in recent years is having former high school clients return to me for their grad school or fellowship applications.”
Levitt tells of working with a young woman wanting to major in nutrition. She had traveled to Cuba and, in her college essay’s first draft, ranted about Cuba, its politics and the deficient diet of its citizens. Levitt asked to see photos of her trip and together they studied them. The student had not realized that her pictures focused primarily on Cuban kitchens, the paltry amount of supplies, antiquated equipment and lack of nutrition. Levitt said, “Those visuals were compelling and became her ‘way in’ to her essay’s new theme. We discussed her feelings about the kitchens and I got her to imagine herself living in that environment.” Levitt also had her meet with a World Health Organization specialist in nutrition whose interest area was Cuba. Instead of a political statement, she wrote her essay so a university would better understand her zeal for seeking solutions to nutritional deficiencies around the world.
Levitt also discussed a young woman who flew to a journalism conference before her senior year in high school. Instead of advising the student to write about the conference, she asked her to consider how she felt while on the plane, and meeting so many youths from around the U.S. The student then wrote about “the girl in seat 22C and her opportunity to reinvent herself at the conference. The piece had an unusual point of view and beautifully showcased the applicant’s personality.”
“If I didn’t forbid my students to use the word ‘passion’,” said Levitt, “I would say that working with them is my passion. I love it. It’s creative and energizing. I have been fortunate to have a 100 percent success rate, so these days I tell the kids — Don’t be the one who breaks this streak.”
For more information about “Appcoach,” email Levitt at firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also be reached at 301-537-9876.