WARREN, NJ - Seniors at Watchung Hills Regional High School kicked off the college application season last week with two evening sessions sponsored by the Guidance Department: Senior Night on Thursday, Sept. 18, attended by students and their parents; and a College Essay Writing Workshop on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
The essay writing workshop, attended by about 100 students, was a pilot program offered for the first time this year. It was organized by Guidance Department Supervisor Catherine Angelastro, Curriculum and Instruction Director Mary Ellen Phelan, and English Department Supervisor Marlene Stoto.
English Department staff will continue to be available at various times in the weeks and months ahead, at lunch times, and before and after school, to give assistance to all seniors who seek help in composing, reviewing, revising and polishing their college application essays, Stoto said.
If the pilot workshop proves to be widely popular and useful, the school may consider scheduling a second workshop or a larger workshop in future years, Phelan said. Phelan said the workshop was conceived of as a true working event, where students spent some time discussing what makes for a good essay, reading several typical essays, thinking about possible essay topics, and possibly sketching out a rough outline for their own essay. They also received pointers from English department teachers on what college admissions officials are looking for in an essay, and some pointers on how best to write a succinct and powerful essay for applications.

The College Application Season
There are some 550 students in the senior class this year, and many will be involved in the college application process. Some of the first deadlines in the process loom as early as Nov. 1, and the application process typically lasts well into January. Several other special college application-related programs have been scheduled for the next several months, including the annual Financial Aid Night on Tuesday, Nov. 11, Angelastro said.
There are also nearby college fairs in Bridgewater-Raritan on Tuesday, Oct. 14, and Summit on Wednesday, Nov. 12. There are also test dates for the SAT Test and SAT Subject Tests during the next three months, on Saturdays Oct. 11, Nov. 8, and Dec. 6. The next ACT Test dates are Saturdays, Oct. 25, and Dec. 6.
Guidance Department Support
At Senior Night, students and their parents reported directly to one of eight breakout rooms, where Guidance Department staff walked them through some five broad areas of discussion, including: How to choose the colleges to apply to; where to research colleges; the application process; financial aid and scholarships; and dates to remember.
In one of the groups, Guidance Counselors Glenn Graham and Robert Carmenini urged students to take an active role in completing their college applications. Graham and Carmenini said they had heard of instances where a student is asked in an interview about something in an application the student clearly had not filled out. It is embarrassing, and it doesn’t make a good impression, they said. Angelastro said that as many as 105 college representatives will be stopping by Watchung Hills Regional High School this year to speak to students about their colleges and universities.
Carmenini said that figure is significantly higher than when he started on staff eight years ago. He added that, likewise, the student attendance at these college representative visits has increased dramatically in recent years. That leaves a good impression on Watchung Hills in the eyes of college representatives.“The college representatives who come here, want to come back” because of the response they get from Watchung Hills students, said Carmenini. Students who have alerted the Guidance Department of their interest in certain colleges and universities will be notified electronically when representatives from those schools will be visiting Watchung Hills.
Graham and Carmenini assured students and parents that the Guidance Department would do its part to ensure that all required accompanying documents to the application would be assembled and sent to colleges on time. They said they want students to complete the application in a timely fashion, and then rely on the Guidance Department to do its part, so that the students can concentrate on their studies and maintain good grades. Colleges receive the complete grades of first semester senior applicants once the grades are finalized in January, so maintaining good performance in the classroom is important, they said.
Like many other high school students, Watchung Hills students have been compiling a resume on the electronic site, www.connection.naviance.com, since Freshman year. Through that web site, they also complete a common application, and can access a variety of other web sites with information pertinent to the application process. College applications are virtually paperless at Watchung Hills at this point, according to Carmenini, and many colleges require that.
Guidance Counselors assured parents that Guidance will be available to answer questions, trouble shoot problems, attach key documents, and help manage stress.
Essay Workshop
English Department teachers on Tuesday night gave key pointers on what college admissions officials are looking for in college application essays, what types of themes are best to write about, and how best to write the essays. In today’s market, with so many applicants and applications, essays must be kept relatively short, must be well-written, and must be on-point, said Phelan. Roy Bumiller and Mike Porter, English Department teachers, said that in writing their essays, students should, “Keep it anecdotal. Keep it interesting. And keep it real.” While the college applications and other materials, including test scores, resumes and lists of extra-curricular involvement, provide college admission officials with the numbers needed in making the decision of which students to accept, the essay puts a human face on the data, Bumiller and Porter said. A strong essay helps to answer the question: Will this student make a difference on the college campus? The essay should also answer the question: Who is this person applying? Bumiller and Porter said that through the essay, students should try to come across as thoughtful, in both senses of that word: They want to show themselves to be considerate, sure, but also insightful, able to consider topics at a college level of insight and scholarship.
Students should be positive in their essays, should use their own writing voice, and avoid writing yet another listing of their resume. That material is already covered in the application, resume, transcript and test scores. The essay is the opportunity for students to reveal their personality. In breakout workshop sessions, the English teachers covered principles of good essay writing for college applications in greater detail. Phelan, who had been English Department Supervisor and English teacher last year, and who has taught at the college level, led one of the workshops. She picked up on what Bumiller and Porter were saying about making the essay interesting right from the start. College admissions officers have to read many essays. They are looking for compelling essays that address the topic posed by the application, that are succinct, that avoids clichés and being self-serving, and that reveals the person behind the application.
Once written, students should ask several readers, such as parents, teachers, and a good friend, to read the essay, and make helpful suggestions, Phelan said. However, students should be careful to not ask too many people to review the essay. Sometimes too many readers and suggestions can confuse the process.