high school students Middle School Top Tips writing

Get Published This Winter

Students often tell us they dream of being published, but are resigned to waiting until graduate school when they are working with distinguished faculty members. We (gently!) guide our students in understanding that technically you don’t always need a mentor or manager or faculty member to supervise your work or your writing, or comment on your photography or art or poetry -or your literature review, to get published.


You can secure a publication solo IF you know where to look and how to prepare.

If you’re engaged in your classes and actively writing, you likely have papers and Word files collecting virtual dust on your laptop. Bring them back to life, get them read, get them out!

As the great Sylvia Plath once said, “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.”


Check out these 5 ideas on where to pursue publication ASAP:

  1. West Virginia Press has a call for submissions for their print anthology (a BOOK) called “Essential Voices: A Covid-19 Anthology.” They are seeking poems, stories, recipes, or works of art “that reflect upon the experience of COVID and COVID related issues in your life.” (open to all ages, due 1/15/21)
  2. The Architectural League of NY is asking some pretty insightful questions this month: “At a time in which our relationships to both private spaces and the public realm have been thrown open to question, what lessons can we learn from looking carefully at the world around us? How can we better understand the places where we live—the histories that have shaped them; the social, economic, and political mechanisms that make them function as they do today; the communities they structure; their possibilities for the future?” They are seeking submissions of photographs, videos, or drawings accompanied by short written observations “about the spaces around you, with the goal of creating a visual archive that captures the relationship between society and the built environment in this unprecedented time.” (open to all ages, due 12/31/20)
  3.  The Sunlight Press is a nonprofit literary arts journal for “new and established voices.” They are seeking nonfiction personal essays, fiction, poetry, book reviews, artist reflections of their work with photos of their art, and photograph submissions (open to all ages, submit after 1/4/21)
  4. Girls Right the World is a literary journal seeking female-identifying writers and artists (ages 14–21), to submit work for consideration in their fifth annual issue. Submissions can include poetry, prose, and visual art of any style or theme. (open to all ages, due 12/31/20)
  5. And  –for students in grades 5-12 who love astronomy and space, NASA has a ‘Scientist for a Day Essay Contest’ asking writers to focus on which moon they’d travel to and how/why (grades 5-12, due 2/12/21) 


The neat thing about securing a publication is that it stays with you for life –on your Common App, in your graduate school applications, in your resume, and on your LinkedIn profile. More eyes on your published work means more eyes on you, more networking opportunities, and more engagement with peer scholars and top researchers. Seeking more personalized ideas and assistance with preparing your submissions to publication outlets, peer reviewed journals and conferences? Let us help!

college admissions College Application Secrets Common Application Common Application Essay Top Tips writing

5 Tips for a Compelling Common Application Essay

For many high school seniors, the Common Application’s personal essay is the most intimidating part of the admissions process. What are admissions officers looking for? Are there particular topics you should avoid? How can you possibly summarize your interests and goals in 650 words? What do they mean when they call it a “personal essay?”

If the very idea of tackling this essay leaves you feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry! We’re here to help. Below, we’ve listed some of the most important things to keep in mind when putting together your personal essay. If you can follow these guidelines as you plan, draft, and polish your applications, you’ll be in great shape! And bonus tip, it’s not really personal, meaning they don’t care about your personality or your deep, dark secrets. Read on.


1. What Makes You Stand Out

Every year, admissions officers receive thousands of essays that sound similar. Some of these address cliché topics (e.g., winning the big game, being transformed by a volunteer opportunity); others simply don’t make clear how the applicant differs from other students.

Before you begin writing your essay, take some time to think about what makes you a compelling applicant. Are you an amazing writer or an incredible biologist? Are you a budding political activist? Have you developed great resources to support the homeless population in your area? Whatever it is that makes you stand out, that is what you should be discussing in your college essay! Not what you want to “do” in life, but what you’ve done to elevate yourself to present as a compelling candidate. Give the reader a zoomed in snap shot of what it is you will bring to college.

2. Turn Your Essay Into A Story

The Common App asks for a “personal essay,” but you’d do better to think of your writing as a personal narrative. Use this as an opportunity to tell a story about yourself, one that — like all the great stories you’ve read in English class — includes a compelling opening, some narrative tension to keep the reader invested, and a satisfying conclusion. If, for example, you want to write about your background as a programmer, don’t just tell us that you can code and list your achievements. Instead, tell us a story about how you were confronted with a seemingly impossible programming challenge, how you spent months studying a particular programming language to debug your code, how you finally succeeded after multiple failures, and how this has shaped your current approach to computer science. Giving your story a narrative arc will make it both more enjoyable and more memorable. The one caveat: make sure your narrative presents you in a positive light. No one wants to admit the story’s villain.

3. Show, Don’t Tell

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: rather than telling us that something is true, show us evidence that makes us believe it. That is, rather than simply asserting things about yourself in your college essay (“I’m a compassionate person,” “I love history,” etc.), give us information that proves your point. Maybe you’ve shown your compassion by working at a food bank during the pandemic and tutoring underprivileged kids. Perhaps you have illustrated your love of history through independent historical research projects and summer programs on American history. Providing this information in your essay will support your statements about yourself and make them convincing to your reader.

4. Proofread Your Work

After all of the hard work you’ve put into planning and drafting your essay, you don’t want an admissions officer to dismiss it because of sloppy writing. Typographical errors suggest to admissions officers that you are a careless student or (even worse!) that you aren’t particularly interested in their college. To avoid giving these impressions, make sure to spend some time carefully reviewing your writing. (Don’t just rely on the computer’s spellcheck feature — it won’t catch everything!) If you can, ask a few other people to review the piece for you to look out for any spelling or grammatical errors or any moments where your writing is unclear.

5. Get Help

If you keep these suggestions in mind when putting together your personal essay, you should finish with a strong piece of writing. Still feeling a little unsure? We’re here to help!  Just as you might get standardized test tutoring to help your scores go up, it’s helpful to have an expert make sure you are on the right path with your college essay. Like a good theater director is able to get a magnificent performance from an actor, so too does a skilled essay coach help an applicant find and present his/her authentic voice.

college gifts Top Tips writing

Best Books of 2019

At this time of year, we often talk with students about course selection, standardized testing, and — surprising as it may seem — the importance of keeping up with their free reading. A well-developed reading habit not only makes students stronger, more thoughtful writers, but it also introduces them to new ideas and subjects. Reading is also one of the best ways for young students to prepare for the SAT, which frequently asks students to identify vocabulary in context.

Now that the second semester is in full swing, it’s easy for reading to get lost in the shuffle of tests, projects, and homework. In order for a book to grab a busy student’s attention, it has to be truly engaging, something that can offer a fun adventure during a 20-minute break at school, introduce them to a fascinating subject on the bus ride home, or serve as a relaxing way to wind down at the end of the day. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of some of our counselor’s favorite reads from 2019. Once you’ve picked one up, you’ll find that it’s easy to make reading a priority!

TOP TIER’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019 (to name a few)


The Dutch House - Ann Patchett
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
I love Ann Patchett’s writing style and storytelling, and her new book doesn’t disappoint. This one is best read with a cup of hot tea in front of a fire.

Lifespan - David A. Sinclair
Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To by David A. Sinclair and Matthew D. LaPlante
A bit science-heavy, but also delightfully hopeful. Read about all the ways epigenetics can change our future.


The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller Circe - Madeline Miller







The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller
Whether you love Classics or just a good story, these novelized versions of famous tales from Greek mythology and history are amazing. Two of my favorite books from the past year.

Know My Name - Chanel Miller
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I am thoroughly engrossed in the memoir of Chanel Miller, better known as the girl who was raped by Brock Turner. This book is powerful and a must-read for anyone heading to college, both boys and girls.


All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I recently had a chance to reread this classic, one of the most critically acclaimed war novels in existence. This viscerally realistic portrait of service in the German trenches during the First World War is seen through the eyes of a young man who quickly loses his enthusiasm for battle and struggles to hold on to his humanity.


The Moment of Lift - Melinda Gates
The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates
A great, inspiring reminder of the importance of empowering others and seeking equality in our own lives.


The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
This book has everything: vivid characters, an intricate plot, and lots of surprise twists. Don’t let its age put you off — it’s a timeless thriller!

One Of Us Is Lying - Karen M. McManus
One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
I recommend this book to everyone (my students, my family, random strangers…). It’s a clever, inventive mystery that is equal parts young adult realism and classic whodunit. Plus, it will keep you guessing until the very last page!


Stealing Buddha's Dinner - Bich Minh Nguyen
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
I taught this book in my Food Memoirs class, and it was a huge hit!

The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguygen
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguygen
I’m only halfway through this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but it has one of the best opening chapters I’ve ever read. 


The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America - George Packer
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer
A gripping, thoughtful story of the past few decades of American history. Perfect for anyone who likes history, politics, or a just a well-told narrative.

Pulphead: Essays - John Jeremiah Sullivan
Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan
An essay collection that sometimes reads like a memoir, this book offers funny, dynamic reflections on everything from music and TV shows to family relationships.

high school students Middle School Top Tips writing

Writing Guidance for Winter Break

Most students think of winter break as a time to relax — sleeping in, visiting with family, enjoying eggnog, watching movies, and enjoying a stress-free holiday season. As we tell our students, however, winter break is also the perfect time to review their academic progress throughout the past semester. How are they doing in their courses? Are there particular skills that they need to develop or subjects in which they need some help?

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen that writing is a consistent weak area for students. Each year offers more rigorous writing challenges in the form of English essays, history papers, and science lab reports. Students frequently find they do not have the skills to face these new tasks comfortably. Discomfort oftentimes leads to that nasty ‘p’ word — procrastination — which we hope to avoid.


A few years ago, having fielded numerous requests from parents and students for writing help, we launched our Writing Guidance Program. The aim of the program: to help students master the writing process during middle and high school, improving their work in their current courses and setting them up for success in future years.

Since we launched the program, we’ve worked with students on many types of writing. We’ve offered guidance on school assignments and independent projects, teaching students how to outline five-paragraph essays and working with them to map out long-term research plans. We’ve developed personalized lessons for students on topics like identifying strong evidence and improving the fluidity of their prose. We’ve even helped students to improve the analytical skills that underlie strong writing, showing them how to close read poetry, how to investigate historical data, and how to interpret camera angles and set designs in film.


As a result of our work, many of our students have seen improvements not just in their grades at school, but also in their comfort with writing projects. Students have celebrated with us when they do well on an in-class essay or a research project, and they’ve also reached out to let us know that — even months after our work together — they are still successfully using the techniques we taught them.

H’s grades just came back, and I wanted to share the great news: A for English! Thank you so much for your amazing help.” – P.W., Writing Guidance Program parent

Working on their writing now also gives students the chance to become more concise, fluent writers before college. As their comfort with writing increases, their ideas become more engaging, their arguments improve, and they feel more confident in their creative powers.


There are many ways to improve your writing. One of the best ways is to READ, READ, READ, as strong reading and writing habits almost always go hand-in-hand. (We’ve listed some other suggestions here.)

As for students who are struggling with writing and want some more targeted guidance: consider reaching out to us to see if we can help. Who knows? Maybe your stress-free winter break can become a stress-free second semester, too.

Summer Top Tips writing

Top Tips for Improving Your Writing This Summer

We’ve written in the past about the importance of using your summer months to meet academic goals. For years, we have encouraged students to take advantage of the break from school to explore enrichment programs, carry out research with local professors, and prepare for upcoming standardized tests. For many students, however, the summer also presents an ideal opportunity to reinforce fundamental academic skills. Writing, in particular, is crucial for success in high school and college (and in the college admissions process), but students often don’t have time to practice it extensively during the busy school year.

If you struggle with writing, we recommend taking advantage of the summer break to boost your skills.


Read Extensively

The best writers are invariably great readers. Reading widely introduces you to new words, new writing styles, and new ideas. We’ve put together lists of recommended books on our blog in the past — you can find some here and here —and your school may have given you a list of suggested summer reading. During the coming months, we encourage you to explore a variety of classic novels, young adult favorites for younger students, nonfiction and biographies, and fun beach reads. Sampling widely will ensure that you encounter lots of different styles and help you find the genres that most appeal to you.

Take a Writing Class

The summer presents an ideal opportunity to explore writing in depth, addressing any issues in your current prose style and expanding your knowledge of writing techniques. There are lots of great writing classes available to interested students, ranging from in-person courses at high schools and colleges to online courses through programs like CTY. Join us this summer in  Top Tier’s Writing Tutoring Program, where you will carry out a series of targeted, one-on-one lessons to help prepare you for the coming academic year. If you’d like focused, in-depth help, this could be a good fit for you as it has been for many students in the past.

Try Journaling and/or Creative Writing

When it comes to writing, many students suffer not from a lack of skill, but from a lack of confidence. Especially if you don’t write frequently, putting words on paper can be a very uncomfortable process. The easiest way to take the stress out of writing is to make writing itself a more familiar exercise. This summer, try keeping a journal or writing a few short stories that you add to several times a week. The goal is not to produce beautiful, publishable prose —in fact, you don’t need to share these pieces with anyone! By writing regularly in a low-stakes format, however, you will find that writing itself becomes a more comfortable, less stressful act.

Review Grammar and Style Guides

Grammar is a key subject on many standardized tests, and a clear understanding of grammatical rules often separates good writers from bad. Schools today rarely have time to teach grammar in depth, though, meaning that interested students generally have to review this subject on their own. If you are committed to improving yourself as a writer, we highly recommend picking up a copy of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style or the Bedford Handbook and studying it over the summer. Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style also offers an engaging set of guidelines for some of the most basic (and most commonly misused) aspects of grammar and vocabulary.

Writing skill for college admissions

If you’d like to spend the summer improving your writing abilities, we hope that you’ll be able to take advantage of some of these ideas. Need more help figuring out which options would be best for you? Feel free to contact us!