The first year Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology (TJ) switched to monitored SIS administrations, we taught 35 students in five separate workshops what TJ says it is looking for on the student information sheet and essay***.  During those workshops we brainstormed topics to mention on the application and the candidates practiced writing answers to four prompts (three SIS prompts and one essay) under timed conditions.  We reminded the students that TJ admissions says pretty clearly that they are wanting to learn about “a semifinalist’s prior experiences, goals, and interests”.

The three questions we used for practice in the workshops were the following:

  1. What makes you think that you and TJHSST are a good fit?
  2. If you could spend one entire day talking to any person currently in a STEM occupation, who would it be?  You may describe a specific person and his or her job , or you might describe a particular occupation.

Answer one of the two following prompts:

  • Describe a challenge, academic or personal, that has been hard for you.  How did you tackle the issue and what did you learn from the experience?  Ultimately, did you have success dealing with this challenge?  How will this experience inform your actions at TJ?
  • As an outgoing student of your middle school, you are in a position to evaluate your educational experience.  Reflecting back on your years at your current school, describe one change you would make in its school program.  Describe the current situation, your suggestion for improvement, and the benefits of the alteration.

That year the most common short coming we found on the responses was a tendency for students to tell rather than show why they are such great candidates.  In their attempt to impress, this writing was often bombastic, formulaic, dull or, as I tell the students, fluffy. Remember that TJ Admissions is asking students to answer these questions in order to get to know them since they cannot have individual interviews with all the semi-finalists.  Therefore, the essay should reflect your voice and how you think  — it is should resemble what it would be like if you were in a room answering these questions to a TJ admissions person.  An essay with specifics or a story will be much more revealing and memorable than a written version of your resume.

Last year one student wrote: “When I walked into the Oceanography lab during open house, I wanted to stay forever”    and then maintained that tack for the whole 1650 characters.   Although heartfelt and a good opening statement, the essay became less effective because it merely told aspects of the Oceanography Lab rather than the student’s experiences.   By way of analogy I presented to her a rewrite of the paragraph, using a dressage school rather than TJ, to demonstrate how to show rather than tell — and how to get more specifics and personality into her essay.

>Here is what I shared with the student:

Let’s look at this paragraph:   My ultimate dream is to become an advance equestrian horsewoman.  Your program would help me reach my dreams better than any other program.  When I walked into your barn I wanted to stay forever.  The riding ring was a physical version of my dream, and I haven’t seen anything like it before or since.  Dressage hasn’t left my mind since that day.  I kept thinking, “That’s where I want to be.  That’s where my dream will become reality.”

Compare:  Since I was a young girl I have taken horse back riding lessons weekly and read books on dressage; my favorite was the one written by Anne Jones, Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter.  

When I was ten I convinced my parents to buy me a horse,  which took many discussions and promises to do chores while keeping up my good grades.  I have kept my word, working at a barn every Sunday afternoon since then to help pay for Houyhnhnm’s upkeep.

However, I have been frustrated because, while well meaning, my riding teachers have been limited in what they can teach me about  technique and horsemanship. Deep down I knew I could be better. So when I walked into your riding ring and saw your instruction I was struck by the clarity of your explanations.  Wow.  I get it now about balance and how it affects the horse’s gait.  

After you rode around the ring with a simple halter  I felt guilty that I have been pulling on my horse’s mouth with an unyielding bit.  “This guy is such a good rider,” I said to myself ; “this man can help me be the rider I’ve been striving to be all these years.”  If I can glean so much in one short visit, I can only guess at the many aspects of riding I could learn at your school full time.

We are not claiming this is Pulitzer prize writing but which paragraph shows experience, commitment, interest, and goals, along with the applicant’s personality?  If you had to choose one of the two riders, which one would be the “safer” choice for your upcoming class because you think you know the student better?

That year we were pleased that most students were more specific about their STEM experiences and wove those experiences artfully into their responses.  Even though half the students were new to us, we got a clear idea of what they had done and how well they would fit in to TJ.

When you sit for the SIS remember this: “Be thorough” and “Be honest” (per TJ’s Nuts and Bolts) and be yourself. Realize that there is a good deal of chance in this whole admissions process.

I am grateful to Mrs. Cathy Colglazier for her contribution to the workshops and this blog. For what to eat the day of the test read this blog post.

Kate Dalby

*** In 2017 and 2016, TJ admissions substituted a math question for an essay prompt.  Click the date to see a video explanation of those questions.

You can get individual help for the TJ SIS by calling Cathy Colglazier at 703-628-2348.  To purchase a essay tutoring package click the purple button.