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:
- What makes you think that you and TJHSST are a good fit?
- 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 showrather 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.
*** In 2017 and 2016, TJ admissions substituted a math question for the essay prompt. Click the date to see a video explanation of those questions.
You can get individual help for the TJ SIS by calling Dr. Aimee Weinstein at 571-275-6521. To purchase a essay tutoring package click the purple button.
WASHINGTON – The answering machine at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County tells the story:
“On Saturday, Jan. 25, Fairfax County Public Schools administered the SIS and essay portions of the TJ admissions process. We unfortunately experienced significant technical issues at our testing sites.”
The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — a school that aims to improve education in science, mathematics, and technology — requires students to complete an admissions process involving essays and a student information sheet (or SIS). The SIS is made up of three questions designed to learn about an applicant’s prior experiences, goals and interests.
On Jan. 25, the technical issues resulted in student responses getting lost or partially lost in the computer system. Debbie Ratliff, a mom of one of the applicant semi-finalists, 14-year-old Eric, says at the end of the first part of the 90-minute test, her son attempted to save and close his work.
“He got kicked out and kicked on to the log-in page,” Debbie says.
Debbie says her son found that part of his essay was deleted. A proctor allowed him time to reconstruct the deleted portion. But his experience wasn’t unique.
When it was determined that the glitches were widespread among the 1,500 applicant semi-finalists, the Fairfax County School system decided the best solution would be to scrap the results and allow the students a do-over, of sorts. This time, the students can complete the SIS and essay online from home.
Debbie and Eric share one concern: That parents will interfere by either editing or even writing the essays themselves. The school is highly competitive and U.S. News & World Report ranked the Alexandria, Va., school as the No. 4 best high school in the nation in 2013.
“You know, this is Fairfax County, and a lot of parents are overly involved in their kids’ lives and we’re afraid that this is just not going to be the kids’ work,” Debbie says.
Eric, an 8th grader at Glasgow Middle School, says he is concerned also.
“I think that some of the kids are getting extensive help from their parents to prepare for the tests,” Eric says.
At the same time, Eric says he doesn’t blame FCPS and feels bad for those administering the tests.
“I didn’t feel like it was their fault, but I recognized it had to be someone’s fault,” he says.
Eric says he’s disappointed, not angry and he’s working hard on his own. Students can complete the essay writing for the test at home between Feb. 6 and Feb. 11.
“I think it’s a terrible situation and I feel for the people in [Fairfax County Public Schools], honestly,” Debbie says.
Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre explained students “must affirm prior to submitting their completed SIS and essay that the work they are submitting is their own,” he said in an email to WTOP.
“We’re confident students will maintain the integrity of the exam,” Torre said in the email.
As to what caused the computer glitch in the first place, Torre says “It was the first time this portion of the exam was administered online. We will continue to work with the vendor to correct the technical issues so that these difficulties do not happen again.”
The school system didn’t identify the vendor.
More than 3,000 students took the initial exam in December. Close to 1,500 semi-finalists will retake the SIS and essay portions of the application requirement at home. Admissions offers will be made in April.
The taped message at the school says :
” We are now assessing the extent of the testing difficulties and are deeply sorry for the problem.”
WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.
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