Do This FIRST When Assigned a New Research Project

Do sometimes find yourself panicking when you sit down to write a research paper? Perhaps you selected a difficult topic?

One of my clients, a freshman in college, did just that. He chose a subject, and then a week later when he was starting to work on it, he realized it wasn’t a good topic, and he wouldn’t be able to research it adequately. So he ended up in a blind panic and pushed off the rest of his homework to try and catch up on this project. So we reflected on this, and you can find out what came of our session in this video.

Hey there, don’t have time for the full video? No worries, I’ve got your back. Here’s a summary:

So I’m curious if this has ever happened to you before. I have a client, a freshman in college, who has a big research project he’s had in the works for a few weeks now and he had already selected his subject a couple of weeks ago. The problem was that last week he was supposed to be working on some other homework; however, when the session came he said, “Oh… no, I didn’t get to that, cause it’s not the priority. You remember that research project I thought I knew?  I started doing the research for it and, oh man, the topics really not a good one. It’s going to be very hard to do. I think I need to change my topic. And I’ve been panicked about that all week, and so I didn’t do that other thing I was supposed to do.” So we reflected about this a little bit and we came up with this tip:

Research Project, Gretchen Wenger, The Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying, Research Topic, Research Subject,

When you are first given a research project and you are deciding on your research topic do a little preliminary practice finding sources for your chosen subject. You can go to your library and talk to your local librarian, look on google scholar, get on your college databases, and see how easy (or difficult) it is to find sources for your topic within your time constraints.

If my client had done this two weeks ago when he chose his research topic, he would have realized this wasn’t a very good research topic, and he would have had time to come up with a new one. Then he wouldn’t have had to push off his other homework in a panic.

If you found this tip helpful, there are much more like it in my course, so please feel free to check it out, or email me.

College Prep Podcast #159: Perfection Paralysis and How to Get Unstuck When Writing

Gretchen Wegner, Megan Dorsey, College Prep Podcast, Perfection Paralysis & How to Get Unstuck When Writing, Stuck,Do writing assignments take you longer than necessary because you often feel stuck?

Join Gretchen as she shares an interesting tool she created with a client to help him with his perfection paralysis.

Specifically, she and Megan discuss:

  • What perfection paralysis looks like in struggling writers
  • Why it’s important to learn to notice when you’re stuck
  • What the top signs are that let you know you’re stuck and spinning your wheels
  • Why asking yourself questions is a great way to start getting unstuck
  • Six specific questions to ask yourself to start cranking out work instead of staring unproductively at the computer

Listen in to Megan and Gretchen as they discuss how to Rock College and be a successful college student!

How to Find the Theme of a Book Quickly So You Can Write That Essay Already!

Does your heart sink when you notice that the essay prompt asks you to find the “theme” or the “purpose” of the book you’re reading? Do you often think to yourself, “I have no idea!!” and then BS your way through the essay?

Well, I have a hint for you! Of course, the best line of defense is to listen during discussions in class, take good notes, and also talk to your teacher. But if none of that helps, this trick will take you the rest of the way. And who knows, maybe what feels like BS might be pretty smart stuff after all!?

Hey there, don’t have time for the full video? No worries, I’ve got your back, here’s a summary:

I received an email earlier this week from a senior in high school that was having a difficult time with a prompt she received in an AP English class. She needed to find the purpose of a novel so she could write an essay about it. Another way we can look at this is: What is the theme, or meaning, of the novel?

How to Find the Theme of a Book Quickly, Gretchen Wegner, Essay Writing, Purpose, Meaning

So I wanted to give you all a little trick I use with my clients. See when I’m coaching I have very little time to help a student push through work on their essay, so I have to make quick decisions how to help a student find the theme or purpose of a book when I haven’t read it myself. As such I’ve developed a bit of a trick. I like to use a list from the Center for NonViolent Communication that’s called the Needs Inventory.

Universal Needs Inventory, The Center for Nonviolent Communication, Gretchen Wegner, How to Find the Theme of a Book, Purpose, Meaning, Essay Writing,

What I have found is that it can be really helpful to look over this list with a student and ask, “What are the universal needs that are represented by the characters in this book?” For example, is there a need for order because things are really chaotic, and the characters are trying to create order but it’s really hard. I’ve found that students can pretty easily find 1, 2, or 3 needs that are really active in the book, and then find concrete evidence why those needs are a big deal in the book and how it plays out for the characters. Then you can use this to write an essay about how the theme or purpose of the book was about “insert universal need here”.

If you found this tip useful and you’d like more tips for writing essays or understanding the theme or purpose of books, click here!

A Destructive Myth That Makes Students Miserable

Hey there, do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do at school? Does it feel impossible to do it all alone?

This is a video I made last summer, but it’s just as relevant as ever. I’ve seen TOO MANY of my clients buckle under the stress of thinking they have to do school by themselves. That your work doesn’t count unless you accomplish it all by yourself.

This is a destructive myth! And it’s unrealistic, too. Watch the video to hear more.

Hey there, don’t have time to watch the whole video? Don’t worry; I’ve got your back, here’s a summary.

One of the biggest and most DESTRUCTIVE myths in our education system is that people must do everything themselves. I have a friend and client who’s a grad student, and she’s doing a presentation on some research she did in a recent class. We were talking, and she said, “I’ve been discouraged, though, (she was sick the previous week) since I fell so far behind, but this morning I met with a profession on campus who gave me lots of great ideas and feedback I want to incorporate. […] I get overwhelmed at how to incorporate and communicate all my ideas. […] I’m glad this woman was a resource that I could use, though. Basically, I can’t write these alone, which is kind of discouraging, but good to know.”

She was feeling discouraged that she couldn’t do it alone, but that’s the myth. Think about this: Professors have their undergrads helping them, researchers have their teams, and authors have editors. If the professionals have assistance, why should students feel they must work alone? As I told her, you don’t have to. Don’t fall prey to this destructive myth. You can always ask your professors, or teachers, or parents, or friends for some help. You can revel in the community, and enjoy the help and insight of a team of people rooting for you as the spokesperson for your ideas.

How to Prep for an Essay When You Don’t Know the Prompt

Argh! It’s annoying having to prep for timed essays when you don’t know the prompt, isn’t it?

Recently I got this GREAT question from a student who stumbled across my videos on YouTube:

A junior in college named Yaya asked, “I have a timed essay coming up in January and don’t know the prompt. However, I do have the readings which are 4 different articles, and all kinda surround Angela Duckworth’s idea of Grit. Any ideas on how I can prepare for such essay??”

Yes! I DO have an idea. Watch the video for my complete answer to Yaya.

Hey there, don’t have time for the full video? No worries, I’ve got your back, here’s a summary:

The problem we’re looking at this week is how do you prepare for an essay when you don’t know what the prompt will be? For Yaya, this was causing her stress, and that’s completely understandable, after all, how do you prepare for something when you don’t know what you’re preparing for?

Well, the first thing we can do is look at the 4 articles she was assigned to read. We can note that they all revolve around Grit, and there are some themes we can see right away just from reading the subtitles, such as “The limits of grit”, “Is grit overrated?”, “how grit helps with perseverance and passion for long-term goals”, etc. So when you start reading you should be looking for these themes and marking down stuff like, when is their passion showing up, what are some limits to grit, when are long-term goals brought up, etc.
Gretchen Wegner | The Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying | How to Prepare for an Essay When You Don't Know the Prompt | Essays | Writing | Academic Life Coach | Academic Coach | Academic Coaching

Then I’d create a chart like the one above. I’d list each of the readings and the themes, and I’d annotate every time I found the themes and I’d fill out the boxes. This way, I have a good understanding of the building blocks of each of these articles. Once you understand the core themes of the articles you should be very well prepared to write any essay on these readings.

An added step you could take is to consider or ask others, what some potential essay prompts from these articles could be, and then practice making an outline for them. Just from reading the titles and the subject matter, I could make an educated guess that one potential prompt they would give you is, “Analyze Grit, is it a good thing? If so why or why not?”

I hope this is helpful to you all, and if you want more tips like this, click here to check out my course which has a lot of tips for preparing for essays.

College Prep Podcast #142: How to Learn Foreign Languages Faster & Better

Gretchen Wegner | Megan Dorsey | The College Prep Podcast | How to Learn Foreign Languages Faster & Better | Learning | English | Students | Vocabulary | Grammar | Word | Writing | Language | Does foreign language learning seem awfully slow? Tune in as Megan and Gretchen reflect about 10+ ways to learn languages, including English, faster and more effectively.

Today’s episode is a response to a listener named Hassan, who lives in Iran and is studying electrical engineering. He wants to know how to learn English faster. This advice will be for students who want to go “above and beyond” the language learning they’re already doing in their classrooms.

Some of the suggestions Gretchen and Megan include:

  • Daily practice of vocabulary and grammar
  • Sign up for a “word a day” SAT service, and practice incorporating that word in your daily life.
  • Speak with native speakers as much as possible. Finds ways to “immerse” yourself.
  • Listen to TV, radio, and podcasts. Talk about them with friends in the language you’re listening to them in.
  • Watch the “close captioning” so that you are seeing the language as well as hearing it
  • When there are words or phrases you really want to learn, put them up in your bedroom in visible ways, so you are surrounded by them
  • Practice writing  more in that language, and get someone to help you improve that writing by editing it for and with you
  • Get grammar support by googling “best online grammar practice.”
  • and more!

Click here to head over to the College Prep Podcast to listen to this episode.

If You Want to Be A Better Writer, Improve This First!

Does your poor typing slow you down when writing essays?

During client sessions, I often have an opportunity to watch my clients type. They often make so many mistakes that they are constantly deleting what they typed…and rarely can their bumbling fingers keep up with their brilliant minds.

Poor typing skills are not only frustrating but it is also stifling to creativity and the natural thought process. In this video, I discuss the possible reasons you or a student you know may be having difficulty as a writer. There are many resources out there to help sharpen your typing abilities, speed, and accuracy. I love to hear success stories. Leave them in the comments section above!

With the school year suddenly looming, now is the perfect time to get yourself some more tools to rock your grades this year. Click here to check out my favorites! 

How to Write Better Answers on Essay Prompts

Do you struggle to write the perfect answer for your essay prompts?

A number of my clients get really stuck when they have to organize their ideas for essays, and they often say a lot without actually answering the question in the prompt.

Recently a client was having this problem, so we worked on a method for making sure that the entire prompt gets answered. Here’s what we came up with:

Don’t have time for the full video? No worries, here’s a summary:

Many clients I’ve had often answer essay prompts by talking about one or two of the answers, or just by talking about the topic without answering the specific questions. So I came up with a method to make sure that my clients answer all the essay prompt questions/components. I’m going to demonstrate this for you, so you can get a feeling for how it works.

We’re going to use the following essay prompt as an example: “Using more than one source, examine how society’s expectations impact the behavior, beliefs, and outcome of the individual’s life?” First I want to point out, that when you are finished reading an essay prompt, you want to look for the structure. You are looking for how many points do you need to answer, or how many questions is your teacher asking you? In the above example, there are 3 core components to the question that we need to address in the essay. “Using more than one source, examine how society’s expectations impact the behavior 1beliefs 2, and outcome 3 of the individual’s life?” As you can see, I’ve outlined the 3 questions. I highly recommend that when you are reading a prompt you highlight, circle, number, or in some way identify the components of the question so you know how many points you need to address in your essay.

Next, we’re going to make a chart. Charts are nice because they give us a visual representation, and with a chart you have boxes, and if you have boxes all the boxes need to be filled in, and once all the boxes are filled in you know you are done. So we’re going to make a chart with the essay components across the top and the source material(s) down the side. Then we’re going to fill in the boxes with notes, quotes, etc so that we have the information we need to begin writing our outline.

How to Write Better Answers on Essay Prompts, Essay Writing, Write, Prompt, Essays, Questions, Question, Advice, Tips, Education, School, The Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying, Gretchen Wegner

Once the chart is done, we can see visually all the topics we need to discuss in the essay, and we have our source materials, we have the notes, quotes, or examples we need in order to begin writing our outline for the essay.

I hope you found this tip useful, and if you want more tips just like it, please consider checking out my course.

A Simple Way to Write Papers More Efficiently

Does it take you a long time to organize your ideas when writing an essay?

Recently, a client tackled his writing process, and I thought it would be helpful for others to hear what we came up with. Check out this video!


Got any other ideas about writing more efficiently? Or questions? I’d love to hear from you, and I may even answer your question at length on the College Prep Podcast!

Why Obsessing About Word Counts Can Make Your Writing Worse

It’s typical in our education system for teachers and professors to assign essays that need to be a specific word count (500 words, for example) or a specific length (3 pages, for example).

Although I understand the need to set some kind of expectation for the length of an assignment, word and page requirements are my nemesis. And, I’d argue, they can work against students’ learning too.

Let’s look at my recent coaching session with Wendy, an 8th grader. She was preparing for an in-school essay she’d have to write the next day. Wendy was feeling super-stressed out beceause the essay would need to be 2-4 pages, but Wendy had no idea how to make it that long!!

We practiced outlining on a separate piece of paper. We thought through her introduction and conclusion and added topic sentences for all the paragraphs. When we were done, she had an outline that would EASILY fill up 2-4 pages.

While we were outlining, Wendy kept saying something that bothered me: “I want to write about (insert topic here) because it will take up more space!”

I redirected her: “It’s NOT about how much space you’re taking up! It’s about the quality of your ideas, and how to flesh them out. If you have a rockin’ outline, you can write a shorter or a longer piece, but at least there is a coherency and flow to the ideas. When you’re just trying to fill up space, your argument may not make sense.”

At the end of the session, I asked Wendy to give her future self some tips. Here’s what she said (in her own unedited words):

  1. Plan it out.
  2. Make sure that stuff that seems obvious is fleshed out to its full potential.
  3. If I notice myself making a list, look to see if one is more important, or if I can make write a sentence about each part of the lists.
  4. If I notice myself making a list, notice WHY I’m making it and what makes it different than the other writing around it. Write better transitions.

Do you have a good essay writing strategy? Talk about it in the comments!

P.S. If you know a student who could use this advice, be sure to forward this article to them!


3 Simple Questions That Unlock Hidden Brilliance

How do you go more deeply when you are writing a paper? It’s one of those catch 22’s, isn’t it. Don’t you think you WOULD engage in more critical thinking if only you knew HOW?!

Today I was working with a college sophomore who had just finished writing a draft of an essay for her Italian Culture class. She felt pretty confident that she was addressing the prompt. However, when I asked her if she had any way of assessing whether she was pushing herself to think deeply about the issue in question, she looked a bit confused.

‘Aha!’, I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for one of my 5-minute “mini-lectures.”‘  I whipped out a sheet of paper, and began to draw the image you see above, of 3 levels of questions.

The Three Levels of Questions

Level 1 — Factual. “Who, What, and Where”. In Level 1 thinking, the writer states the facts directly. There is often a “right” or a “wrong” way to answer Level 1 questions.

Example: What were Cinderella’s slippers made out of? How did Cinderella get to the ball? (Source: USD497)

Level 2 — Analysis. “Why, How, So What?!” Level 2 thinking analyzes data, looking for patterns, reasons, motives, etc. This is the beginning of critical thinking in action.

Example: Why does Cinderella’s stepmother care whether or not she goes to the ball? Why did everything turn back the way it was except the glass slipper? Why don’t the step sisters like Cinderella? (Source: USD497)

Level 3Connections. “Now What?!” This type of thinking goes beyond the text, assessing the value of the idea in a broader context. Level 3 thinking can make connections between the idea and other, seemingly irrelevant concepts; furthermore, the writer can make personal connections between the idea and his/her life. These types of questions are the “home run” of critical thinking; they knock your writing out of the park.

Example: Does a woman’s salvation always lie with a man? What does it mean to live happily ever after? Does good always overcome evil? (Source: USD497)

Applying the 3 Levels to Essay Writing

After I introduced these Levels to Elizabeth, she was easily able to see that her roughdraft — comparing feminism during the Renaissance and the 1960s — was largely a Level 1 essay. She had read the book and was re-presenting the information that she had gleaned. However, she hadn’t thought to look for patterns in feminist thought between the two eras (Level 2) or the impact of the history of feminism on her life today (Level 3).

When you sit down to write an essay, take a moment to jot down several questions that you hope to explore in your writing. Make sure that you have questions from each Level, as all of them are important. By asking — and answering — questions at each level, you can unlock your own hidden brilliance, and take your essay writing to a new level.

However, the three levels of questions are not just for writing. Here are some other school-related environments in which you can use these ideas:

  • analyze the type of questions your teacher asks, so that you know what kind of thinking they are *really* looking for.
  • participate in class discussion by asking yourself, classmates, and teachers questions at higher levels
  • annotate your readings, challenging yourself to write a Level 1, 2 and 3 question and/or comment on every page

What other places would these three levels of thinking come in handy? Please tell me, below!
Many thanks to the web pages at USD497Mr. Kash, and Noelle Combs for helping me hone my understanding of the 3 Levels of questions.

P.S. Did you find this post helpful? You can get more useful tips by signing up for free email updates!




What’s an Academic Coach?!

From Academic Coaching

There’s an area of my professional life about which I’ve been strangely silent on this blog: my life as an academic coach for teens.

I’m not sure why I’ve been so tightlipped about this amazing work; maybe I’m afraid others will find my musings boring. I mean —  time management, organization, and learning strategies? For teens? Biiig whooop! Who cares?

But the truth is this: I care. Very deeply. So do the parents. The teens care, too (for the most part; they want to be successful. They really do.). The work we do is amazingly transformative, for the teens but also for me. It’s time I start telling our stories.

Academic Coach Versus Tutor: What’s the Difference?

But first things first. Most people have no clue what academic coaching is. “So you’re like, uhhhh, a tutor?” they ask.

And the truth is — not really. A tutor helps teenagers understand subject-specific content. Want help memorizing and practicing the quadratic equation? Talk to a tutor.

An academic coach, on the other hand, helps kids troubleshoot their learning process so that they can eventually learn the content on their own. The goal is self-sufficiency. Need to figure out why you didn’t get the quadratic formula when the teacher taught it in class (and how you might get it next time)?  Talk to me.

Here’s another example: Want someone who knows a ton about US History and can help you answer the essay question? Talk to a tutor. Need help organizing your thinking and writing process so you can research and write the essay by yourself? Talk to me.

Maddy Learns a Writing Formula

This summer I had several clients who sought me out for extra help. Uhhh, well that’s only partially true. Their parents sought me out. Luckily, I’m gentle, fun, and full of good ideas. So by the end, the kids admitted it wasn’t that horrible. And they even learned a thing or two that they could actually use.

As one parent reflected:

The information you have provided is packaged in a much more user friendly way that Maddy can put to much better use.”

The information I packaged so well was, simply, this:

1. What are some basic writing formulas that help essays write themselves? (Maddy complained of working really hard on all her essays, but usually getting disappointingly low grades).

2. Given how much she detests doing homework  and her busy sports schedule (but also, given her goal to get B’s her sophomore year), how can she plan her afternoons so there is enough time for both sports and homework?

Maddy left my office much more confident about her approach to writing as well as to time management. She was psyched about the strategies that would help her work smarter, not harder. I can’t wait to find out whether this school year feels different than last!

Conrad Learns How to Advocate For Himself

Another client I saw this summer was a young man. Headed off to college after four years attending the “resource” class in high school (that’s the fancy term for “special ed”). This young man and his parents were concerned that he’d flounder during the rigor of college.

When I met Conrad, I was surprised that he barely understood his own learning disability. We spent most of our time reading through his Neuropsychological Evaluation, translating all the scary psycho-babble into teen friendly language, and role playing how he might explain it all to his professors? After four short sessions, Conrad’s mother raved:

Honestly, you taught my son more in regard to his learning style than he learned in years in his high school’s Resource program or with private tutors!!! I wish I had used you earlier.

Again, it will be fun for me to follow up with Conrad and find out whether freshman year felt more manageable. He certainly left my office in higher spirits than he entered!

It’s All in the Organization

It turns out that a lot of my job revolves around helping kids be more organized — organizing their time, their stuff, and their thinking.  Many teenagers just need a gentle but straight talking adult to help them troubleshoot their processes.

I feel so blessed to spend my days helping teens become self sufficient learners. I can’t wait to use this blog to tell more of their stories.