When Evan Hickok started at Vanguard College Preparatory School his junior year, he thought he had the basics of essay writing down, but his first essay for the private school changed that.

“I wrote this essay and turned it in. Got it back and never have I seen so much writing on a piece of paper (that wasn’t my own) in my life,” Hickok said. “When I read the requirements, it said four to six pages. I was like, What is that? I had never written more than a page handwritten during a class period that was the summary of the plot of a book.”

What he learned helped him land a scholarship that covers most of the cost of attending Texas Tech University. It also helped his graduating class bring in more scholarship money than any other class in school history, said Rebekah Radney, the school’s college counselor and a college prep course teacher. The 45 students who graduated last week brought in more than $5.62 million in college scholarships, none of which were full rides, said Radney, who has been at the school two years.

Of the 45 seniors, 51 percent received more than $100,000 in scholarships, and 64 percent received more than $50,000, she said.

The last record stuck around for two years. In 2015 and 2016, Vanguard students brought in more than $4.8 million in scholarships, Radney said.

“We knew it was going to be a big number, but definitely adding it up, we were surprised,” she said. “We never set a goal for students on the scholarship we want them to have. We set goals on finding the best fit college and reaching their goals. Beyond that, we’re just thrilled in all they accomplish.”

Hickok and classmate Amir Hamilton credit what students have learned in the school’s college prep course and English classes for setting the new record. Though neither student wanted to give the overall amount they earned and neither could recall just how many college admission essays they wrote this year, both said their writing skills have prepared them for the next level in education.

Hamilton, who will be going to Harvard University, is one of three Waco students to get accepted to the Ivy League school this year. The other two are Midway High School and Rapoport Academy graduates.

“I had the chance to visit in April, and I got to know the campus more closely than the things you might know about by its reputation,” Hamilton said. “The most distinguishing part of the application process is how you write your admissions essays for a lot of places, because a lot of people might have the same GPAs or test scores and whatnot. There’s a tone of writing we do here which allows us to get the technical part of writing down. The sort of writing we do for college applications is more introspective than most of the other writing we do.”

The added advantage comes in starting college-like essays before the high school level, Vanguard English teachers said. From seventh grade through senior year, teachers look over essays and help guide students toward critical thinking skills as they read through about eight books a year, English teacher Jennifer Ferretter said.

By the time students are seniors, teachers feel confident their students have the writing skills necessary to succeed in college, Ferretter said.

“The long essays for college applications often top out at 650 words, and they often ask about huge and really vulnerable subject matter,” Vanguard’s English department head Sarah Lieber said. “Being able to say, ‘OK, stranger, I have 650 words to tell you my life story,’ and having someone say, ‘OK, you know what? This sentence is distracting. Take it out and get something more meaningful in there,’ is something we’re really privileged to get to do.”

Even incoming seniors turn in their first college essay at the end of May because that first draft is often difficult and never what students send out, Lieber said. Students then have summer reading and about three months to challenge their writing skills after their essays are critiqued, she said.

Hamilton, who had six years of writing preparation at Vanguard, said the practice gave him a leg up when he started the application process. But compared to his peers, Hickok had a lot of catching up to do before he felt like he could make solid headway with his essays and have the same advantage, he said.

Hickok attended a public school in McLennan County before enrolling at Vanguard, he said. Now, the extra work he had to do has paid off.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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