With all the hype and pressure surrounding college admissions, I don’t blame students and parents for looking for shortcuts or anything that can give them an edge in the selection process.

While I believe students should take the helm of figuring out where they want to go to college, I understand the attraction of getting some help. Taking prep classes for standardized tests. Hiring a private college admissions counselor. And working with a writing expert on the dreaded college application essays.

Yep, I provide help with essays, including tutoring. But I do not write them for students. It can be a fuzzy line, and I think we all know when it’s been crossed.

If you have searched the Internet to find help on writing these essays, I’m sure you have discovered the booming business of buying essays. The Web sites make it all sound so normal and natural. Here are some reasons why it’s a very bad idea:



1. It will NOT be better than what you could write. There is no way someone else could write an effective college application essay about you, even if they know you really well. The whole point of these essays is to capture something about you that is highly personal, unique and sets you apart from other candidates. That is challenging enough to discover for yourself. Details, emotion and insight power personal essays, and you simply can’t fake those. If another person writes your essay, it will be generic, and general is dull, and dull is essay death.

2. These essays are not only meant to help you get into the college(s) of your choice, but also to get you into the right school for you. In order to decide if you are a right fit at their university or college, admissions counselors need these essays to get a sense of who you are, what you value and your unique personality. If someone else wrote your essay, they are going to make their decision based on someone else. What’s the point?

3. I know this doesn’t seem important, but writing these essays can be a powerful personal exercise beyond helping you get into a great college. From what I’ve seen with the hundreds of students I have worked with, many have not had or taken the time to sit down and really take a long, hard look at their life yet—what they have accomplished, lessons they have learned, challenges they have met, how much they have changed and grown. In the brainstorming and writing process, you will be surprised (even impressed!) by your own personal stories, and might even enjoy telling them.

4. I know it’s hard to believe, but there’s a strong chance you will need to write more of these in the future. Many scholarships, transfers and applications for graduate programs (medical and law and art schools….) require personal statements. Might as well learn how to do it now.

5. I’ve saved the most important for last. Buying an essay and passing it off as your own is CHEATING. It’s totally immoral. Hello!!

Save your money! If you need help, search the Internet for writing advice, buy a guide book or hire someone to help you. And keep reading this blog!

My Jumpstart guide post is a great place to start writing your own college application essay.







college application essay


Not many images are more daunting than a blank page. The horror! But starting next month (March), I’m launching a weekly Webinar series to assist more students and families with starting their college application essays.

I write this blog, peddle my three guide books and tutor privately to get out my advice, tips and inspiration to make this process less miserable. I actually believe writing these essays can be an enlightening and productive experience, and dare I say, fun, if you have some direction and support. It can also be a total drag.

But I think you have a choice on how it goes. A lot of the stress of the college admissions process is caused by the unknown. Once you know what to do, you will see that it’s not that impossible.

I’m hoping that my Webinars can help students, and parents and others who work with students, get a jump on what they need to do.

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college application essay


Over the past couple years, I’ve been asked to check out a couple of new Internet companies that try to help students and others organize their college admissions essays. Without naming names, none so far has been very impressive. They sounded good, but then when I tried them out, I was totally confused and found them a royal pain.

Recently, the co-founder of a new site called Zoomita asked me to give his site a whirl. I only spent about 20 minutes exploring the organizing tools, and immediately saw they were amazing.

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If you are applying to the University of California schools, you have until the end of this month (this Sunday, Nov. 30!). As busy seniors, some of you might have waited to write your two college application essays over Thanksgiving, when you have some days off and can catch up.

The key, however, is to not let this last minute deadline dash ruin your Thanksgiving. So yes, you are really cutting it close. If you don’t have a plan, it could hang over your head the entire holiday weekend.

To not let these essays ruin one of the best times of the year–when you are supposed to be feasting with your family, watching football games and focusing on all you have to be grateful for–take a few minutes to map out a plan. These essays don’t have to take days and days to write. If you can latch on to some strong topic ideas, and then pound out a rough draft, you could crank them out in a matter of hours.

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My friend, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who is a national expert on helping families afford higher education, interviewed me recently about how to write standout college application essays. If you are struggling to figure out how to pay for your college or university, Lynn has the best insider information and resources, including her best-selling book and popular online courses.

I believe one thing that many students and parents don’t realize is that a strong essay not only can help you get into a competitive school, but it can also help you score merit scholarship money. This isn’t true for all schools, especially large universities, but many liberal arts colleges use the essays to determine who they want at their school and then work to help them afford it—including offering money.

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This hilarious video is making the rounds on the Internet (my niece’s husband shared it with me on Facebook) just in time for many college application essay deadlines. It’s funny because the outrageous statements made by students are painfully true.

A couple of my favorite lines: “I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m a privileged white person.” and “If this wasn’t a college essay, it would be considered way over-sharing.”

Another favorite was: “I’m using words I literally just learned a minute ago on Thesaurus.com.”

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If you are working on your two college application essays for the University of California freshman application, I’ve put together a short list of my most helpful posts.

Prompt 1: Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations. 

How to Describe the World You Come From

Sample College App Essay for UC Prompt 1

Brainstorm the World You Come From

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Download “Escape Essay Hell” Free on Sunday, November 16!


This is the final countdown for college deadlines for most major colleges and universities. If you are already done and have turned in your applications, congratulations and please pat yourself on the back. For those of you still struggling to write your college application essays, good news for you, too!

I’m offering my popular writing ebook guide Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays for free on one day through Amazon.

Mark your calendars: Sunday, November 16.

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 How to Focus Your

College Application Essay!

I love all the comments students make about my posts. The most common ones ask about topics for the Common App or other core college application essays, including the University of California prompts. Students want to know what I think of their topic ideas.

I noticed the main problem with many of their ideas is that their topics are way to broad. WAY TOO BROAD! I think many ask my opinion because they suspect their topics are too general, but they don’t know how to focus them. And they are absolutely correct to worry about this. Essays about general topics are almost always dull and ineffective. (What good is an essay if no one wants to read it?)

I have written a lot about how to find topics that are not broad, and instead are engaging, meaningful and memorable. My best advice for students who worry that their topic is too broad would be to keep reading my blog posts! They all carry the same message—find a topic that is specific, zero in on real-life moments (anecdotes), brainstorm topics that are mundane (everyday) as opposed to impressive, pick one quality or characteristic to write about (as opposed to trying to cram in all the great things about yourself.) These are all ways to focus—or narrow down—your topics.

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College Admission Essay

Photo by Janine Robinson


Feeling a Bit Underwater
About Your College Application Essay?


It’s that time of year. Most “early decision” deadlines are counting down by the day, and other major deadlines aren’t far behind. Stay calm. Read my blog. Target your essay writing needs by using the indexed listing called “Help By Topic” in the right sidebar.

My last post was about an article that a USA Today reporter wrote sharing my advice on these essays, as well as tips from other college experts. When we first spoke, the reporter asked me to put together a list of my best tips. In her article, she wove in some of the tips I sent her, but I thought students might find the entire list I sent her even more helpful. So here it is:

 Essay Hell’s Top 10 Tips
For Writing Standout
College Application Essays


1.   Don’t try to impress. Instead, look for topics that are “mundane,” or everyday. (Scooping ice cream; singing karaoke; riding public busses; having big feet, etc.) It’s counter-intuitive, but those lead to the most memorable essays.

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