In my previous post, I featured a question and answer session with author Robert Cronk, who wrote a popular writing guide on how to write narrative-style college application essays. I found Concise Advise, which directs students on how to use movie-script writing techniques to bring their essays to life, a helpful resource.

I invited him to share more of his advice and tips here on Essay Hell, and this is the second part. (Here’s Part One in case you missed it.):

Me: What do you think is the most important part of a college app essay?

Bob: To me, it’s the element of character development, or transition, or transformation, or realization of something, even in small ways.  The best essays start with a moment that led to that development and ends with a better, stronger, wiser person.

Me: Do you have any pet peeves?

Bob: Too many to name, but here are a few, summarized so I don’t start ranting about them.  (1) Author Alan Gelb has a rule that says, essentially, “Never use your essay to brag, complain, or explain.” Good advice that covers a lot of sins and I hope is self-explanatory.  (2) Avoid TMI. Not every little detail is important to the story.  Use only the elements that advance the story. Keep it focused. I also recommend avoiding any topic of past drug or alcohol use, criminal activity, or mental issues one may have had.  Never forget the goal is to have the school want you there.  (3) Throw away your thesaurus! The essay has to be kept in your voice.  If you read your essay out loud, does it sound like you talking? If not, change it.

Me: Do you have some favorite essays or topics you have read over the years?

Bob: I’ve already talked about my favorite essay ever, and that was a super-mudane topic.  But in general, my answer on having a favorite topic is NO.  The important thing is having a topic that is unique, powerful, and memorable to the writer, not necessarily to the reader.

Me: Do you think parents, friends, teachers, etc., can be helpful to students?

Bob: There are those “counselors” like you and I who can give some advice on getting started and how to proceed, but the essay has to come from the writer.  Here’s the dangerous slope: It’s all well and good to get advice on word usage and grammar, but once you start hearing comments like, “You need to put yourself in a better light,” or “It’s too informal; you need to make it more intellectual,” or any of a hundred other suggestions, you’ll be in danger of losing your voice in the essay. Parents, especially, think that the essay is a place to toot your horn, but that is so wrong.  So thank everyone for their comments on grammar, word usage, or sometimes structure, and listen carefully for ways to make it more focused, but make sure to keep the essay yours.

Me: Do you miss the old topic option to write about anything you wanted, called Topic of Choice?  Among the five Common App prompts, do you have ones you like better than others?

Bob: Believe it or not, my best advice is to not even peek at the prompts before you write a personal essay. WTH, you say? I firmly believe that if you write according to the advice you and I are giving, it will totally fit one or more of the five prompts.  And for more specific prompts, like an individual school might have on a supplemental app, a general essay can be easily adapted to lots of prompts.  Just because the prompt changes, it doesn’t change what makes a good essay.  I also think that the old “Topic of Your Choice” is still there on the new Common App.  It’s disguised as follows: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”   This is just a wordier way of saying “Topic of Your Choice.”  And also why I guarantee that any personal statement you write will fit at least one prompt  Writing the essay without peeking at the prompts first leads to much less stress.

Me: Do you advise students to title their essays? (Here’s my take on Should You Title Your College App Essay?)

Bob: Funny you should ask, because for the actual student-written essays I use in my book, I’ve titled them, but they never did have titles before I published them.  I don’t think titles add that much, but it just might intrigue the reader. I titled one student essay “Carless Hair?” and another “My Illicit Affair with the United States.”  It might be a good way to engage the reader before they even start the essay, but in probably 95 percent of the essays I’ve read, having a title wouldn’t really add much.

Me: Any last brainstorming tips?

Bob: Write your essay(s) in the summer before your senior year.  Write several.  If you know how to start and how to structure the thing, it makes the process a lot easier. You don’t know how many people are like, “Help, this has to be submitted before midnight tonight.  Please review!”  I have no pity (Well, some, but not enough to respond to an email like that).  Get your essays done in advance, put them aside, and take the rest of the application season in stride.  Students,  you probably won’t do that, but at least get started during that summer.

Thank you Robert! (If you want to read Part One.)

I’m always on the lookout for great writing guides—especially books on how to write narrative, slice-of-life essays (like mine). Only recently did I discover this book, Concise Advice, by Robert N. Cronk. What I loved was that his approach was different than mine, but arrived at the same goal—a compelling college application essay that reveals the writer’s unique personality, character, passions, talents, goals, etc.

This is what I wrote about our two different approaches in a review for Amazon on the latest (third) edition of his book:

I was surprised at how similar this book was to mine, although it offered a different approach–and our goals were very similar. My guide steps students through the process of finding their defining qualities, and then looking for slice-of-life “moments” or “incidents” that illustrate that quality in a compelling way. I encourage them to look for “times” when they encountered some type of “problem,” and use that to show how they handled it and what they learned. The result are highly readable “narrative” essays that do a beautiful job of revealing what makes a student tick.

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college application essay


Are you starting to think about writing your college application essay? If so, you need to know what makes a great essay to know how to start brainstorming and writing your own. You can often recognize a “great one” when you read or hear it—but it’s more difficult to explain what exactly made it that way.

Here’s my attempt to list the features that comprise a great college application essay. Unlike other essays, these have a very specific goal that you must always factor in when you write a great one: To help your college application land in the “Yes!” pile. Many of the elements of an effective college admissions essay further that goal.

A GRRRREATTT college application essay:

1. “Grabs” the readers at the start. I believe one of the best ways to do this is to start with an anecdote (real-life incident). Something happens.

2. Usually is written in a narrative (story-telling/memoir-like/slice-of-life) style drawing off real-life experiences.

3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality (creative, resourceful, fierce, resilient, driven, etc.) about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay.

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If you have already written your college application essays, and either know where you are headed this fall or are still waiting, why not enter them into some contests? Why the heck not? Some offer some decent cashola prizes.

Here’s the best one I found that looks like it’s worth the time it takes to send them in!


Extra Credit: Scholarships for Exceptional Student Writing. This contest will awards $5,000 to the three top winners! You can use essays you already submitted to colleges. The judge panel is amazing, including famous writers, such as Jeff Kinney (wrote Diary of a Wimpy Kid!), Wally Lamb (She’s Come Undone), Kelly Corrigan, Mary Roach (Stiff, about cadavers) and Anna Quindlen (famous New York Times columnist). It would be an honor just to have these brilliant writers read your work!

Good luck!






I get a lot of students who fall into the “math/science” end of the learning spectrum. In general, that means that classes such as Algebra II and Chemistry come relatively easy to them, and English and other humanities not so much. Many think they are not strong writers and are mortified that their college application essay could pull so much weight in where they get into college. This just doesn’t seem fair, especially when many of these students have off the charts test scores.

If it helps, I like to think that colleges understand this discrepancy and take the larger picture into consideration when deciding who to accept. If nothing else, you math/science students should view your essay as a chance to set yourself apart from the pack, and also showcase your balanced personality at the same time. (I don’t mean to stereotype, but math/science whiz kids sometimes get pegged as not as social or well-rounded as other students. You know, it’s that annoying nerd or geek thing.)

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One of my favorite student-run blogs on college admissions, The Prospect, featured this interview with me last week. I thought the writer, Oriana Halverson, did a terrific job, and flushed out some helpful information:


Essay Hell’s Janine Robinson:

Everything You Need to Know About Admissions Essays

by  | on March 11, 2014 |


Janine Robinson, Founder of Essay Hell.

By Oriana Halvorsen, Spring 2014 Community Outreach Intern for The Prospect

Name: Janine Robinson
Website: Essay Hell (She also has two e-books on sale on her website to check out, with a third on the way this spring!)
Social Media Links: FacebookTwitter and Tumblr.

To start off with a more career-oriented question, how did you get into the business of helping students write their college essays?

When my daughter was a junior in high school in 2008, I helped her brainstorm topics for her college essays—both for the University of California and The Common App. When I saw that these essays were best when written in a narrative (story-telling) style, I realized that my background as a journalist, writer/editor and English teacher almost perfectly prepared me to help her. So I started helping other students in my hometown of Laguna Beach, California. And it kind of took off from there. I also started my blog, Essay Hell, and published essay-writing guide books.

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Big changes in the new SAT test announced recently caused quite a stir, especially that they were dropping the essay component. I was most excited, however, that they also were going to stop emphasizing “obscure” vocabulary words.

Not only do I think it’s ridiculous to force students to memorize lists of long words no one uses, but I think it’s a huge waste of precious class and homework time.

After years of working with students on their college application essays, I have seen how the emphasis in English classes on these obscure words oozed into students’ writing–and made it pedantic (look it up. haha.) and dull. Most think they sounded smarter when they use words like “deleterious” and “cacophony” in their essays.

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The Common Application folks announced a couple weeks ago that they will be keeping the same essay prompts for this college application season. If you use the Common App to apply to colleges this fall, you will have five prompts (or questions) to respond to with your college admissions essay. Before last year, students also had the option to simply pick any topic they wanted–but that was dropped last year. And it caused a big controversy in college app circles.

I was among those who thought the option to write about any topic should have been kept. But many people in the college admissions industry (mainly counselors from high schools and private admissions consultants) ultimately weighed in on the debate as a non-issue, since the five prompts are broad enough to allow almost any topic anyway.

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I recently received an email from a student named Daniel Ryu, who is a sophomore at Harvard University. Daniel said he was stressed out his senior year of high school during the application process and had found my blog helpful. He offered to share what worked for him. No matter where you are aiming to get in, I would listen closely to what Daniel has to say. Obviously, it worked!

Here’s Daniel’s guest post:

4 Tips for the College Essay

So you’re a high school senior or maybe even a junior; the thought of applying to college has been on your mind for some time. It seems that every moment of your high school career has been building up to this point. Your GPA is mostly set and you are already involved in all the clubs and extracurriculars that you will ever join, at least in high school. There is now one thing that stands in your way. The college essay.

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A couple weeks ago, I shared on LinkedIn a New York Times column about “annoying, overused and abused” words from 2013, and asked a group of college admissions experts for the most common offenders they found in college application essays.

The idea is that when you are editing a draft of your essay that you can try to spot words that don’t work, whether they were over-used, inaccurate, unnecessary, redundant or even not a word. And improve your essay.

When you first sit down to pound out your first draft, however, don’t even worry about what words you use. Just get it all out. This list is mainly for the process of self-editing, when you re-read your work and make changes to improve the clarity, flow and meaning.

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