What Do You Believe?


Students looking for ideas and inspiration on their college application essays should check out the “This I Believe” web site.

It’s an international organization set up in 2004 to help students and adults identify and express through writing personal essays the core values that guide their lives.

Thousands have been collected and published on their site and in books.

Most of these essays could easily double as college application essays, such as for the Common Application or others that ask for personal statements.

In both, you use real-life stories to share your personal philosophy. (more…)

Believe in the Right Fit


The winter flurry of letters is landing in mail boxes around the globe this time of year. I just heard from three ecstatic students who learned last week they were accepted into their dream schools–one was Harvard, another Wellesley, and a third Middlebury. I felt excited and proud for them. But I will feel equally excited for my students who will soon learn they will be attending schools in our University of California system, whether it’s Berkeley, UCI or Santa Cruz, or other state universities such as UW, Boulder and U. of O, and especially those getting into the small liberal arts colleges no one has ever heard of, but are true gems.

And I also can’t help think about those who are getting those awful cryptic rejections in the mail at the same time. They can really sting.

But if you are still waiting to learn where you will be attending college (or are still working on your college application and essays), just know that you will land in the place that is right for you. It may not be that dream school, or the one you couldn’t wait to tell your friends about getting into. But chances are you will attend a school that you will end up absolutely loving. It’s all about finding the right match–kind of like shoes, if they don’t fit right, they will hurt your feet. (more…)

Essay Lessons From a College Applicant Superstar

michael brown essay

Photo Via Johnathan Kimble/Courtesy Berthinia Rutledge-Brown

What You Can Learn From

Michael Brown’s College Application Essay


I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least three times in a row.

Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!

Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships. (more…)

Congratulations to the First Essay Jumpstart Experts!


College Admissions Consultants Learn Essay Coaching

A group of nine college admissions consultants from the San Diego area helped me kick off my College Application Essay Writing Bootcamp this week.

After participating in my two-hour workshop at the beautiful home of one of the counselors in Rancho Santa Fe, the nine women are now official “Essay Jumpstart Experts,” and can sport this digital “badge” (above) on their own professional web sites. (more…)


  Looking for a college admissions conference this summer to help launch your application process? I will be the featured essay writing coach at the My Pathway to College conference for college-bound students in San Diego. I will be working with students on their...

For Counselors and Teachers

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Workshops for
Educational Consultants

and Students


I offer in-person and cyber workshops and private tutoring to counselors, teachers and other educators.

Counselor and Teacher Workshops

Become an official Essay Jumpstart Expert!

Get certified through my one-hour cyber training or put together your own group.

Cost: $200 for private session.

Put together a group of two or more and the costs go down accordingly. Email me for details: Essayhell@gmail.com. (I use Zoom)

During these sessions, I teach counselors and English teachers what I believe makes a “great” or effective college application essay, and then how to teach their students to write them using a narrative (story-telling) style to showcase their defining qualities and values.

In effect, I share my main essay writing Show AND Tell “method,” including how I help students brainstorm and identify engaging topics, use anecdotes (mini real-life stories) to hook readers and make their essays personal and meaningful, and a slew of other tips and techniques to craft powerful personal essays.

Participants receive copies of my trade-marked handouts and worksheets (my SampleOutline™, AnecdoteBuilder™, Sample Essays, ProblemFinder™) in one digital companion workbook (that you can print out), as well as a digital badge (two options) to use for marketing.

They also receive digital versions of my popular writing guides, Escape Essay Hell! and Heavenly Essays.

For information on how to set up a private or group workshop, either in person or via Skype, email Janine Robinson: EssayHell@gmail.com.

If you live within an hour of my home in Laguna Beach, California, I can come to you, or we can set up a workshop here. I also work with groups via Zoom, Skype or other Webinar platforms. Just ask and we can make it happen!

Read about the first workshop and newest official Essay Jumpstart Experts from San Diego in my latest blog post!


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“After reading Janine’s books: Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays, I was craving more. I am a new college consultant and Janine’s method was exactly what I had been searching for. I was thrilled to become an “Essay Jumpstart Expert.” My one-on-one time with Janine was invaluable. I appreciated getting to know the origin of her ideas through her journalism experience. She bridges key concepts and strategies from her journalism background to approaching college essay writing.
She had a very well-organized Power Point that covered her points, from her books, with more depth and complexity. Her instruction provided me with a more sophisticated understanding of the college essay writing process. Best of all, Janine is so generous with her materials and resources. She provided me with a workbook that I can easily use with the clients, immediately. She exudes passion for what she does and wants to set others up for success! From the bottom of my heart, thank you Janine!”
Chrissy Mossbarger of Next Chapter, Ladera Ranch, CA

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“There is a big difference between being able to recognize a good college essay and being able to coach someone
to write that good essay, and the workshop helped tremendously to train me in coaching.”
Laurel Reidy of LWR Admissions Support in Encinitas, CA

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“Janine’s process and formula provides a way for counselors and independent college consultants
to maximize the way that students approach writing the essay in a way that helps them to really explore
more about who they are, what is important to them and why it is important…
The way she delivers her workshop is clear, concise, with tons of great examples so that it is easy to follow.
I thoroughly recommend her training!”

Mira Simon of Coach Mira – Pathway to College in San Diego area

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Student Workshops

I work for private college admissions consultants who want me to work with their clients on their essays, either in person or via group Skype.

During my interactive workshops with students, I help them understand what makes a great college application essay, and take them through various writing exercises to help them identify strong topics, teach them narrative writing techniques and show them how to craft “slice-of-life” personal essays.

I use a variety of hand-outs, worksheets, videos and exercises to make the workshops lively and interactive.

Anyone is welcome to put together their own group, including educational consultants, counselors, teachers, parents and students.

Workshop Rates: I charge a per-student rate, and the total cost goes down depending on the number of students. Email me for details: EssayHell@gmail.com.

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Private Consulting

As a professional writing coach, I counsel you one-on-one on how to teach your students to write narrative-style college application essays using the approach I developed and share in my writing guides, videos, online courses and blog.

These private sessions include the same information and resources I offer my group workshops participants, including my handouts/worksheets, certification of completion, badge and two of my popular writing guides (Escape Essay Hell! and Heavenly Essays.)

Private Consulting Rates: Depending on what skills you want to develop (helping students identity compelling essay topics, find and tell their real-life stories, map out writing plans, apply literary writing techniques and strategies, edit and polish their own work, etc.), I work in person or via Zoom, Skype and phone consultations. Cost: $300 an hour. Group rates are less. Email me for details: EssayHell@gmail.com.

Recent former workshop clients include:

  • Square One Counseling, Laguna Beach, CA: Gave essay writing workshops to the clients of Lynn Fair, a top college counselor in Laguna Beach, CA. Summer 2013-2016.
  • Cleveland Foundation College Now Scholar Program, Cleveland, OH: Gave online essay writing workshops to their “Top 50” students. Summer 2015.
  • Palisade High School, Palisade, CO: Gave essay writing workshops to the IB students as part of a college admissions seminar. Summer 2015.
  • Texas Region One GEAR UP, Edinburg, TX: Conducted weeklong essay writing workshops to the top 160 students, and 35 English teachers, from 30 high schools in the Rio Grande Valley. (Read more about these workshops HERE.) GEARUP also purchased licenses to my online essay writing course for 10,500 students. Spring and Fall 2014-2017.
  • Bergen County Technical High School, Teterboro, NJ: Presented cyber essay writing workshops to their junior years students as well as to English and other teachers at this magnet school, ranked #6 in New Jersey. Summer 2016,
  • Colorado Academy, Denver, CO: Daylong workshop to about 100 rising seniors on how to brainstorm, craft and edit their Common Application essays. Summer 2017.
  • Girls, Inc. of Orange County: Gave essay writing workshops to freshmen and sophomore girls at their annual Eureka! Camp summer program at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA. Summer 2017.
  • City of Laguna Beach: Gave weekend college application essay writing workshops through the city’s Recreation Department at the City Community Center downtown. Summer 2017.
  • Shanghai International School: Spent a week giving essay writing workshops to 380 juniors from SAS at a college admissions retreat  in beautiful Hangzhou, China. Spring 2018.
  • Laguna Beach High School, Laguna Beach, CA: Gave essay writing training workshop to their college counselors. Fall 2018.

All my students receive free copies of my popular ebook guides:

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Click HERE to contact me any time.

Janine Robinson

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PAYMENT: All clients must pay in advance of my services (below), and then as they go for editing help.

NOTE: Please do not make payments until we have discussed and confirmed the exact services I will be providing.

Just email me any questions at: EssayHell@Gmail.com. Thanks!


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English Teachers: Essay Lesson Plan Ideas for College Applications

essay lesson plan

When my two kids were finishing their junior years of high school, they each received the assignment from their English teacher to write a college application essay.

It sure sounded good—they could get a jump on these dreaded essays and receive professional direction on how to find great topics and write them in an engaging, memorable style.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

From what I could tell, this task of teaching how to write college admissions essays was dumped on these teachers, and they had to cram in a last-minute writing section at the very end of the year (and compete with the AP test crunch time, other end-of-year deadlines/pressures and spring fever.).

Also, as far as I could tell, no one really taught the teachers how to write college admissions essays and students had had very little practice writing in a narrative style.  (more…)

Should You Take the Challenge of Prompt 3 of New Common App?


College Application Essays: How to Answer Prompt 3 of the Common App.

Who or What Have You Confronted Lately?


When you read the five options for your Common Application essay, one prompt probably will appeal to you first off. Others you will skim and choose to ignore.

This is how I felt about the third prompt–“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

It just didn’t inspire any topic ideas for me, and I assumed it was less likely than the others to work for you, too. 

But when I gave this question a little more thought, I realized that I challenged a belief while I was in my teens. And it was a very big deal.

I was raised in a religion that is considered relatively radical and unusual, and when I started to think for myself (sometime around junior high) I decided it wasn’t for me.

I was not popular with my parents, some of my friends or my parochial school at the time, and it was hard sticking to my guns. Although rejecting my religion was challenging, painful and lonely, the process truly defined who I was and what I believed. It would have made an excellent essay topic.

So there. I have to eat my negative words about that third essay question.

I wonder what other possible topics could be for that question, besides challenging a religion that has been imposed upon you.

How about a gender belief? Or racial or cultural one? Could you stretch the meaning of a “belief or idea” into an assumption, opinion or prejudice? I think so, especially if you indicate that you have done that in your essay.

I also think if you try to think of a time someone or something first challenged you on a certain “belief or idea,” and then you challenged back, you might find more real-life examples to write about.

For instance, someone tried to hold you back just because you were a girl, and what you did about that (the belief you challenged: girls are inferior to guys).

Or someone kept you out of an activity or group just because of your race or heritage, and what you did about that. I’m imaging some type of confrontation or speaking up or fighting back (peacefully, of course).

I like that the prompt asks you pointedly to also include “what prompted you to act,” so you include some action in your essay.

It’s always a good thing when something actually happens in these college application essays.

The last question in this prompt, “Would you make the same decision again,” is meant to encourage you to look back and reflect, analyze and evaluate that decision to challenge the belief or idea.

A Sample Outline for Prompt 3

If you want to answer this prompt, here’s one way you could structure your essay to engage the reader with your challenging action, and go on to explain why you did it:

1. Start with an anecdote that describes a moment or “time” when you challenged the belief or idea you are writing about. This could simply be the conversation where you confronted someone about it, or some action you took to protest or react to that belief or idea.

2. After a paragraph or two where you described an example of a specific “time” you challenged the belief or idea (or assumption, stereotype, opinion, prejudice, etc.), then go back and give us the back story about this time. What led up to it?

3. Then start to explain how that incident made you feel, what made you decide you didn’t accept it, “what prompted you to act,” how you responded to it, and what you learned in the process. And of course, would you do it again?

The most important part of writing about this prompt, I believe, is to bring some action to your essay. It could be dull and long-winded if you only talk about your beliefs or ideas. Focus on a specific example where something happened and your essay is sure to be compelling.

The larger lesson here, at least that I’ve learned, in reviewing the five options for writing your college admissions essays for these new Common Application prompts is to  try your best to think about and brainstorm ideas for each one. Even if one jumps out at you, give the others a chance. I think I could have written a great essay if I had thought more about my own time I challenged a belief or idea! 

If are you ready to tell your story, check out my Jumpstart Guide and posts about how to find a great topictell a story and write an anecdote.

My new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, offers more complete steps and advice on how to write these types of “narrative,” or storytelling, essays, if you want more help:


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Race is a Terrible College App Essay Topic

Feeling Pressure to Write
About Race?
Don’t Do It!


Colleges and universities can no longer use your race as a factor in determining whether to accept you to their schools, since the landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 29th abolished most of Affirmative Action in our country.

Although schools are supposed to be colorblind now, many admissions officers are still on the prowl for minority students who can maintain the diversity on their campuses.

Being Black, Hispanic or Native Indian can still be a huge advantage in getting admitted to your dream school, especially the most competitive ones.

Since you no longer will be asked to check a box about your race, you may want to find other ways to let them know your heritage if you are a minority.

The most obvious place is in your college application essays.

Revealing your Race and Writing about Race are Very Different

That said, I would think twice before writing about the topic of race in general.

There’s a big difference between revealing your individual race in the context of what you have to say in your college app essay and writing about the nature of race or race-related issues as the central topic in your essay.

If you want to let your schools know your race, you can weave in details that will tip them off.

Mention that you were the first Black to join your local birdwatching club.

Or that you often cross the Mexican border in Texas on weekends to visit your grandmother.

Another example would be to talk about how you trained to dance in your first Powwow.

My main message here is that you can allude to your heritage in your essay–if you believe that will give you an advantage–but I don’t think tackling the larger subject of race will help you.

In fact, I think it could hurt.

As I say all over this blog, the main goal of your college application essay to find personal stories to share that will help you stand out from the competition.

The last thing you want is to write about topic that everyone else is using.

And this year, that could very well be the topic of race.


When the Supreme Court ruled to ban schools from using race as an admissions factor, the main Supreme Court Justice who pushed for this had a lot to say about the admissions process and specifically what students could write about in their essays.

And most of what he said was very confusing. (Not to mention, why does he have the authority to tell students what to write about, in these applications or anywhere? The ruling that effectively banned affirmative action is targeting those at colleges and universities who make the acceptance decisions, not the students who are applying.)

Bad Advice from the Top

In a nutshell, Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the court that it would be okay for schools to ask student applicants to discuss how race (ie discrimination) has affected them in their essays. At the same time, he warned schools not to use the essays to glean students’ individual race to use as a factor in their acceptance.

Yes, a very mixed message.

And one that was blasted out all over the national media.

But just because Roberts had a lot to say about race in college essays–saying that you can write about it in a very specific way–doesn’t mean you should write about it.

He was mainly defending his decision; not worrying about your chances of getting into your dream school.

Here’s one of his quotes on this subject: Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [eg via their college app essay] of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. … A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.

I believe what Roberts didn’t understand is how admissions officers use these essays.

Or the fundamental fact that schools can only control what they ask students to write about (via essay prompts); they have no control over what students actually write.

At a time when many schools have dropped using standardized tests in the admissions process, the college application essay has become one of the last remaining tools admissions officers can use to select one student over the other.

At the most competitive schools, it’s even more important since so many students share almost identical applications filled with stellar grades, extracurricular activities and impressive accomplishments.

An effective college application essay (personal statement for The Common Application and other applications) must help a student stand out from the competition.

If an essay uses an overdone topic or theme (such as race), the college admissions officers can have a hard time using it to differentiate the writer from other students.

There are many topics that have traditionally been over-used, everything from writing about a torn ACL to a dying beloved grandfather.

Savvy college admissions consultants steer students away from these hackneyed topics for good reason.

Now we have the top judicial leader in the land telling students to write about race.


Pick a Topic that Works Best for You!

Chances are there will be multitudinous college application essays on this topic.

For that reason alone, these essays will not do their job for their authors–no matter how brilliantly they share their personal stories of discrimination or insights on the history of race in our country.

Of course, there could be a few that have an original twist or a personal story that jumps out at the reader.

I feel bad for college admissions officers who could be bombarded with essays on race this year, and lose that critical tool in understanding the unique personalities and character of their applicants–so they can pick the ones they feel will be the best pick at their school.

There are a million other topics out there that will help you showcase your individuality and greatness.

Keep your goal in mind while applying for schools at the top of your mind: you want to get accepted.

So unless the way race has impacted you in your life has been your most life-defining issue and you can find a compelling story to share to illuminate it, pick something else!

If you believe your admission chances could be boosted if a target school learns your race, feel free to weave in information about yourself that will clue them in. If you think it could hurt your chances, leave it out.

I assume colleges and universities are scrambling to adjust their applications and even essay prompts. So keep an eye out for any advice they are sending out in upcoming weeks and months, and hopefully you will get more clarification on this issue. (It’s possible schools will now include a new prompt asking students to write about how race affected them–but I doubt those essays will help admissions officers make their admittance decisions.)

In the meantime, don’t panic and keep your eye on the ball, and start brainstorming the perfect topic for YOU!

Good luck!