Work First, Surf Second: A Lesson in Mundane Topics

A student who I will call Ryan arrived for his tutoring session yesterday, and showed me what he had written for his English class.

His essay started with how he worked with Habit for Humanity and a trip he took to work with Native Americans.

Oh no.

Not the old mission trip essay.

Way too overdone. Usually dull as dirt.

So I suggested we start fresh.

Example of One of My Tutoring Sessions


I asked Ryan to jot down some of his defining qualities.

He wrote down conscientious, reliable, consistent and relaxed.

I noticed that several of his qualities overlapped, so I asked him about his sense of responsibility—fishing for his interesting stories, moments or small experiences that could “show” how or why he is “a responsible guy” in his essay. (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…)

6 College Application Essay Tips for First-Gen Students

 Advice for Students Who Are Underrepresented
for Whatever Reason:
Tell Your Personal Story

In my previous post, I shared my experience working with teachers and students from the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where I’m giving a series of workshops on how to write college application essays.

It was my first time working with a large number of students who were mainly from underrepresented backgrounds. Most of the students were Hispanic and would be the first to attend college in their families.

I wanted to share some insights, tips and advice on what I learned, in case this helps other similar students struggling with their essays.

Here are 6 Essay Writing Tips for Students
from Underprivileged or Underrepresented Backgrounds

ONE: Students who come from underprivileged backgrounds can be more reluctant to open up and reveal their tribulations, pain and vulnerability. Many believe they need to show only their strengths and victories. They are rightfully proud and don’t want to appear weak, deficient or complaining.

However, colleges are eager to hear about the obstacles students have faced, and their real-life stories of hardship, and these essays are the perfect place to share them. The best college application essays are almost always highly personal. (more…)

Jumpstart Your Personal Statement! All You Need is a Juicy Problem!

College Admissions Essays:

How to Start Your Core College Application Essay


If you are writing a college admissions essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or about “a time,” or describe a quality, background, interest, identity, talent, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as The Common App prompts or Prompt #2 for the UC app.), then your essay is also known as a personal statement.

The most effective personal statements are written as narrative essays, meaning they relate an experience using a story-telling style.

To share an incident or moment from your past, you only need two components to make a story: a character and a conflict.

So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”)

Thinking back to English class, remember that conflicts can come from many different places—from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something happened to you.)

To put it simply, a conflict is a problem.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes.

They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too.

(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)

Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.

Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…

Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem.

(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact!  Include the 5Ws—who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)

These mini-stories are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.

RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One


Support High School Students Who Call BS on Guns

Learn How You Can Stand Up for Your Rights

Join the Parkland Students and Rally Your Own High School!

For the last decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of high school students every year on the notorious college application essay.

Once these teenagers start thinking and talking about who they are and what they care about, almost all of them reveal themselves as highly moral kids with idealistic goals and passions.

Above all, they know what’s right.

So it didn’t surprise me that the friends and classmates of the 14 high school students and three teachers slaughtered in Parkland, Florida last week have jumped into action.

Their simple and urgent message: Do something!

And it didn’t take long for them to understand what needed to happen to help prevent more of these senseless tragedies: Control guns.

Especially the ones that can take out large groups of people in a matter of seconds.

(The AR-15 style rifle was used in the Parkland massacre, as well as many others in just the last couple years: 27, mostly kindergarteners, dead in Newtown, Conn.; 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, NV; 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs,Texas; 49 club-goers in Orlando, Florida. That’s the short list.)

Based on their recent appearances on national television, these students also know the SINGLE, MOST EFFECTIVE first step to dramatically reduce the carnage: Ban assault-style weapons.

Just listen to their eloquent, heartfelt speeches.

And learn about their plans to join forces with other high school students and make history.

These Parkland students almost instantly knew exactly what needs to happen:

  1. Speak up however you can (Find a march, spread the word on Social Media, start a club, sign petitions, talk to others…)
  2. Take on the biggest defender of all guns: the National Rifle Association (NRA)
  3. Vote out the politicians who take the NRA’s blood money and wouldn’t dream of standing up to them (Just Google them!)

We’ve all heard the rantings of those who blame everything but guns in order not to give them up:

*It’s the fault of bad parenting
*Killers will find other ways to kill
*Gun ownership is a Constitutional Right
*It’s a mental health issue

Again, the kids get it. They don’t deny that all of these are related factors on different levels, which need to be addressed as well.

But they are smart enough to focus on the ONE step that will reduce the carnage the most: Ban assault-style weapons.

(This is not a radical new concept: These were banned in the United States up until 2004, when Congress let it expire. The ban included 18 types of semi-automatic rifles, including the AK-15.)

I salute the bravery of these high school students to speak out.

I am heartened by their clear sense of logic and ability to see the problem—and one obvious step toward a solution.

These kids have managed to pierce the fog of fake news and propaganda that has gripped our country, and paralyzed our ability to confront issues with reason and truth.

It’s shameful that they are now being attacked by the forces out there who will go to any length to keep their guns.

If you are distraught and sickened by the constant headlines and photos of dead young people in our country, speak up.

Support these young heroes and their pleas for help and support any way you can.

Get informed. (Tune in with Twitter: #NationalSchoolWalkout #MarchForOutLives #Enough)

Speak up.



Here’s Information on Upcoming Marches:

National School Walkout: March 14
Protesters are calling on students to walk out of school at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes (one for every Parkland shooting victim.)

March of Our Lives: March 24
Sister marches are being planned throughout the country to support the Parkland students’ march

Students: Know Your Rights

From the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)
“Your school can punish you for missing class, just like they always can, but it can’t punish you more harshly for protesting than if you were missing class for another reason.”
If you think your rights are being violated, contact your local ACLUA affiliate at

I was curious how these teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had such a fierce sense of social justice and so many of them stood up within hours of the tragedy to express their outrage and concerns so eloquently.

I found it interesting to learn about the woman the school was named after, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who was the daughter of the first publisher of The Miami Herald newspaper, a journalist herself, a women’s rights activist “suffragette,” an early environmentalist who lived to be 108.

Based on the progressive legacy of their school’s namesake, I believe there must be teachers, parents and other educators at that school who have fostered a strong sense of democracy and social justice. Bravo!

In this same spirit, I believe all of us who work with students have a responsibility to support these teenagers any way we can.

Lives depend on it.

I salute these students for standing up for their Constitutional rights and participating in Marches and other peaceful protests demanding gun control policies to keep them safe, especially in their schools.

As both a parent, educator and patriot, I plan to march alongside them in my community (either Orange County or Los Angeles). Hope to see you there!


10 Quickie Tips to Nail Your UC Essays

uc essays

If you are just starting to write your four short UC essays (called Personal Insight Questions), here are ten simple tips that can help you crank them out.

I’ve written longer posts on how to brainstorm and map out answers for each of these questions for the University of California application, if you have the time and inclination. Find them here.

Too busy to read all those posts? No worries. (more…)

The Big Eclipse: A Lesson in College Application Topic Ideas


Don’t Even Think About Writing About the Eclipse

And What to Write About Instead


When I was invited to give one of my college application essay writing workshops to students at Colorado Academy in Denver, Colorado, I had no idea it would be on the day of the big eclipse.

As Monday, August 21, neared, we all realized the sky would darken just about lunchtime during my daylong workshop.

Even though I knew it would be hard to compete with a full-on solar eclipse, I was excited because Denver was more in line with the action than my home in Southern California. (more…)

How to Format Your Common Application Essay

format your common application essay

Confused on How to Format Your
Common Application Essay?

Here are 9 Hot Tips

The 2017-18 Common Application opened for business earlier this week (August. 1). Chances are you will soon need to know how to format your common application essay.

If you are on the ball, you might be ready to apply to specific colleges and universities and need to submit your core Common Application essay, as well as other shorter essays required by certain schools (often called Supplemental Essays).

Or you are still getting ready or working on writing them, but will need to know how to format your common application essay(s) in upcoming weeks or months.

The first step is to get an account with The Common Application. (more…)

Why Kids CAN Write–If You Teach Them How

kids can write

Students Stress Over College App Essays

Because for the First Time They Want to Write

But Realize They Don’t Know How

The New York Times ran an article yesterday called “Why Kids Can’t Write.”

Great piece, but I didn’t agree with the title.

They can write. (Click bait.)

However, as the article chronicled at length, most students have not been taught how to write. The writing experts debated if the problem was at the mechanics end (lack of instruction on writing rules) or the other end with creative writing (lack of opportunity for personal expression through writing.)

I don’t think it’s an either-or issue. (more…)

The Trouble with Boys and College Application Essays

college application essay

Who Writes Better College Application Essays:
Boys or Girls?

When I gave one of my summer college application essay writing boot camps this last weekend in my hometown of Laguna Beach, I had 11 boys and one girl.

As the students showed up, I casually mentioned this gender imbalance to the group and one of the boys quipped: “Because boys can’t write.”

I like to think of myself as someone who is gender neutral, and this comment caught me off guard.

My first thought was: That’s hogwash. (more…)