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!

essay-jumpstart-expert

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

(more…)

Start Your College Application Essay: Brainstorm Guide

start your college application essay

Find Your Problems
and You Will Find
Your Best Stories

 

Every year, I write a post for all you students who are ready to start your college application essay.

All you need is to find that one magic topic idea.

There are many ways to brainstorm ideas for college application essay topics.

This time, I’m going for the essay jugular and offering a brainstorm guide to start your college application essay by honing in on your best problems.

If you are new to this process of writing a narrative-style college application essay, let me clue you in to why problems are your golden ticket. (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…)

New Trick for Finding Killer College Application Essay Topics

Let Lynda Barry Help You Find and Tell Your Best Stories!

Try One of Her Awesome Brainstorming Exercises

If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a new writing technique you might find helpful.

I’m big on tapping mundane topics to inspire essays.

That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).

Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.

Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.

See the difference?

Which would you rather read about?

So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics. (more…)

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! (more…)

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…)

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