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


3 Fixes for Cliche College Application Essay Topics

Should You Write About a Cliche Topic
for Your College Application Essay?

If you are just starting brainstorming ideas for your college application essays, one of the first pieces of advice you might stumble upon is to avoid “cliche” topics.

I always warn my students about these often over-used topics, which can include:

Death of loved ones

Sports (especially injuries and victories/losses)


Mission trips (volunteering)

Tutoring (especially special needs kids)

Travel (family trips)

RELATED: College Application Essay Topics to Avoid

The main reason to avoid them is that droves of other students have already written about these topics, so they aren’t as effective at helping you differentiate yourself from other applicants.

HOWEVER… (more…)

Should You Gamble on Your College Application Essay?

college application essay

Can a Risky College Application Essay
Get You Into the Ivies?



This time of year, a flurry of stories hit the national media about students who get into all the Ivy League schools (plus Stanford).

The stories always include scrutiny and speculation about their college application essays.

I have to admit that I’m kind of a sucker for these articles.

There’s such unpredictability with who gets into what schools.

Everyone is looking for clues as to what works and what doesn’t–especially with the essays. (more…)

Common Application Prompt 6: Be Warned!

common application prompt 6


Big Red Flag on this New
Common Application Prompt 6!

The Common Application added two new prompts for 2017-18.

Now students can choose from seven prompts (instead of five) to inspire their personal statement “Common App” essay.

The seventh new Common Application prompt basically allows you to write about anything you want, and you can learn more about it and the new prompts in New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18.

The other prompt, the new Common Application Prompt 6, essentially asks you to write about one of your intellectual passions. (more…)

New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18

new common application prompts

New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18:



Great news for you college-bound juniors who are just starting to think about your college application essays.

If you need to write your personal statement essay for The Common Application, they just made it a lot easier.

Instead of having to pick one topic from their list of suggested 5 prompts, you can now write about ANYTHING YOU WANT.


Sample Essays

Here are 6 sample essays from Heavenly Essays: 50 College Application Essays That Worked, visit by Janine Robinson.

They are all narrative, malady slice-of-life essays that used real-life experiences to illustrate points the students wanted to showcase about themselves.

Brock Csira
Laguna Beach, clinic CA
University of California, Berkeley, CA

 Hang Ups

Dangling about 30 feet above the ground, I looked down on the entire neighborhood park with its rolling hills, vibrant green grass, and multiple tall eucalyptus trees. Buckled tightly in my brand new Diamond Mountain climbing harness, I admired my handiwork.

My old blue-and-black braided climbing rope thrown over a branch held me aloft, while a slipknot I tied while hoisting myself up prevented my descent. After a few minutes, I decided to return to the ground, but realized my knot grew too tight for me to untie. I was stuck.

Ever since my dad taught me the Bowline in second grade, the intricacy of knots has fascinated me. I spent hours mastering the craft, reading every knot book and website I could get my hands on. All my knots usually came in handy. In 8th grade, I won a competition in the Boy Scouts with a square knot, beating the instructor who taught an alternative knot that took longer to tie. A couple years later, I rescued my brother’s pickup out of the mud with the unbreakable loop of the Bow Line during one of our off-road adventures. I even returned a stranded rock climber’s lifeline by tying a Sheep’s Bend between a small piece of paracord and his climbing rope.

Ironically, on the day I got stuck in the tree, I spent all morning trying to finally conquer the biggest and baddest knot of them all: the Monkey’s Fist. After at least 50 failed attempts at the step-by-step process, my trusty blue rope finally bore the complex, dense sphere of rope. With a heavy Monkey’s Fist on the end of my rope, I could throw an end over any branch.

After hoisting myself into the treetops that day I dangled for several hours due to that hastily tied Slip Knot. When my dad finally returned from work and saw me, he lugged over an extension ladder, and laughed as he untied me from the tangle he inspired years earlier.

When I reflected on this adventure, I realized another irony in the situation: It took a complex knot like the Monkey’s First to elevate me into the tree, but a simple Slip Knot stopped me from getting back down. Comparing these knots, I learned that the effort and persistence I invest in a challenge like tying a knot translates into a certain lasting power.

A Slip Knot is extremely easy to tie, but disappears with a quick pull on the rope. However, a Monkey’s Fist takes hours to learn and minutes to tie, but is impossible to untie. In so many other parts of my life I have experienced this similar relationship: that the more I try, the more useful and permanent the reward.

I expect that my knot-tying adventures, and the related lessons, even the most embarrassing ones, will help me through any future hang ups I encounter from here on out.

ANALYSIS: When Brock was brainstorming for topic ideas, he knew he had a strong interest in engineering. So we started by thinking of qualities, talents and interests he had that would make him an effective engineer.

 One of the qualities was that he was a problem solver. And one of his hobbies was knot tying, which is a form of problem solving. Aha! The next step was to find an example of Brock applying his problem-solving skills in real life.

 A great way to find compelling real-life, mini-stories—also called anecdotes—is to think of “a time” you faced a problem. Problems can come in many forms: challenges, obstacles, crises, phobias, idiosyncrasies, life changes, etc. When Brock mentioned the time he got stuck in a tree because of his knot-tying ability, we both knew instantly he had hit upon a hot topic.

 When you read this essay, notice how naturally this self-deprecating anecdote and knot metaphor showcase Brock’s insightful thinking and engineering prowess—as well as his natural humility.

 You don’t always need to title your essays, but when you land on a witty one like Brock’s “Hang Ups,” it only makes it that much better.


Alex Segall
Laguna Beach, CA
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

 Better to be Kind

Every day after school, the first thing I would do was climb the stairs to my dad’s bedroom and sit on his bed. He would reach out to me and hold my hand while I told him about my day: if I got a good grade on a paper; if a teacher liked one of my comments in class; or if I did two pirouettes instead of one.

He would smile and tell me how proud he was. Nothing made me happier—except the hope that I was also making him happy.

The reason my dad was there for me almost every day of my life was that he was diagnosed with cancer and homebound since I was an infant. I learned about life from leaning on him and from him leaning on me—especially when my mom abandoned us because she couldn’t handle his illness.

I went to him for all of my needs. If I had a problem with a friendship or a relationship, if I was scared of the dark, and especially if I procrastinated on a paper, he would stay up late to help me no matter how sick he felt. In a way, he was my life coach, personal therapist, best friend, and dad all in one.

But at the same time, he leaned on me. By the time I was 10, he could no longer eat. My mom stopped cooking. From then on, we no longer gathered around the dinner table. Not only did I have to learn to cook for myself, but to feed my dad through his feeding tube as well. Then during my freshman year when my mom left us, I took over her responsibilities. I did the laundry, cooking, cleaning, and was my dad’s personal nurse.

Last year, after I turned 16, he had to go on oxygen 24 hours a day and was bedridden. I learned to pay bills, shop for a month’s worth of groceries without spending more than a hundred dollars, and drove him to his doctor’s and physical therapy appointments. I could not have friends sleep over, stay out late, or bake cinnamon pancakes because the smell bothered him. When we had to put our house on the market, I raced home every day and frantically cleaned it for showings.

I never talked to my dad about my own struggles or fears because I did not want to worry him. We were both trying to make each other feel better. My goal each day was to make him smile and relieve his suffering any way possible.

But when he left this earth, I felt like my purpose was gone. I was lost. There was no one at home, no one to stay up late and help me with my schoolwork, no one to help me decide what were the right colleges to apply to or what field or major I should consider. Even though my dad leaned on me for everything, I didn’t realize how much I leaned on him until he was gone.

Going back to school after he died was the hardest thing, but his passion for education motivated me to resume my classes and get the best grades I could despite my sadness. My dad put me first, and I put him first. Now I am learning how to put myself first.

I now have a life coach, practice meditation, keep a daily journal, and have guardians who love and guide me. In meditation, I am learning to have empathy and compassion for my mom, but at the same time respect my own needs first.

I still think about my dad all the time, and hear his voice encouraging me with his favorite saying: “It is better to be kind than right.” I think my dad would be more proud not only that I am pursuing my college dreams, but that I am learning to take care of myself like he always took care of me.

ANALYSIS: This essay nearly broke my heart. And I know it was very challenging for Alex to condense her story to under a mere 650 words. At first, I tried to encourage her to find a different topic, since her dad had only passed away months earlier and she was still grieving. But it became clear that she had to write about this. Nothing else was so defining in her life; nothing even came close.

The challenge of writing about such a traumatic experience was to keep the main point about herself. The objective of a college app essay is to reveal your unique qualities and character, and not just tell a poignant story, especially about someone else. Alex did a great job of relaying what happened to her dad and herself so we felt the impact, but mainly focusing on how it affected her.

 She gave the essay a sharp focus by extracting one part of their complicated relationship—how they each supported the other—and starting the piece with a moving example (anecdote) of how that worked. Also, despite the tragedy of his death, Alex did not allow the reader to feel sorry for her, and kept the message positive and hopeful—just like she is.


Brooks Johnson
Laguna Beach, CA
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA


Call Me Crazy

After two hours of intense racing on the open water, we thought our day was done. Instead, our coach ordered us to race another five miles home, rowing as hard as when we came. Stuck in the middle of the harbor with seven other teammates in the crew boat, there was nowhere to hide.

“Give me a reason to call 911,” coach yelled. Drained and exhausted, I could feel my eyes starting to close. Tunnel vision set in. For a few moments, I blacked out.

I had been here before. This was the point where I had to push my body to do the opposite of what my brain wanted me to do: Go even harder. I focused on the coxswain yelling at me, and hoped my adrenaline wouldn’t wear off.

When I first joined the team as a freshman, I only knew a little about this sport. My older brother warned me about the ridiculous hours and tough workouts. The one thing no one told me, though, is that to row crew you had to be a little crazy. It’s not the mentally insane type of crazy, but the type where you force yourself to disregard all logic and reason and push yourself to keep going.

After four years of rowing crew, I realized that this was exactly what I loved. This zone that I get into allowed me to break down new mental and physical boundaries every day. It gave me the satisfaction of knowing I went harder than any other previous day.

I never even knew I had this type of mindset until I started crew. Not only did this bring out my new mindset, but it grew each day. Every day I looked forward to pushing myself to my limits—and then climbing down deeper into that well to exceed my prior limits.

When I first started crew, my coach encouraged me to go into what he called our “dark place.” This “dark place” was where my mind retreated when I was in extreme pain while rowing. Knowing that it was only my mind holding me back from going any harder, I learned to reverse my thinking so I almost craved the pain to make myself go faster.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much crew shaped my life and how I’ve changed over the course of it. My intensity, drive, but mainly the nature of my competitiveness has been somehow honed, sharpened and brought to light for me.

Now, when I’m supposed to stop, or feel something is trying to hold me back, all I want to do is push harder to break through it. Now, if I didn’t do well on a test, I challenged myself to do better on my next one by doing whatever it took to prepare, and then some extra on top of that. I’ve also started using the idea from crew where the top guys push the bottom guys to spur a competitive collaborative environment in my classes and with friends.

While I’m conscious of this internal competitiveness almost all of the time, I don’t feel crazy. I feel motivated and empowered. Even when we raced back on fumes after that grueling workout in the harbor, I couldn’t believe how invigorated and strong I felt once back on land. As we brought in the boats, my teammates and I re-capped the painful details, laughing at the same time. None of us could wait for the next day to break another barrier. Call us crazy. We like it that way.

ANALYSIS: When I met with Brooks to brainstorm a topic idea for his Common App essay, he wanted to write about his passion for crew. I kept warning him how sports-themed essays are often dull and cliché. But he kept pushing to write about crew. And it’s a good thing he did!

 This essay showed me that you can write about anything—even the topics that are often flagged as overdone or potentially boring to read (sports, mission trips, pets, etc.). I still believe you need to be careful of those topics, and that the key is to find something interesting that happened within those topics. Brooks essay is not just about crew, but how those punishing practices re-shaped his DNA.

 His essay didn’t just say how he learned to work harder or be self-disciplined; his essay showed how he had to be a little crazy. It was critical that Brooks had a clear idea of his main point with this essay before he started writing it so it didn’t fall into the traps of writing about sports.

Once he focused on the crazy quality of crew, Brooks was able to brainstorm a real-life example to craft into an anecdote for his introduction. He re-created it by setting the scene (on the open water) with details (five miles home; tunnel vision; blacked out; coxswain yelling…) and dialogue (“Give me a reason to call 911.”).

 Brooks didn’t tell us how crazy he had to be to row crew. Instead, he just shared one example and we got it immediately. You felt his pain. Then he hit us with the unexpected: He not only endured this craziness, he loved it.


Dylan Somerset
Laguna Beach, CA
Boston University, Boston, MA


Window Dressing

Standing by the display window, I wrapped my arms around Sarah’s slippery waist, struggling as I pulled the sheer, black turtleneck over one arm. As I yanked the sweater over her other arm, I heard a snap. One of her fingers dropped to the ground.

Although Sarah and the store’s other two mannequins were both relatively new, it has always been a battle to constantly change the mannequins and keep them fashionable. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to the skinny jeans.

But, I knew that working at this small boutique in my hometown presented a unique opportunity for me. Adrift, a tiny but hip clothing store for women, gave me a taste of the competitive fashion industry that I love. As a high school junior, I felt lucky for the challenge to create the seasonal displays and transform the mannequins.

Even as I wrestled the mannequins in the store window as passersby gaped and laughed, I enjoyed learning about how to style them in eye-catching outfits. During the two years I worked at Adrift, I jumped at every chance to learn more about the latest fashion trends, and also to understand what drove the business of sales and retail.

When I was first hired, I mainly worked alongside the manager, but after several months my devotion to the job became evident. I received new responsibilities. No matter how intimidated I felt with these unfamiliar tasks, I always tried to dive in with enthusiasm and confidence.

To my surprise, I loved even the most arduous roles. The folding and steaming of clothes, the reorganization of the store, and even the hours of inventory, taught me more about the industry.

My dedication to the menial tasks paid off. Last July the owner invited me to the Los Angeles Market to help merchandise the store. We spent almost that entire day walking around to all the different designers’ show rooms and previewing their collections. I felt so fortunate to participate in the buying process, and that my opinion was valued.

The owner of the store also allowed me to explore a new way of marketing by starting and managing the Adrift Facebook page. Facebook was something the owner did not know much about, and that was where my age gave me an advantage. With the Facebook page, I was able to reach out to all different age groups and market our small store.

As summer ends and fall begins my ongoing battle with the mannequins continues—it’s off with the bikinis and back on with the sweaters and jeans. I have learned to laugh with those people who walk past me on the sidewalk and stare as I wrestle with the mannequins.

My increased responsibilities have only increased my creativity, my business sense, and my love of fashion. I believe that all my skills that I have learned at Adrift boutique will prove beneficial to a hopefully life long career in the fashion industry.

ANALYSIS: Dylan’s essay is an example of how jobs can make great college app essay topics. Writing about a job almost always reveals a student who is industrious and hardworking right off the bat. What college wouldn’t love those qualities?

Also, the nature of most first jobs students take in their teens are humble by nature, and the learning curve is big (and sometimes entertaining) as well.

 My favorite part of Dylan’s essay is her sense of humor. She does a terrific job of setting the scene by describing herself in the window so we can almost visualize her changing the awkward mannequin as passersby gawked at her.

 I don’t know if she meant to do this, but withholding some of the details—that Sarah wasn’t a real person—gave her introduction a suspenseful quality.

 Dylan didn’t set out to write a funny essay, but this description can’t help but make us laugh. There’s something powerful about showing yourself in a vulnerable moment. It makes you come across as very likable, in my opinion.

She starts by describing one challenging (and amusing) moment during her job, and then goes on to expand about the nature of her job and what she learned. One point of her essay was to show that her job had its unique demands, and at times was taxing, but that she realized how much she had to learn by sticking with it.


Gabrielle Mark Bachoua
San Diego, CA
University of California, Davis, CA

Leaping Dancer

As my mom backs out of our driveway, I glance at the back seats to make sure my basketball gear is there, along with my schoolbooks, phone charger, and beat-up copy of Catch-22. We slowly wind through my neighborhood and over about a half dozen speed bumps, then pull onto the highway heading south with the other Sunday traffic.

I sit back and watch the familiar landmarks—the large Denny’s sign with the missing “N,” the short stretch of undeveloped land, the Shell billboard that meant we were almost there—flash past my window.

I’ve made this 20-mile trip between my parent’s homes for the last decade, four times a week, ever since they divorced when I was seven. I must have taken it more than a thousand times. Sometimes I dreaded getting into that car, and resented my parents for putting my older sister and me through the circular logic that moving us back and forth will make our lives normal because we see each parent often, but moving back and forth isn’t normal, unless they make it normal, which isn’t normal. Now I know it makes sense because normal isn’t ideal, normal is the unexpected and the crazy and the unforgiving.

I now realize that those rides were the consistency amid the madness. Looking out the window and down to the lane reflectors I think…about how on Friday’s basketball game my jump shot was off because I was floating to the left, about how I’m excited to see my dog and cat, about how upset I am because of Yossarian’s predicament, about how I’ll miss my dad, about how veterinary medicine is fascinating, about how I needed to study for my chemistry test, about how I will work harder to get into my dream school, and about how I’m glad that I get to take a nice nap before I go to mom’s.

I even remember the first time years ago when I noticed the smudge on the rear driver’s side window, which was shaped into a leaping dancer—a dancer in white. I would watch her move through the trees in El Cajon Valley, bob my head up and down to help her jump over hillside terraces of Spring Valley, and keep her from crashing into the Westfield mall sign two miles from my mom’s home.

It was those hours I spent thinking silently to myself when I learned more about who I am, where I envision myself going, and what my role is in this world. Sitting in the front seat, I’d take a moment to look back to see that same dancer in white, however faceless, nameless, and abstract, gave me a sense of comfort. That even though I wasn’t really ‘home,’ I still was, because home isn’t simply where you rest your head, but also where you have the security to dream inside of it.

ANALYSIS: Once again, an essay like this proves that you can pick almost anything to write about as long as you give it a focus. In this case, Gabrielle picked a simple stretch of roadway between her parent’s homes. She described the weekly routine and drive with vivid, descriptive details, so you felt as though you were in the car staring out the same window.

 But she used the trip as a metaphor for a meaningful time in her life, when she had lots of downtime to reflect on her life, her feelings and dreams. Even though it shares the pain of her parent’s divorce in an understated way, that’s always in the background—and we can tell it has shaped her.

If she never had the time to daydream and reflect on her day, who knows how she would have been different somehow, or those emotions would have played out somewhere else.

Nothing really happens in this essay, but it still manages to have momentum and hold our interest. I love how she personifies a little smudge on the window into a dancer, another metaphor for her own journey.

In the end, Gabrielle explored the idea of home, and defined it more as a journey than a destination—whether riding in a car for a commute between houses or a lifelong adventure.

I believe Gabrielle didn’t set out to write a “deep” essay filled with metaphors and heavy insights, but by describing a simple routine and then reflecting upon what it meant to her, she revealed herself as an observant, reflective and wise young woman.


Luc Stevens
Laguna Beach, CA
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR


Skating Through Hard Times

I was in fifth grade eating breakfast with my family when the floor of my home gave way under our feet. We barely escaped from the house before it buckled into two pieces, and ran to safety before the entire hillside gave way. Our home was destroyed, and we narrowly escaped with our lives.

Six years ago, my family was caught in this terrifying landslide when my house and a dozen others slid down the side of a canyon in Laguna Beach. Within less than 10 minutes, my life literally fell out from under me. For the next five years, my family moved over a dozen times, often living out of boxes with friends and relatives. Besides my clothes and basic necessities, the only thing I hauled from house to house was my collection of skateboards.

Six months after the landslide, the city of Laguna Beach relocated us to a recycled trailer on a parking lot at the end of town so my parents could save money to rebuild our home. I see it now as an extremely generous gesture but at the time it was difficult. Living in this dilapidated, thin-walled trailer was definitely not the life I had envisioned. My backyard was an enormous parking lot.

As a lifelong skateboarder, however, that flat expanse of asphalt helped me get through the hardest years of my life. You see, I’m a skater from a hillside neighborhood and had never experienced such space and opportunity. I took advantage of the situation and made this neglected, dirty parking lot into a skateboarding oasis with ramps and rails that my friends donated.

We would all gather together after school as a release from the pressures of life for a while, practicing trick after trick, working to fine-tune each maneuver. Contests were created, videos shot, and movies made.

For the first time in my life, I had a flat area where my friends and I could hang out. Even though we didn’t talk much about the landslide, these friendships were both a distraction and softened the unpleasant living situation.

Also, balancing sports and loads of homework, I turned to what I thought of as my new backyard skate park at night to escape from reality each day. The sense of riding back and forth on a cold night helped me relax and persevere through my studies and life in general.

Numerous years passed in that cramped rickety, old trailer and life wore on dealing with everything from highway noise reverberating right outside our door to the constant rodent problem. When my family’s new, hillside home finally came to completion at Christmas last year, I was more than ready to move.

The only thing I would miss from my five-year ordeal was my beloved “skate park.” After moving into our permanent home, the crazy life I endured since fifth grade was now over and even though I could not bring the skate ramps themselves, I was able to bring plenty of memories.

One of the most important lessons I learned through all this is that I have the ability to find positive opportunities even in the grimmest circumstances. If I could find friendship, support and fun in a parking lot, I know I can find the upside to almost any situation.

ANALYSIS: Luc almost had no choice but to write about how he and his family lost their home in a landslide when he was young. It was such a defining experience—not just the terrifying event, but the long, slow process of “going home.”

 I like how Luc recounted briefly the actual slide, and how he didn’t over dramatize or dwell on that. Instead, he picked right up on how he turned a bad situation into something positive. Like any good personal essay, this one has a clear universal truth: How every cloud has a silver lining (if you find it.)

 Because Luc’s description of his experience showed us how bad things were and then the steps he took to improve them, he never had to spend a lot of time explaining what he learned. He only needed a couple sentences at the very end to share his lessons.

 A lot of students who grow up in Southern California want to write about their passions for sports, such as surfing and skate boarding. I usually steer them away from these topics, since they aren’t very interesting to read. Luc’s essay is a huge exception!

Copywrite @ 2014 Janine Robinson
All rights reserved.


FAQ | College Application Essay

(These are the most commonly asked questions about college application essays, find
along with my best advice and related posts.)


1. What are some tips to write college admission essays?

The list of essay-writing tips is long, look but some of the best are: start early; include a real-life story, dosage engage the reader at the start, focus on one-point about yourself, don’t try to impress, lose the 5-paragraph essay format, write in a more casual and familiar style, everyday topics work the best, don’t list accomplishments and activities, show your grit by sharing a problem you faced, and above all, make it personal and mainly about you.

Learn more: What Makes a College Application Essay Great?

2. How do I write college admission essays?

Start by reading the prompts to understand what they want you to write about. Then decide what you want to showcase about yourself in your response. Remember, the goal is to demonstrate your writing ability, but more than that to show your target schools something unique or unexpected about yourself that they would not have learned from other parts of your application. Try to find a topic that will help you stand out from other students. It doesn’t have to be impressive; just something interesting about yourself.

Learn more: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps

3. How to start college application essay?

Always start by reviewing the prompts, or questions. But remember, these are mainly to help you find a topic you can use to showcase something about yourself, and what sets you apart from other applicants. Brainstorm ideas for topics, and look for real-life moments or mini-stories (“times”) from your recent past that you can share to illustrate a unique quality, characteristic, talent, or core value.

Learn more: How to Jumpstart Your College Application Essay

4. How bad is it to make up stuff for the college app essay?

Don’t waste your time making up things for your college application essay. First, this is totally unethical—it’s lying. Second, you will only hurt yourself since the whole point of these essays is to help colleges and universities decide if their school is the best place for you. If you give them phony information, they cannot help you find the best fit for your learning needs and goals. Third, college admissions folks have read hundreds of essays, and they have great radar at spotting bogus essays. Do yourself a favor and trust that writing in your most authentic teenage voice and words will be better than anything you could make up. Often, it the little imperfections, confessions and flaws that make you the most likable to schools. The truth always works the best. Trust it.

Learn more: Why You Shouldn’t Even Think of Cheating on Your College Application Essay

  1. Potential ways to address the “Why Major” essays?

One of the best ways to write about your selected field of study is to share one specific incident or moment that first inspired your interest in your intended major. Then continue by describing activities and experiences from high school (both academic and outside school; clubs, jobs, etc.) that furthered or deepened your interest in this major. Also, explain why you believe this major or field of study has meaning to you on a personal level, as well as value to the world in general.

Learn moreHow to Write the UC Transfer Essay: Why This Major?

  1. Is using humor a good idea in the common App essays?

Some of the best college application essays include real-life stories that are entertaining or amusing, often because the student shared some type of problem or challenge they faced, and what happened included something on the funny side. Who doesn’t like a good laugh? However, don’t try to write something funny or a comedy sketch. There’s a big difference!

That usually backfires. If you share an incident or event that happened to you to showcase something specific about your personality or character, and it happens to be funny, go for it. (It’s often funny when we share times we messed up.) Just write it straight and let the story and humor speak for itself. Look for real-life incidents or problems that included something unexpected, and you will often find them comical.

 Learn moreHow to Find Your Essay Voice

7. Is talking about moving in your essay too cliche of a topic?

Students have written about moving quite a bit in these essays, mainly because the change in schools and friends affected them. However, like other often overdone topics, such as playing sports, going on mission trips and working with special needs students, writing about moving can be cliche because so many students have had these experiences.

You can still write about a move, but you need to look harder to make sure you include life lessons that aren’t predictable. It’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it.

With a move, you need to say more than how it was hard making new friends and fitting in. There needs to be something else that challenged and changed you on some level. Look for something you never expected to happen or affect you from the move to help set your essay beyond the cliché.

Learn more: Hottest Topic Tips

8. Is it appropriate to write about religion in essays?

Like writing about other hot-button topics such as death, illness and politics, it can be tricky to write about religion in an essay. However, if your religion or something related to your spiritual beliefs has been defining for you, you could write a powerful essay.

Make sure the essay is not just about your religion, or a long explanation about the dogma, or uses too much religious jargon. Instead, consider writing about a personal challenge, and working in how your religion helped you handle it. Make sure the essay highlights something about your personality as well as what you believe. If you grew up in an extreme religion that you left, that could be an excellent topic since it shows how you learned to think for yourself.

Learn more: Cliché Essay Topics That Are Red-Flagged

9. Is an essay about politics a good topic?

Politics is often on the list of “red flag” topics not to write about. That doesn’t mean you can’t write an excellent essay that somehow involved politics, however.

Do not write an essay about only your political beliefs. The essay needs to be about you, not politics. If you have a specific experience, event or incident that happened that you want to share to showcase something about what makes you unique, and it happens to involve something political (like interning for a local politician or working on a campaign), that could make a great essay. No matter what you write about, never make partisan statements where you take a side because the last thing you want to do is offend or anger a college admissions officer who does not share your political beliefs. Example: “I love Obama” or “Trump is my hero.” You can include what you learned working in a political arena, but keep your political opinions neutral or far in the background.

Learn more: Find a Great Topic!

The next 10 most common questions about college application essays

10. Importance of stories in a college essay?

Stories are your best friend when writing a college application essay, especially a personal statement. There’s no better way to “show” the reader something about yourself than by sharing something that happened to you.

Above all, stories are interesting and make the best “grabbers” or “hooks” for the introduction of these essays. Nothing draws in a reader than “a time” something happened. If you start with a real-life story, your introduction will be specific and engaging, as opposed to a general opening statement that is dull.

Stories are the best way to share an example of a larger point you are making about yourself. For example, instead of explaining how you are creative (or any personal quality or characteristic) in your essay, share a real-life story about a moment, incident or “time” you did something creative. See the difference?

Learn more: Why Admissions Officials Want Stories in Essays

11. Is it ok to include expletives in the college essay?

Swearing is offensive. In general, you want to use real-life, everyday language in your essays. However, there’s no need to use actual expletives. If you share a story where someone swore, and it’s essential to conveying the power of the moment, find a different way to let the reader know.

Example: My dad was so angry with me that he let out a string of curse words under his breath.

You can use “mild” swear words, such as hell or damn if you are quoting someone, but only use them if it enhances what you have to say. Bottom line: if you think a word is offensive, don’t use it.

Learn more: TMI in College Application Essays

12. How to think of college essay topics?

The trick to a great topic is to find one that helps you showcase one of your defining qualities or characteristics. (This makes sure your essay is focused and interesting, and not too general and dull.)

Then brainstorm moments, incidents or experiences from your recent past that illustrates that quality or characteristic.

Another way to discover awesome topics is to look for “times” you faced any type of problem. These experiences often make ideal topics to showcase how you handle problems, what you learned and what that matters.

These problems don’t need to be catastrophes, although those can work, too. Problems come in many shapes and sizes, such as challenges, mistakes, failures, set-backs, changes, flaws, phobias, etc. Trust that “mundane” or everyday topics can make terrific topics—it’s all about what you have to say about them.

Sample topics: washing cars, obsession with karaoke, scooping ice-cream, riding public busses, having five older sisters, dealing with dad’s alcoholism, having big feet, etc.

Learn more5 Top Tips on Finding Topics for College Admissions Essays

  1. To write or not to write about disability?

Writing about a disability is a natural topic for a college application essay, because often these are highly defining. How could being blind, or using a wheelchair, or having severe dyslexia not shape who you are in some way?

The key to writing about a disability is to share how it has challenged you (and feature a moment or incident that helps the reader understand what it’s like to be you), but also spend most of essay talking about what you have learned about yourself, others and the world by dealing with it.

The key to making sure your essay is not cliché when writing about a potentially common topic is to look for life lessons that were unexpected.

Learn more: Essay Writing Topics to Avoid

  1. Contractions in a college essay?

When you write about yourself in your college essays, it’s natural to have contractions. The best college applications are not black and white. People (You!) are more complicated than that, and when you share your experiences and what you have learned, these lessons are often complicated and enter into the gray.

College and universities actually welcome students who have learned to think in deeper and more abstract terms, who know that not everything is all good or all bad. The point of these essays is to take a look at what you care about and why, and it’s normal to examine these ideas from many angles. No one expects you to have all the answers; they just want to hear how you think about things and what you value and why.

Learn more: Why Best Essays Have Touch of Gray

  1. What do colleges look for in an essay?

One of the main things colleges use essays for is to help the admissions officers differentiate students from each other. Without essays, they only have colorless test scores, grades and lists of activities to get a sense of the applicants. So you want to find something to write about yourself that will stand out from the crowd.

Above all, the colleges are trying to determine whether you are the right “fit” for their school, and to do that they need to get a picture of your personality and character. They want to see that you can write, that you are interesting, that you value thinking and learning (called “intellectual vitality”), that you have grit (raw determination), and above all, that you are likable.

Learn more: Learn What Admissions Officers Want in Essays

16, Is it okay to write a common app essay about a time I experienced failure because I slacked off?

You can write an essay about times that your grades slipped or you slacked off for a time in high school as long as you make it clear that you have recovered. These can make strong essays because they can help explain lower grades or other blips in your academic record.

However, you must not make excuses for your slacking, but instead provide an explanation (illness in the family, your own depression, bullying, a move, etc.). Spend the majority of your essay talking about how you got yourself back on track and what you learned from that experience that will make you all the stronger in the future.

Learn more: How to Write About Failure

17. Just how important are the application essays?

Most college and universities say these essays are very important in the admissions process, although it’s impossible on an individual level to know what part they played in acceptances and rejections.

Most admissions officers say the essays are often the only tool they have to get a sense of the applicant’s personality and character—to “put a face” on the application.

Especially at the most competitive schools, where almost all the applicants have near-perfect grades, test scores and extracurricular lists, these essays often end up as one of the deciding factors.

Students should not try to worry how much they matter, and instead write the best essay they can to help them differentiate themselves from the competition and give their target schools a clear sense of their individuality.

Learn more: Learn What Admissions Officers Want in Essays

  1. Can I write a college essay bluntly?

You should write your college application using a casual, familiar tone and voice. One tip is to try to write more like you talk, using everyday language as opposed to the more formal tone of academic essays (don’t try to force in long, SAT vocabulary words!).

Share your personal stories to illustrate what you want to showcase about yourself to your target schools, and then explain what you learned in the process. You can be direct and candid about your experiences and how you felt during them.

Steer clear of overly flowery writing or slipping into that “trying to sound smart” voice of typical English papers. Stick to the truth, be candid and get out your thoughts. Then go back and edit them to strike the right flow and tone.

Learn more: How to Find Your Essay Writing Voice

  1. Why [X college]? Essay Question

The prompt for essay supplements that asks about why you are a fit for their school, or why you want to go there, or anything that asks about why they should admit you, is one of the most common prompts colleges and universities ask students.

Don’t waste your time telling the school how great it is or how much you love it. The key to answering this prompt is to make a case for how that school can help you meet your educational and personal goals. To do that, do some research (scour their web sites) to learn specific details about what that school has to offer—such as courses, programs, internships, study abroad, clubs, professors, facilities—that will support your interests, field of study or major.

Learn more: How to Answer “Why College X”

  1. Writing about mental illness in college essay?

If you deal with a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, anorexia, etc., you can write a powerful essay about this for your college application. However, you need to make sure that you make it clear that your mental illness has not stopped you from being a productive and balanced person.

You can share the challenges of your illness in your essay so the reader understands how hard it has been, but you need to spend most of your essay explaining how you have learned to handle it or manage it, and not let it stop you from your academic, social or other activities and goals. In fact, you most likely can include how dealing with this mental illness has made you even stronger and prepared you for college.

Learn more: Essay Writing Topics to Avoid