I’m Janine Robinson, the writing coach behind the Essay Hell blog, tutoring and editing services, books, online course, workshops—anything you can imagine to help students (and parents, counselors, teachers, etc.) learn to write standout college application essays.
More than 4 million visitors have discovered my blog and learned to craft effective essays. I’m elated when college-bound and other students find what they need here to write their own. But I understand that many students could use extra help.
I love working one-on-one with students from all over the world either in person (in Laguna Beach, California) or via Skype, Google Hangouts or Facetime. My popular Jumpstart sessions help them develop topics and writing plans to launch their essays. I also edit drafts as they move forward.
As a former journalist and English teacher, I’m all about good writing and know how to teach others how to do it.
Or just contact me at: EssayHell@gmail.com. Good luck!
Top Posts to Get You Started!
As I’ve been watching the Democratic national convention this past week, I realized how much election speeches are like college application essays.
Both are sales pitches. Both candidates and college applicants want something—badly!
Candidates want votes. You want to get admitted. read more…
A Q&A With The Author of the Viral Costco Essay
Last month, Brittany Stinson learned she got into five Ivy League colleges, as well as Stanford and many other top schools.
When a newspaper reporter asked her to share her college application essay, Brittany didn’t think twice.
Within hours, her essay went viral. read more…
After working with thousands of students from all over the world on writing the dreaded college application essay for the last eight years, I’ve finally been able to boil down the process to three simple steps.
Yes, just three steps.
If you follow these steps, I believe you will be able to craft a college application essay that will give you an edge in the admissions game.
Each step makes sure that you share information about yourself that will make your essay effective and help you stand out from the competition. read more…
How to Avoid College Application Essay
No matter where you are with writing your college application essay, you should double check that you are on the right track.
It’s way too easy to inadvertently torpedo your chances of writing an essay that gives you an edge in the admissions game. read more…
You Don’t Need Tragedy to Write
a Standout College Admissions Essay!
This is the time of year that the frenzy surrounding college admissions starts to grow.
Early decision deadlines are just weeks away.
Students who put off writing their college application essays are running out of excuses—and time.
Those who finally sat down to figure out the Common Application are shocked at the number of additional supplemental essays they need to pound out.
Compounding the looming sense of doom are some of the myths about these essays. read more…
“If you want to ‘show’ something, ask, ‘Can you prove it with an example?'”
One of the Hot Writing Tips
for College Application Essays
I’m excited to share one of the 50-plus writing tips, techniques and ideas from my just-published guide: Essay Hell’s Writing Survival Kit, now available as a Kindle ebook on Amazon. This one is from Chapter Three, called Show the Way.
In many of the writing tips and advice, I draw helpful examples from the sample college application essays written by students at the back of the book. In the digital Kindle version, there are live links (but they won’t work in this excerpt, sorry!). read more…
My friend, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who is a national expert on helping families afford higher education, interviewed me recently about how to write standout college application essays. If you are struggling to figure out how to pay for your college or university, Lynn has the best insider information and resources, including her best-selling book and popular online courses.
I believe one thing that many students and parents don’t realize is that a strong essay not only can help you get into a competitive school, but it can also help you score merit scholarship money. This isn’t true for all schools, especially large universities, but many liberal arts colleges use the essays to determine who they want at their school and then work to help them afford it—including offering money. read more…
I’ve been meaning to write about the hubbub around the high school student who got accepted into all eight Ivy League schools last April. It was an amazing and well-deserved accomplishment for Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old from Long Island, New York.
Because of his feat, the media and some college experts have held up his college application essay as one of the main reasons he was accepted. And it has been championed now as an example of a great essay.
If you are struggling with your college application essay right about now, you might be cursing the entire process.
And I don’t blame you.
You’re supposed to think up some fascinating topic that will grab the attention of those bored-to-tears admissions officers and help your application stand out among the thousands of other students vying for the same spot at your dream college.
All the experts tell you “Just be yourself!” or “Tell a story.”
While they are right, it’s totally normal that you don’t have much confidence in how to do that in 650 words or less.
Most high school students have not been taught how to write a narrative (story-telling style) personal essay.
And to write good ones takes a lot of practice. read more…
Over the years, I’ve heard almost every imaginable complaint and concern about writing college application essays.
Like most common fears, they are almost all in your head.
That doesn’t mean they don’t feel real.
But if you can realize that a lot of your success will depend on not psyching yourself out, and staying calm and focused, you can then get to work.
Map out a writing plan.
Pound out a rough draft.
Before you know it, you will have a knock-out essay! read more…
If you are a Letterman fan, you know that I am supposed to list these college application essay tips backwards, and end with No. 1. But I prefer chronological order. You can watch the YouTube video, where he has the young man, Kwasi Enin, who was accepted to all eight ivies this year, count them down on his show. Some media have tried to pin Kwasi’s success on his essay—but that is pure conjecture (Kwasi is amazing on many levels). Anyway, if you are college bound, you might get a kick out of watching the whole thing.
If you are shy on time, I wrote out Letterman’s list here. And then I wrote my own list below. His may be funny; but mine works!
David Letterman’s Top 10 Ways to Make Your College Application Essay Stand Out
2. Personally give to dean at home in the middle of the night.
3. If you’ve been to space, mention that you’ve been to space. read more…
Are you starting to think about writing your college application essay?
If so, you need to know what makes a great essay to know how to start brainstorming and writing your own.
You can often recognize a “great one” when you read or hear it—but it’s more difficult to explain what exactly made it that way.
Here’s my attempt to list the features that comprise a great college application essay.
Unlike other essays, these have a very specific goal that you must always factor in when you write a great one: To help your college application land in the “Yes!” pile.
Many of the elements of an effective college admissions essay further that goal.
A GRRRREATTT college application essay:
2. Usually is written in a narrative (story-telling/memoir-like/slice-of-life) style drawing off real-life experiences.
3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality (creative, resourceful, fierce, resilient, driven, etc.) about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay. read more…
Everyone is looking for that magic topic for their college application essay that will help them jump out from the essay pile, and shout, “Yes, that’s me!”
I’ve written a lot about how you can go about landing on that unique topic.
Here’s one way to see if you have found it or not.
In my mind, you want to be the student who writes an essay that captures something original, unexpected or poignant about yourself, which an admissions officer would then use to dub you with a related phrase.
What does that mean? read more…
College Admissions Essays
It’s Official: Get Creative!
Colleges tell students that they want their essays to show them what sets them apart from the pack and what makes them unique. Yet most of the college application essay prompts do a poor job of helping students find topics that help them reveal their true personalities and character. The Los Angeles Times just wrote an article about how some colleges are finally crafting prompts that do a better job of encouraging students to feel comfortable taking a risk and showing their idiosyncrasies and quirks, rather than showcasing only their accomplishments and hardships. The main point of the article: Get creative!
This is an exciting trend, in my opinion, one I’ve encouraged for years now. My advice is to try to write about these more creative topics even when answering prompts that still aren’t creative. (Such as the list of Common App prompts, especially now that there will not be the Topic of Choice option.) I have lots of tips and advice all over my blog on how to find these types of topics. The point is that college admissions folks are starting to change their prompts because they are sick of reading about the same topics where students recount mission trips and sports victories. Take a risk. Get creative. Tell a story. Write about something mundane, rather than impressive. read more…
College Admissions Essays:
Finding topics in unlikely places
I would never have believed that writing about the Twilight series could be a super essay topic–not in a million years. But below, I’m going to share how one of my brightest students landed on Edward Cullen as the perfect topic during one of my recent “Jumpstart” tutoring sessions. And how it’s going to be a brilliant essay!
As a little background, this particular student is fierce. She’s a top student, loves chemistry and also is an accomplished dancer. Her first college admissions essay (she needs to write 2 for the University of California app.) is going to show how she is a problem solver. But what about that second essay? I believe if you are writing more than one essay for an application,they should complement each other–that is, balance each other out.
This is when I really push for the idea of a “mundane” topic, one that is everyday, and often would be the last topic in the world you would even consider writing about.
EXAMPLES: The kid who realized he had leadership skills the night he had to wash dishes at his dad’s restaurant. The girl who starred in her school musicals but wrote about her passion for karaoke. The tiny dancer who came to terms with her size 9 feet. The football tackle who loved to bake cakes for his teammates. Notice that on the surface, none of these topics sounds “impressive.” But trust me, they end up as the most interesting and memorable essays–exactly what you want! The other quality all these topics share is they have an “unexpected” quality–you wouldn’t expect a football player to love baking, or a dancer to have big feet or to find a leader behind a stack of dirty dishes. (What’s something about you that no one would believe?)
Here’s how our conversation went as we brainstormed a mundane–and unexpected–college essay topic:
College Admissions Essays
How to Find “The Unexpected” in Your College Application Essay or Personal Narrative
One way to add snap, crackle and pop to your college application essay is to give it a little twist.
What’s a twist?
It can be many things, but usually it offers some sort of surprise, an irony or something unexpected.
When writing about yourself, be on the lookout for your own personal life twists.
In simple terms, a twist can be anything that isn’t what you would think or expect.
Why do these work so beautifully in college application essays?
Because they a. are delightful to read because they break away from the predictable b. they often involve a problem, which needs solving and provokes personal change, and c. they show how you respond, adjust and learn.
All rich essay compost!
One client wrote a personal statement about how she was always at the top of her game, whether it was in her classes, sports or her favorite extracurricular activity, drama.
She told about the time she was certain she landed the lead role in the school musical, and her shock when someone told her someone else got the part.
Her essay focused on how she learned that supporting roles in plays, as well as in life, can be as valuable as being the leading lady. What was the twist?
In this case, she didn’t get what she expected.
It was a surprise for her not to be the star. read more…
College Application Essays
How Far Out Should You Go?
Interesting post on the New York Times’ blog on college admissions, called The Choice.
The article was about whether to include your random interests–ranging from an obsession with Lady Gaga to riding 100 bus routes in Seattle to a collection of old National Geographic mags–in your college applications.
The post quotes college counselors advising students to include their “hidden extracurriculars” in the “interests” section, as though that’s really radical. Depending on the interest, I believe it could work best as an essay topic.
In my opinion, what you care about, and spend your time pursuing, tells more about you than recounting your mission trip to Costa Rica or the time you won the big cross country race.
If you write an essay about an offbeat topic (a passion, an obsession, a hobby…), chances are you not only will reveal a telling piece of your personality, but also show the reader how you think and what you value.
WARNING: Do not simply try to be cute, odd or quirky. Not matter how offbeat your topic, make sure your points remain serious and thoughtful. Show restraint.
Check out these 5 Top Tips on Finding Topics.
(Personally, I would avoid a sensational topic such as Lady Gaga, since she is distractingly bizarre and it would be hard to keep your focus on serious issues.)
Check out this post to find my super helpful brainstorm guide on finding topics for your college application essays! Good luck!
My students have discovered some of their best topic ideas for their college application essays from their job experiences.
I’m not sure why they make great fodder for college essays, but I believe that simply working for others naturally reveals a complimentary set of qualities, skills and values—humility, determination, perseverance, responsibility, people skills, industriousness, dependability, and the good old work ethic.
It’s no coincidence that these are the same qualities and skills that you need to succeed in college—and what college admissions folks are looking for!
I also think work experiences often fall under the category of “mundane” or everyday topics—which is a good thing!
Former students have written lively essays out working at places like Circuit City, a shoe store, ushering at a playhouse, serving gelato, washing dishes at fancy restaurant, bagging groceries at Ralph’s, working at Dunkin Donuts, etc.
Most work places lack glamour, and that naturally makes them feel “real,” authentic and interesting.
And although we have all worked in our lives, it’s always fun to learn about what it’s like at those places we never worked, no matter how pedestrian they seem (so the essays are naturally interesting to read).
When you think of past jobs, explore them for those other features that make great essays:
- Something happened. (Look for a little story or moment or example to tell)
- There was a problem. (Something went wrong; you messed up; you couldn’t do it correctly; you were scared; someone was in your way; etc.)
- The event or context was “mundane,” meaning simple and common in nature. (in this case, your job or the related problem: cleaning houses, serving burgers, etc.)
- You learned a lesson. (How you turned something negative into a positive.)
- There was something “unexpected” about what happened or what you learned. (A twist/surprise)
- Need more help getting started? My Jumpstart Guide can give you a boost!
This article is still highly relevant, even several years since I wrote it. Check out this article (June 2016) on why Teens Should Have Summer Jobs.
I just went back over college essays my clients wrote over the last several years.
Despite the classic list of what not to write about (see previous post), I would say many wrote about mission trips, volunteering activities and sporting experiences anyway.
Some pulled it off, however, because they focused in on specific incidents and what they learned from those.
Others, however, were pretty flat.
My favorite essays, I noticed, almost always involved something unexpected, whether it was something that happened to the writer or how they reacted and learned from it.
They also included anecdotal leads. For example, here are two topics that resulted in strong essays:
1. One student wrote about how things always went his way, and how he was always top of his class, the star athlete and picked for leading roles in the drama program.
His essay told the story of how he expected to get the star role in his senior play, and was stunned to learn he got a lesser role. (this was the “unexpected”)
In his essay, he developed what he learned from that experience.
In a natural way he was able to highlight his talents, yet come across as humble and likable at the same time.
(He also started his essay with a simple anecdote of the moment a friend shouted out to him that he did not make the lead role. This short, narrative introduction included dialogue and captured with high emotion his huge disappointment. A perfect “grabber” intro!)
2. Another student wrote about how she injured her ankle playing soccer on the varsity team, and was out for the entire season, yet learned more sitting on the bench that season than she would have playing. (also, the “unexpected”)
Her essay focused on how she discovered a new perspective on her team and the game by simply watching.
Again, she showcased her talents, but showed how she was able to turn something negative into a positive.
(she also started her essay with a short narrative anecdote—with strong imagery on the setting, dialogue, etc—focusing on the moment she was injured, which added emotion and drama to his essay.)
What these effective essays had in common:
- They both included something unexpected and how the writer learned something from the experience.
- They both focused on one incident and expanded that into larger lessons learned.
- They both pulled the most intense moment to describe in their introductions, which made their essays full of lively writing (vivid details, descriptive language, colorful dialogue, etc.) highly readable.
What is unexpected about you?