When I give writing workshops to students on college application essays and what makes them effective, I love to show this short video on YouTube.
It’s just over two minutes long, but in that brief time, I believe many students quickly get a sense of what they need to do to craft essays that will be engaging and memorable.
Take a couple minutes to watch this video, which brings you around a table of college admissions officers at Amherst College, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, as they sort through applications. read more…
How to Find the
in College Application Essays
I received an email from a student named Hannah who told me she was homeschooled, and that she had been advised to write about that for her college application essay.
Hannah said she was having “trouble thinking of anything unique or super meaningful” from her homeschooling experience.
I gave this some thought, and here’s what I would advise:
Homeschooling is something unique and special in itself.
And that’s a good thing.
But as an essay topic, it’s way too broad and most likely written about by a lot by other homeschooled students, so it risks being overdone already. (More than 3 percent of school age kids are home-schools; more than 1.5 million.) read more…
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…
Tips for Writing Essays
College Admissions Folks Want to Read
While trying to think of topics for college essays, students often try to guess what the admissions officers are looking for, or what they want to read. It often feels like such a mystery.
But in a recent news article, three top admissions officers shared exactly what they like to read, and how students can find topics they love.
For those of you still doubting the value of a simple, true-life story or sharing a mundane moment to power your college application essay,
I hope this will help convince you about their effectiveness.
Read the entire article, From the Pros: Best College Essays Hint at Who You Are, by Ellen Ishkanian of the Boston Globe. Or check out some of the following highlights. read more…
Many of the students I work with have finished their core essays for their college applications, and are now asking for help on the supplements. For most, writing their personal statement-type essays wasn’t that bad, searching for their stories and unique topics to tell and share. But these supps are not nearly as fun. In fact, for most of the supplements I have seen so far, it’s a major drag.
So I ask: What’s the point? These supplements that want students to tell why they are the perfect fit for their school, or what they are going to give back to a university, or why they have selected a certain college. Most of my students tell me, “I have no idea what to write.” And why should they? Answering these questions is almost always an exercise in making up a bunch of stuff. read more…
Maybe I’m just grumpy because it’s 90+ degrees in my garage office and I tweaked my back in yoga last week (while bowing and saying “Namaste” at the very end. really.) But I just received an email from a desperate parent that really sent me. It took everything I had not to give her a piece of my mind. Actually, I couldn’t take it and did give her a piece of my mind…
The good part of our exchange, which I will copy below, is that it gave me a reason to share a terrific article that I believe every parent, student and college counselor involved in this college application process should read. It was written by a former college counselor who was recruited by way-too-wealthy parents to help get their kids into the most select schools–especially to help them write their college application essays. read more…
College Application Essays
Underprivileged or Underrepresented Students: This Means You!
Why You Must Share Stories That Show Your Grit
As a writing coach, I work mainly with students I consider “privileged.”
This means they can find support writing college application essays through an extensive network of tutors (like me), test prep programs, private college admissions counselors, services in their affluent schools, and most importantly, from well-educated, connected parents who will do almost anything to help them.
But I know there are thousands of bright, eager and deserving students out there who have none of this support.
In fact, at almost every turn, many are bombarded with obstacles that are not their fault. read more…
Insider Writing Tips From a School That Knows Creative Writing
When I read this post by an admissions officer at Tufts University named Lee Coffin (who has been dubbed “Hip Dean”) on word limits for Common App essays, I discovered he also included some savvy tips on how to write powerful essays.
You can read the entire post called “500 Words of Less,” or this section that I’ve copied below where he focuses more on writing advice. I took the liberty to highlight what I thought were his best points. read more…
The Colorful New World of College Application Essay Prompts
But What Does It Really Mean?
University of Chicago: “Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”
Brandeis University: “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?”
University of Virginia: Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about.
Johns Hopkins University: “Using a piece of wire, a Hopkins car window sticker, an egg carton, and any inexpensive hardware store item, create something that would solve a problem. Tell us about your creation, but don’t worry; we won’t require proof that it works!”
Santa Clara University: “Tell us about the most embarrassing moment of your life.”
University of Pennsylvania:
You have just finished your three hundred page autobiography. Please submit page 217.
University of Notre Dame:
You have 150 words. Take a risk.
A distinct pattern is emerging from the new college application prompts trickling out so far this year, and in recent years. Many have taken a promising turn toward the absurd, silly and provocative. What I see, however, are creative writing prompts. These are the exact type of questions English teachers would ask students to practice and sharpen their writing chops. read more…
At our local public high school in Laguna Beach, the English teachers assign juniors to write college application essays at the end of the year.
It’s a great idea.
For many students, this may be the only time they get any guidance on how to write these essays. read more…
College Application Essays
Hot Writing Tips from The Other Side!
If you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of opinions about what makes a great college application essay.
But who am I?
I’ve never been an admissions officer, so how do I know what they like and want?
I thought it was time to ask a real live, breathing admissions officer who reads thousands of these essays–and uses them to decide who’s in or who’s out.
To find a great source, I went back to when I started tutoring students on these essays, and my very first client–my daughter.
When Cassidy was an incoming high school senior during the summer of 2008, I helped with her essays.
We had read the guide on finding terrific small liberal arts schools that are off the radar, called 40 Colleges That Change Lives, and she ended up going to one from that book, called Hendrix College in Arkansas.
Cassidy just graduated this spring, and her small college was every bit as wonderful both academically and socially as the book described (Five years in a row Hendrix has been on the “Most Up and Coming Schools” list for U.S. News & World Report).
I decided to ask their admissions officers how they select students using these essays. read more…
If you are working on your Common Application, you have five prompts (or essay questions) to choose from for your essay.
The challenge is to pick the prompt that you can answer to write your best, most effective essay.
In previous years, you had the option to write about anything you wanted, called “Topic of Choice,” or number 6.
But that’s no longer an option. The new challenge is to find the prompt that gives you the most freedom to write about what you want—-in other words, make it your “topic of choice.”
This decision, however, can be like walking a tightrope.
It’s possible, but challenging, and above all, you must try hard not to fall off.
If you push your answer so far out there, and it no longer appears to actually “answer” or address the prompt, that’s not a good thing.
College admissions officers, especially those at the most competitive and elite schools, are often looking for reasons to bump your essay.
It’s not that they don’t want to be fair, but there are so many applicants and essays to read and everyone looks so equally attractive these days.
They only need one reason to make their pile smaller. So make sure not to give them one!
It’s a hard call. In order to standout from the crowd, you need to take some risks with your essay’s message, style or voice.
At the same time, you need to stay within the parameters of the prompts or you will be weeded out.
Here are my suggestions for how to stick the tightrope:
1. Spend enough time brainstorming ideas for each of the five prompts before you decide upon one.
If you can find the right prompt, which inspires you and you find a great topic to write about, then you are already closer to writing a standout essay that doesn’t cross the line.
2. Once you pick a prompt, try to find a creative way to respond to it.
Don’t just answer it directly, but use it as a springboard to develop other related ideas and express other ideas and opinions. Put your own spin on it.
This is how you expand your essay beyond the narrow margins of the prompt, and show how you are a creative, original, imaginative and resourceful thinker and writer.
This is how you standout. But if you push it too far, you risk sounding as though you have ignored them.
My suggestion is that no matter how far out you take your story, ideas or opinions, link them back to the prompt by using some of the prompt’s words or language.
This will flag the reader that you are still addressing the prompt, even if you have taken your essay in an inspired direction.
I have copied the new Common Application Prompts, and bolded key words in each one that you could include in your essay to keep it connected to the prompt:
Here are the new prompts for the Common App (click each prompt to find my post on how to respond to it!):
- Some students have a background, story, interest or talent that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
College Admissions Essays Must Be Interesting
How To Stay Bold And Avoid the Trap of a Dull Essay
After six years working with students, parents and college counselors on writing college admissions essays, I’m more convinced than ever that students must find their unique stories and tell them in a direct, authentic voice. These are the kids who are getting into the best schools.
However, a lot of parents, counselors and teachers don’t trust this approach.
I get it. So much is riding on these essays. Who wouldn’t want them to be perfect? The problem is that parents start believing that the essays need to impress the readers, and they get anxious and start stripping out all the interesting parts of their kids’ essays. They doubt that something as simple as relating a story is the best way to show colleges how great you are. As students writing them, you start to get nervous, too, and freeze up and start throwing in big words and mentioning your accomplishments and trying to sound really smart and before you know it you end up with a DULL ESSAY.
If you don’t believe me, read this column written by a columnist who writes regularly for the Huffington Post’s college blog. He reports that the word among college admissions counselors from last year was that they read way too many boring essays. And he has some great advice on how to avoid that. And it echoes mine: Tell a story. Write like you talk. Be careful who you let read your essay.
Here’s my advice for your college admission essay:
- Use you own logic. If you were reading hundreds of these essays, which ones would you want to read–boring ones where the student tries to make herself or himself sound really impressive, or the one that tells an interesting story?
- Read sample essays. See what ones stand out in your mind. Was it the boring one? Probably not. Try to copy the style and approach of the ones you liked the most–not the ones you think you were supposed to like.
- Now that you get what works, spend a little time trying to bring your parents up to speed. Talk to them about what you are learning and hearing about what essays are the most effective. Have them read some of my blog posts for themselves.
- When you are writing your essay, and you let others read it, beware of those who don’t get it and try to get you to take out the colorful parts.
- If telling a story for your essays feels like taking a chance, remember the real risk is a dull essay.
Ready to find your story?
Start with this post.
College Application Essays
How to Stay On Top of the Heap
For some reason, “top students”–aka high achievers, go-getters, A-types, test-takers, straight-A students, you know who you are!–often have the hardest time writing these essays. At least really good ones.
Don’t get me wrong. These students are the ones who know to start early on their essays, and put a lot of effort into them. Their writing is usually technically “clean” of errors, and they probably would get an “A” from their English teachers. The problem is many of their essays are either on the dull side, or come across as trying too hard to impress or make them sound a bit full of themselves. This is not good!
Here are some of the reasons for this top student=bad essay paradox:
1. “Top” students often have a hard time trusting that a casual, narrative style produces an engaging, powerful essay. Instead, they stick to a formal, academic style (like the 5-paragraph essay); use too many long words; downshift into the passive voice; write overly long, descriptive sentences; cram in the adverbs. Many students (not just these “top” ones) often break into the dreaded English-ese (See my attempt at a definition below.). Take a writing Chill Pill to strike a more conversational tone and find your true writing voice.
If you have time, this essay (How to Say Nothing in 500 Words) is packed with invaluable advice that will help you make your college essay sing–and NOT bore those college admissions folks. An English professor wrote it in the 1960s after reading probably a zillion mind-numbingly dull essays during his long career. It’s long–and ironically a little yawny in places (revenge?)–and I mainly skimmed it for the juicy stuff.
Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the section called, “Slip Out of That Abstraction,” that describes why you should “show” instead of “tell” your points, and how to do it:
Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that juveniles are (it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be done about it. He shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in Buffalo, stabbing high school principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And more than likely he is moving toward some specific remedy, not just a general wringing of the hands.
It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.” By Paul McHenry Roberts.
(I also highlighted the strong verbs Roberts used here. In your college admissions essays and personal statements, go easy on the adjectives and adverbs–the ly’s–and push hard on those gritty, action verbs!)
It’s the end of August and I can feel the tension among parents, and their college-bound seniors, starting to build. It’s great they are thinking about their college essays and future schools. But the rising stress levels can actually harm their ability to find the right school next fall.
I’m no college counselor, but as a parent of a college sophomore and a high school senior, I found a couple of guide books that helped me put the crazy process into perspective.
The first was called “Colleges that Change Lives.” (Click this link to go to their super helpful web site!) The author basically highlighted small liberal arts colleges that were under the radar and all had strong academics, a clear sense of purpose and a friendly student body. He was all about finding the “right fit” for students, as opposed to pushing them into the most prestigious school they could get into or afford.
Another book with a similar theme and balanced sense of mission is called, “You’re Accepted.” (Click this link to view short video of author-and yoga instructor!-Katie Malachuk, talking about the college application “journey.”) It’s about keeping a focus on the “whole-life” and overall “peace of mind” of students, and keeping the process in perspective for the long-run.
A third title, which I haven’t read but comes highly recommended by reasonable parents I know is called, “Harvard Schmarvard.” Again, it’s about finding the right fit for the student instead of worrying about what is the most impressive school to name-drop to your friends.
As promised in my last post, I will share how I start the search for essay topic ideas for my son, who is a junior in high school. The idea is to get some general ideas on our college essay radar. Just jot down areas of interests, activities, experiences, idiosyncrasies, etc. When he’s in a receptive mood (ahem!), I will suggest that he start his own list.
My list so far, written in about five minutes:
Band: French horn
Jazz band: Trumpet
Boy Scouts: camp, backpacking, community service projects
Volleyball: switched from tennis: JV team.
His blog on unusual/ethnic restaurants
Summers in New Hampshire
Costa Rica/Panama/Mexico/Europe family trips
From our lists, my son can start to think about the more specific experiences he has had within these areas as he gets closer to actually writing his essays (probably this summer). What we are looking for, however, are not stories of his general achievement (The Time I Climbed Mt. Whitney or How My Science Invention Won First Place or My Mission Trip to Costa Rica), rather we want to find the smaller, simpler stories (within those events) where he was challenged in some way, and learned and grew from that experience. You will be looking for those memorable moments: “Remember the time you…?”
Meanwhile, just keep your list within reach and add things when they come to mind. Again, relax. There are great stories and essay topics hidden within this list, and they will be in yours, too!
I began this blog when my daughter was a junior in high school and starting her college application process. Like a lot of parents and applicants, I thought she needed some amazing experience in order to write a fabulous essay. The good news is that I was wrong! In fact, I have learned, and now preach, that the most mundane topics actually produce the strongest, most compelling essays.
Now, my son is a junior in high school. So here we go again. If it’s helpful, I will share how I’m going to try to help him with his college admissions essays. It’s never too early to start these, but the reality is most kids don’t get cranking on them until the summer before their senior year, and many wait until later than that. (As with all writing, deadlines can be the best motivators.) My advice to parents and students is to just start thinking and brainstorming about possible topics now, and jot down general areas of interest and experiences that you want to mine. I will do this for my own son and share the process with you in the next post. (You might find it helpful to scroll down my blog and read the entries regarding topics, so you have a better idea of what we are trolling for.)
Remember, don’t work yourself up into a tizzy over these. Everyone has interesting stories to tell. Do your best to keep the pressure and anxiety level low. These aren’t that difficult. They do get done. And most are really good!
College Admissions Essays:
How to Connect with Your Reader
I’ve talked about this already, but here is more scoop about your college application essay “audience,” and it’s a tough crowd: college admissions officers read zillions of these college application essays and most are BORING, and get tossed in the boring pile!!!
If you don’t believe me, here are some quotes from some honest (notice they weren’t quoted by name!) admissions folks gathered by an inspired, veteran English teacher named Jim Burke.
As an English teacher, Burke says he often is asked to help students on their essays, and he understands that many of them are either way too long, do not answer the prompt and/or are just like all the other essays.
He quotes in a Web appendix to his book,The English Teacher’s Companion:
“Another admissions officer I interviewed said: ‘There are three things you don’t ever want to watch being made: one is sausage, one is legislation, and the other is college admissions because the process is sometimes so random, given the number of kids that come across our desks.
I read a thousand applications, each one of which has to have an essay, and I give each application about ten minutes in the first read-through. Anything kids can do to connect with me as the reader, to make them stand out in that essay, which in many cases is the most important piece of the puzzle, helps me.’
‘When we read them, though the scale is 1 to 10, we mostly calibrate it to a 2, 5, and 8: 2 means the essay negatively affects the student’s application; 5 means it does nothing to advance the application; 8 means it moves it forward toward acceptance, though other factors are, of course, considered.’
If you want help bumping up your college application essay or personal statement, read my post on How to Bump Up a Dull Essay. Or, if you are just getting started, use my super helpful Jumpstart Guide.
The person reading your fabulous college admissions essay most likely has already read about a dozen or more, and still has an equal number or more to go. By the 20th essay, they are having trouble focusing. Their heads are nodding off. They need more coffee.
So how will this person feel when they read the first sentence or two of your essay? Will they groan silently to themselves? Or will they perk up and pay attention?
The “audience” or readers of your essay most likely will be comprised of at least one or more members of an “admissions committee” from the college or university. They have been selected either because they are considered strong writers themselves, or have a heightened sense of who their school is looking to admit.
I would say, don’t waste your time targeting your piece to any personality or demographic. Basically, think of your reader as someone with a mature, intelligent sensibility who mainly wants to read an interesting piece of writing that also tells them about an equally interesting person. Picture one of your teachers. A friendly one!
My main suggestion would be to keep in mind that these college application folks have read zillions of these college admissions essays–so whatever you can do to engage them is worth a shot! If you need help getting started, try my Jumpstart Guide.