college application essay

In my previous post, I featured a question and answer session with author Robert Cronk, who wrote a popular writing guide on how to write narrative-style college application essays. I found Concise Advise, which directs students on how to use movie-script writing techniques to bring their essays to life, a helpful resource.

I invited him to share more of his advice and tips here on Essay Hell, and this is the second part. (Here’s Part One in case you missed it.):

Me: What do you think is the most important part of a college app essay?

Bob: To me, it’s the element of character development, or transition, or transformation, or realization of something, even in small ways.  The best essays start with a moment that led to that development and ends with a better, stronger, wiser person.

Me: Do you have any pet peeves?

Bob: Too many to name, but here are a few, summarized so I don’t start ranting about them.  (1) Author Alan Gelb has a rule that says, essentially, “Never use your essay to brag, complain, or explain.” Good advice that covers a lot of sins and I hope is self-explanatory.  (2) Avoid TMI. Not every little detail is important to the story.  Use only the elements that advance the story. Keep it focused. I also recommend avoiding any topic of past drug or alcohol use, criminal activity, or mental issues one may have had.  Never forget the goal is to have the school want you there.  (3) Throw away your thesaurus! The essay has to be kept in your voice.  If you read your essay out loud, does it sound like you talking? If not, change it.

Me: Do you have some favorite essays or topics you have read over the years?

Bob: I’ve already talked about my favorite essay ever, and that was a super-mudane topic.  But in general, my answer on having a favorite topic is NO.  The important thing is having a topic that is unique, powerful, and memorable to the writer, not necessarily to the reader.

Me: Do you think parents, friends, teachers, etc., can be helpful to students?

Bob: There are those “counselors” like you and I who can give some advice on getting started and how to proceed, but the essay has to come from the writer.  Here’s the dangerous slope: It’s all well and good to get advice on word usage and grammar, but once you start hearing comments like, “You need to put yourself in a better light,” or “It’s too informal; you need to make it more intellectual,” or any of a hundred other suggestions, you’ll be in danger of losing your voice in the essay. Parents, especially, think that the essay is a place to toot your horn, but that is so wrong.  So thank everyone for their comments on grammar, word usage, or sometimes structure, and listen carefully for ways to make it more focused, but make sure to keep the essay yours.

Me: Do you miss the old topic option to write about anything you wanted, called Topic of Choice?  Among the five Common App prompts, do you have ones you like better than others?

Bob: Believe it or not, my best advice is to not even peek at the prompts before you write a personal essay. WTH, you say? I firmly believe that if you write according to the advice you and I are giving, it will totally fit one or more of the five prompts.  And for more specific prompts, like an individual school might have on a supplemental app, a general essay can be easily adapted to lots of prompts.  Just because the prompt changes, it doesn’t change what makes a good essay.  I also think that the old “Topic of Your Choice” is still there on the new Common App.  It’s disguised as follows: “Some students have a background or story 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.”   This is just a wordier way of saying “Topic of Your Choice.”  And also why I guarantee that any personal statement you write will fit at least one prompt  Writing the essay without peeking at the prompts first leads to much less stress.

Me: Do you advise students to title their essays? (Here’s my take on Should You Title Your College App Essay?)

Bob: Funny you should ask, because for the actual student-written essays I use in my book, I’ve titled them, but they never did have titles before I published them.  I don’t think titles add that much, but it just might intrigue the reader. I titled one student essay “Carless Hair?” and another “My Illicit Affair with the United States.”  It might be a good way to engage the reader before they even start the essay, but in probably 95 percent of the essays I’ve read, having a title wouldn’t really add much.

Me: Any last brainstorming tips?

Bob: Write your essay(s) in the summer before your senior year.  Write several.  If you know how to start and how to structure the thing, it makes the process a lot easier. You don’t know how many people are like, “Help, this has to be submitted before midnight tonight.  Please review!”  I have no pity (Well, some, but not enough to respond to an email like that).  Get your essays done in advance, put them aside, and take the rest of the application season in stride.  Students,  you probably won’t do that, but at least get started during that summer.

Thank you Robert for sharing your sage advice on how to write college application essays! (If you want to read Part One.)