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In One Word: Focus!
I’ve been reading college application essays for the last decade.
I’m probably into the thousands by now.
Looking back, I have identified the most common flaw in many of them.
They are too general.
Which make them borrrrrrringggggg.
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…
What Are You Good At?
(Yes, UC Essay Prompt 3 Can Be About Almost Anything!)
I believe all students who need to answer four of the new University of California “Personal Insight Questions” should seriously consider the third one, otherwise known as UC Essay Prompt 3.
If you’re a student who has focused on one special talent or skill in your life, and are recognized in that field as “among the best,” this is your chance to share that in detail.
However, you don’t need to be a star at your talent or skill to write an effective essay about it.
And your talent or skill doesn’t even need to be impressive. read more…
Go Deep to Reveal Your Intellectual Vitality!
When writing narrative-style college application essays, I advise students to start by sharing a real-life story that illustrates one of their defining qualities or characteristics.
Once a student shares a real-life story with a problem (either big or small), they can go on to explain how they handled it.
Then comes the most important part: What they learned in the process.
This analysis, reflection or questioning is the most important part of an effective college application essay.
Why? read more…
The 2015-16 Common Application is officially out. If you’re applying to college, you will be making a lot of decisions in upcoming months. Important ones.
What schools should you apply to?
What should you write your college application essay about so you get accepted?
Once you get in, what do you think you will want to study or do in college?
Even though I mainly try to help students figure out great topics for their essays, I think all these big decisions have one thing in common: You can help yourself immensely if you take a little time to identify what matters most to you in your life. read more…
I’m not sure how many high schools require their English teachers to help students write college application essays, but those that do could give their juniors and seniors a huge advantage in the college admissions game.
For many students, an assignment to write one of these essays for English class will be the only outside help they get.
But if a high school decides to have its English teachers include these essays in their curriculum, it’s important to get them right. read more…
Colleges Encourage Students to Write About $ and Work
in College Application Essays
The New York Times today published the seven college application essays it liked the best for its contest about writing on the topic of money.
Most of the winners wrote about their experiences facing various types of financial hardship and challenges.
This might seem random, but I found some powerful writing advice on the blog of Gwyneth Paltrow that I believe is relevant to students writing their college application essays, and others, especially women.
The woman Paltrow recently featured in her blog, Goop, had
some opinions about how women have unconscious habits in their speech and writing that cause them to come across as less confident and competent.
And they hit me hard.
When I thought about it, I was surprised how my lingering insecurities and self-esteem issues still creep into my writing, and even how I talk.
So I thought you might would find them interesting, too. read more…
Storytelling “Clues” from a Master
for your College Application Essay
If anyone knows how to spin a great story, it’s this guy: Andrew Stanton. Ok, I hadn’t heard of him before either, but I certainly know about his films: All the Toy Story movies, Monsters, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and a ton more. If you are working on your college application essay, you grew up with all these popular animated films.
Stanton is an American filmmaker with Pixar studios, and he recently gave a TED talk about what makes a story powerful. His greatest storytelling commandment? “Make me care,” he says. read more…
How to Focus Your
College Application Essay!
I love all the comments students make about my posts. The most common ones ask about topics for the Common App or other core college application essays, including the University of California prompts. Students want to know what I think of their topic ideas.
I noticed the main problem with many of their ideas is that their topics are way to broad. WAY TOO BROAD! I think many ask my opinion because they suspect their topics are too general, but they don’t know how to focus them. And they are absolutely correct to worry about this. Essays about general topics are almost always dull and ineffective. (What good is an essay if no one wants to read it?)
I have written a lot about how to find topics that are not broad, and instead are engaging, meaningful and memorable. My best advice for students who worry that their topic is too broad would be to keep reading my blog posts! They all carry the same message—find a topic that is specific, zero in on real-life moments (anecdotes), brainstorm topics that are mundane (everyday) as opposed to impressive, pick one quality or characteristic to write about (as opposed to trying to cram in all the great things about yourself.) These are all ways to focus—or narrow down—your topics. read more…
UPDATE: as of March 23, 2016 The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.
This post is now outdated. The information is no longer relevant!!
Looking for your World to answer the University of California Prompt 1?
A high school English teacher contacted me this week asking if I had any sample essays for the University of California college application Prompt 1.
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…
Big changes in the new SAT test announced recently caused quite a stir, especially that they were dropping the essay component. I was most excited, however, that they also were going to stop emphasizing “obscure” vocabulary words.
Not only do I think it’s ridiculous to force students to memorize lists of long words no one uses, but I think it’s a huge waste of precious class and homework time.
After years of working with students on their college application essays, I have seen how the emphasis in English classes on these obscure words oozed into students’ writing–and made it pedantic (look it up. haha.) and dull. Most think they sounded smarter when they use words like “deleterious” and “cacophony” in their essays. read more…
A smart dad sent me an email recently asking how college-bound students could work in related achievements and accomplishments into their personal, narrative-style essay, without sounding like they were blowing their own horn.
It’s definitely a fine line. Students write these first-person essays as part of the application process to convince colleges to admit them.
How can they not strut their best stuff?
The whole challenge reminded me of humblebragging.
If you live on a different planet (or don’t use social media) and haven’t heard of this word for phony humility, it’s basically the fine art of boasting about yourself and making it sound like an accident.
The trick is to cloak your bragging with other comments, which make it seem as though the impressive part just kind of slipped out.
The more subtle, the better.
Did I mention how much my hand hurts from signing copies of my new book? 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…
College Application Essays
Humility Goes a Long Way
Many of the students I work with are from privileged backgrounds. (Hey, it’s expensive to hire a tutor!)
They live in affluent communities, go on extravagant vacations and enjoy pricey hobbies and activities.
There’s nothing wrong with being privileged (a humble way of saying wealthy or rich).
But when you are writing about yourself in your college application essay, and want to come across as well-adjusted and likable, it helps to know if you are.
That way, you can make sure you don’t include topics, or comments, in your essays that might imply that you are spoiled, snobby, materialistic or entitled (think that you deserve more than others). 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…
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
How to Write An Anecdote About Almost Anything
Before one of my college application essay writing workshops yesterday, I skimmed over some of the rough drafts the students had written last semester for their English classes.
The writing was solid, the ideas strong.
Yet the essays were all on the dull side.
If only someone had taught these kids how to use anecdotes, I thought.
They are the ultimate writing technique for Showing (an example) rather than Telling (explaining) about a point you want to make.
Nothing powers a college application essay like an engaging anecdote in the introduction.
Often, you can pull an anecdote ( a mini true story) out of what you’ve already written and instantly transform it into an engaging read. And it can be a very everyday, simple event or moment. read more…
One of the best ways to connect with your reader in your college application essay is through emotion.
In my new book, Escape Essay Hell!, I share writing techniques and devices you can use to bring pathos to your essay, and forge a bond with your reader.
(With my following suggestions, I’m assuming you already have an introduction—probably an anecdote or mini-story—for your narrative essay, and have moved on to explain what it meant to you.) read more…
If you are applying to multiple colleges this fall, you will need to write multiple essays for the different applications.
The Common Application helps you consolidate many of your applications and only requires one main essay.
But if you are applying to public universities and private schools that don’t use the Common App., you will need to write additional core essays. read more…
How to Answer Prompt 4 for the Common App
for your College Application Essay
Prompt 4: 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.
You almost can’t go wrong if you pick this prompt to write your college application essay for The Common Application.
It sets you up perfectly to tell an engaging story, which makes the best personal statement-style essays.
If you read through the lines, this prompt breaks down to a simple formula:
Find a problem you faced or are still facing, share what you have done to deal with it, and then go on to explain what you learned in the process and why it mattered. That’s it!
This might be the only time in your life that you’re happy you had problems.
The authors of this prompt try to help you by offering some type of sample problems you could write about: an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma. But these are just some suggestions.
Their main point is that your problem can be “anything” that mattered to you.
HINT: It’s not necessary, but if your problem (or the personal quality you used to deal with it) relates to one of your current and future academic interests, that could make your essay more relevant and effective to college admissions officers.
Also, when they say, “no matter the scale,” the message is that this problem can be big or small.
In other words, it doesn’t have to have been a catastrophic life event. But if you did face a crisis in your life, this could make an excellent essay, too. You get to pick.
The beauty of this prompt is that if you write about a problem, you almost can’t help include some type of story.
Think back to English class. Remember the two things you need to make a story?
A character and a conflict. In these essays, since you write about yourself, you are the “character.”
And the “conflict” is the problem you faced or are facing.
Remember that conflicts (problems) 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 bad happened to you.)
To put it simply, a conflict is just another word for a problem. Problems come in all forms. 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, accident, a deficiency, etc.
Some variations of 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!
(If you want help making sure your problem was or is “significant” to you, start by Finding Your Defining Qualities.)
Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps to share it in a narrative (storytelling) essay format:
1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a specific 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!
2. Background the history of this problem (when did it start, why/how did it happen or get this way.) Give it some context. “It all started back when…”
3. Talk about how you dealt with that problem. What you did about it. Describe the steps you took to handle it.
4. VERY IMPORTANT: Analyze and reflect on that problem, and your response. How did you think about it? How did you feel? Did handling it change you in any way or how you think about things? Share your thoughts on the good and the bad.
This is how and where you can “explain its (the problem’s) significance to you.”
5. What did you learn from dealing with that problem–about yourself, others or life in general? Anything good come out of it? Did you develop or demonstrate a core quality–determination, problem-solving, creativity, passion, patience, respect…–in the process?
Talk about that. This is your chance to develop more “its significance to you” in your essay.
6. To wrap it up, update the reader on the current status of that initial problem you shared in the introduction. You don’t necessarily have had to solve it. Just explain briefly how things are going for you now, today.
You could also give examples of how you have applied the life lesson(s) you learned in other parts of your life.
7. End by projecting into your future. Go ahead and share your goals and dreams as they relate to what you have learned about yourself.
If you can think of one, end with a “kicker,” which is a memorable last line that can show that you are witty, funny, passionate or don’t take yourself too seriously.
This is just a sample outline for a classic narrative-style essay to help you get started. You don’t need to stick to every step, and feel free to take your essay in whatever direction you want. Just remember that the point is to reveal how you think, what you care about and how your learn.
It’s called your “intellectual vitality,” and colleges love to see it in all shapes and sizes.
Check out this sample narrative essay. Can you tell what his “problem” was, and the steps he took to deal with it, and what he learned?
Good luck with your own problems. This may be the only time in your life that you are glad to have them! ; )
In case you don’t have them all, here are all five prompts for The Common Application for 2015-16:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful 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 did you learn from the experience?
- 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.
NOTE: Please ignore the comments at the bottom before April 1, 2015, since they were in response to an old prompt 4 which has been replaced with the current one. Comments posted after this date will be relevant. Thanks!
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 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:
How to make sure you come across as likable
“Think of something you might boast about and turn it into an entertaining flaw.”
College expert and blogger Jay Matthews on self-deprecation
In the typical list of hot tips from college counselors for crafting a winning college application essay, “Be likeable” is usually near the top.
This advice is usually followed up with “Don’t impress.”
But it’s a fine line when you are basically writing a marketing piece trying to sell yourself to the college of your dreams.
You feel the need to impress your colleges by describing your best achievements, qualities and talents, but one wrong word or phrase and you instantly sound like a braggart.
No one likes a braggart, and even a whiff of entitlement or unchecked ego can send your essay into the “No” pile.
The best way to avoid sounding like a braggart is to focus on what you did, how you did it and why, and not just on the fact that you did it.
The trick is to highlight the quality behind your accomplishment, and then relay a specific example of how you developed that quality or furthered it somehow.
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 Give Them More Punch: FOCUS!
A common challenge in writing these college admissions essays is making sure they go deep enough. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about the meaning of life, and allude to Shakespeare, Greek myths and Kafka, and try to sound profound. It usually just means that you need to explore what you are writing about more thoroughly. Here’s my advice: If your writing is too general, and your points and ideas are spread out all over the place, chances are they are shallow in nature. Picture a pool of water. The more spread out and wide it is, the shallower it gets. If you shore it up and make it smaller in total width, it gets deeper.
So how do you shore up your ideas and points in your essays? The best way is to get specific–which is, the opposite of general. Simple, right? If you can focus your topic (and main point you are going to make in your essay) from the beginning, the easier it will be to develop depth in what you have to say about it. (Read more about the power of “mundane topics” HERE.) When brainstorming topic ideas, it’s okay to start with broad ideas, but make sure to drill down before you start writing.
Here’s an example. Just last week, I helped a student brainstorm ideas for his personal statement for the Common App. It went like this:
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.
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…