2 Must-Haves for a Great College Application Essay

Here’s a guest post by a talented college application essay writing coach named Ethan Sawyer. I love what he shares about how important it is to have both an engaging story at the start of an essay, and then a key insight that reveals what it meant.

From Ethan:

Ira Glass, in his awesome 5-minute video series, talks about the two ingredients necessary for a great story: (more…)

#Selfie: 5 Ways It’s Like Your College Application Essay


A good selfie can define and shape your personal image that you blast out to the world. The same goes with your college application essay.

Both selfies and personal statement essays are supposed to capture your essence on some level, and reveal what makes you stand out from the crowd of other applicants. Some of the same tricks you use to snap your selfies apply to writing these admission essays, such as for The Common App and other universities and colleges.

If you are starting the college admissions process, it’s time to put down the cell phone and pick up your pens now or this summer or as soon as you can. Here are five ways that selfies and college admission essays are similar, and some tips that can help you craft an awesome essay snapshot of yourself (click the links for more help):

1. A good one catches everyone’s attention. There is something about a great selfie that grabs the viewer; they can’t take their eyes off you. Same thing with your personal statement: It’s imperative to hook the reader’s attention at the start with a compelling introduction, such as starting with an anecdote. (more…)

Essay Hell Tips Shared in USA Today Article!

Essay Hell Tips Shared in USA Today Article!

By iStock

 Photo via USA Today and iStock

My Essay Advice in USA Today Article!

A young reporter from USA Today interviewed me the other day to collect some of my tips on writing college application essays. She included advice from other top college experts as well. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably heard most of it before, but thought you might find the article helpful anyway:

9 essay writing tips to ‘wow’ college admissions officers

October 23, 2014

You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.

While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.

“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”

The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:

1. Open with an anecdote.

Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.

“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”

Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow. (more…)

It’s Official: Out with the Big Words!


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. (more…)

Should You Choose Prompt 5 for Your Common App Essay? Maybe…

PLEASE NOTE! This prompt has changed for 2017-18. This post is now obsolete, although you can still find helpful general information on how to think about prompts and write your essays. 

The revised prompt 5 is: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

I will be writing a new post on how to address this revised prompt in upcoming weeks…stay tuned.

College Application Essays

Watch Out for Boy Scouts and Bar Mitzvahs in Prompt 5!


I’ve been dragging my heels about writing on this last option of the new Common Application prompts.

It’s not the worst one (I’m saving Prompt 3 for last), but I think you could easily ensnare yourself on this essay option:

Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The biggest pitfall could be if you choose a common accomplishment or event that could address this prompt, but not necessarily result in an interesting essay.

For example, some classic “transitions” into adulthood are graduations, birthdays (your big 16 or your quinceanera) or advancements within other groups, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, your church or volunteer organizations.

These are wonderful achievements, but they don’t necessarily translate into compelling essay topics.

Would you want to read about someone’s Eagle Scout project or their Bat Mitzvah?

Giant yawn!

 To find an interesting mini-story (also called an anecdote) about “a time” that marked your transition into the adult world, I would start trolling your past for any type of problems you have faced in recent years.

If you confronted and dealt with a difficult problem, chances are you grew up a little bit when you wrestled with it. Read more about how problems come in many shapes and sizes.

Look for an incident, issue or experience where you faced a challenge, an obstacle or something that was difficult to deal with, and share how you handled it, and what you learned from it.

While expressing what you learned from that experience, just make sure to link the lessons you learned to the idea of growing up, of maturing, of becoming more like an adult.

What qualities did you develop?

For example, did you start being more responsible?




Examine yourself to see if you changed in anyway from before the problem to after–and develop the idea of personal growth.

That way it will be clear that you addressed the prompt.

If you don’t want to focus on past problems, see if you have any smaller examples that could illustrate the process of growing up–and then use that simple example to expand into the large life lessons.

For instance, maybe your grandmother always made tortillas, and then when she passed away, you set out to learn how to make them yourself.

You could start your essay by describing a moment you watched your grandmother make them, or describe the steps you took to figure out how to make them yourself, and then talk about the larger lesson of learning from others, valuing the past or growing more aware of what really matters.

(Actually, even this example does involve a “problem”: You didn’t know how to make tortillas!)

This example would fall under the idea in the prompt of relaying a life transition involving a “culture,” and if you are fortunate enough to have a rich cultural heritage, I would definitely explore stories within that world.


One last way to think about this prompt is to try to find any times you were surprised by an event, activity or experience where you suddenly had to express more “mature” qualities, or make more “adult-like” decisions–and what you learned from that.

If you can find a twist to your response–something that we wouldn’t necessarily think would be a transition into adulthood that turned out to be one–all the better!

So now that I have thought more about this prompt, I’m liking it more than when I first read it. As long as you can try to find smaller, more unique or unexpected examples of these life transitions, I bet you can write some terrific essays!

Also, here’s my recent post on how to respond to Prompt 2 of the Common Application and how to respond to Prompt 1.

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with this prompt (as well as Prompts 1 and 2.). It costs <$10 and you can order using the button below.


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