How counselors and teachers can help students write better college essays

StoryFindersimage Earlier this month, we released our first book:  Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (Without Helping Too Much).    Here's some background on our essay process, why we wrote it, and what's included in the book.

How this book came to be

During the first few years of Collegewise, I could help every student with their essays by myself.  But as we grew from working with 20 seniors a year to over 200 and we opened additional offices, we had to find a way to replicate what I was doing.  I didn’t want something that would produce finished essays the way a fast food franchise churns out hamburgers.  We needed a system that could help 500 kids tell 500 unique stories all of which were genuine reflections of each writer.          

Today, we hire “essay specialists” and put them through a four-hour training program.  Students (and interested parents) attend a 90-minute college essay workshop.  Students complete a set of brainstorming questions at home, then come to a one-hour meeting with an essay specialist.  Our students then write their drafts and send them to us for feedback.  And we know exactly how to give helpful feedback without ever jumping in and doing it for the student.  One workshop, one meeting, and a couple rounds of editing means that in 2-3 weeks, our kids have completed several college essays.  That’s our college essay system that we explain in this book.

Why we wrote the book

We’ve shared pieces of our system at high school workshops, with teachers and counselors at regional NACAC conferences, and at in-service sessions at several trainings for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) teachers. But we’ve never had enough time together to say, “Here’s everything we do with college essays—take as much or as little as you want back to your schools and use it to help your kids.”  That’s what we wanted to do with our book. 

What’s included in the book?

1. What counselors and teachers need to know about college essays

The college admissions process isn’t a featured subject in most credentialing programs for teachers and counselors.  But a lot of English teachers and counselors are expected to be experts when they help students with college essays.  I don’t want to make the same assumption of expertise here.  Our book explains exactly how colleges use essays, the differences between a college essay and one written in a high school English class, and the most common mistakes students make on their college essays.  

2.  The Collegewise college essay workshop

We walk readers through each section of our college essay workshop that we teach to our students and parents, and that we share when we’re invited to speak at high schools.  

3.  The Collegewise essay brainstorming meeting

We explain exactly what we do in our one-hour meeting with each of our students to help them find good stories.  This chapter explains how to do what we do in that meeting.  We include our brainstorming questions and describe how we use them, outline what we do in a brainstorming meeting with a student, and share how we recognize a potentially good story. 

4.  How Collegewise gives essay feedback to students

This section shares our complete editing process, along with some tips to get the job done faster if you have a large caseload.

5.  Recommended college essay lesson plans 

We recommend different ways to use the materials depending on how much time a teacher or counselor has to spend with students.  If you want to use the entire system and you have the time to do the class, brainstorming and editing, take it all as is and get to work.  If you just want to do the class, or just help kids pick their stories, or just review what kids write on their own, use just those parts of the system.  And if you already have your own system that works well and just want to cherry pick components of ours that might be useful, pick away. 

6. Access to free resources

Readers are also given a link to access clean copies of our essay workshop handout (teacher and student versions), brainstorming questions, and samples of our essay commentary.  

The finished product

We’re really proud of our system and the book, and the feedback we’ve gotten from teachers and counselors has been great.  I even bought a copy for my mom, a former high school English teacher, just so she has something to show her friends, and even she liked it (though she’s admittedly a little biased).

Over 3,000 students have gone through our Collegewise program.  Thousands of other kids have heard us speak at their high schools or sent us their essays just for a second opinion.  We’ve been able to help students of all levels of achievement and writing abilities find and share interesting stories about themselves.  We’ve done it in a way that doesn’t violate the integrity of the process and that keeps kids completely in charge of their stories and their writing.  And now we’re hoping that lots of counselors and teachers will be able to do the same with our book in hand.    

Where to buy it

We self-published the book at and it’s available here for $49.95.  We know that’s not cheap for a book.  But with the access to clean copies of our downloadable materials, buyers aren’t just getting the book; they’re getting our entire college essay system that we’ve spent the last 12 years perfecting. 

We’re really proud of the finished product and believe that we’re now going to be able to help a lot of teachers and counselors guide their kids through the college essay process.