Join me to learn how to write better college essays

I’ll be teaching a free college essay webinar in two weeks.

How to Craft Compelling, Cliché-Free College Essays
Wednesday, August 21 2019
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

All the details and registration information are here. I really enjoy speaking with students and parents about this topic, and I hope you’ll join me.


I had a great visit with my parents last weekend but a less pleasant visit with my mother’s car.

The vehicle is equipped with a warning system to alert you if you’re about to collide with something. It sounds great in theory. But in practice, any time you’re within fifteen feet of a solid object in any direction—regardless of whether or not you’re headed towards that object—the beeping starts.

Pulling into a parking spot with a car in an adjacent spot? “Beep!”

Slowing to a safe stop behind a car in front of you? “BEEP!”

Passing a wayward shopping cart in a parking lot from a perfectly safe distance? “BEEEEEEP!”

Seemingly every move you make comes with a warning signal that could be nothing or could spell imminent disaster, with no way to immediately differentiate between the two. And that alarmist warning system creates a perpetually alarmed driver.

Blogger’s note: Mom, I know you read this blog. I really like your car—I just don’t like this particular feature.

I see some families behaving during the college admissions process like the car with the alarmist warning system.

Didn’t get into the honors English class? “Houston, we’ve got a problem, one that could keep you out of college.”

Made the team but spending most of your time on the bench? “I don’t like the sound of that, and neither will colleges.”

SAT score didn’t break 1200 like you’d hoped it would? “Warning! Warning! Warning!”

I’m not dismissing the reality that some admissions concerns are legitimate. But whether or not there’s cause for alarm depends entirely on your goals and the nature of the concern. And more troublingly, like a car’s overly sensitive warning system, these alarmists can indiscriminately spread their panic to others.

The uncertainty of college admissions creates much of the associated anxiety, and yes, even the alarmism. Families are grasping for some sense of control during a process where so many of the decisions are under the control of others. Without the reasonable assurance that everything will work out just as you hope it will, worry and panic can be a natural consequence.

But the truth is that admissions alarmism almost never leads to better choices, experiences, or outcomes. It just leaves you in a constant state of worry with very little relief in sight.

If you’re surrounded by admissions alarmists who are spreading their panic to you, be compassionate about the anxiety they’re feeling, as it’s never a happy state for any family. But don’t take on their indiscriminate panic. They’re (over)reacting to their own stressful situation, not channeling helpful advice that will improve yours.

And if you’ve fallen prey to the alarmism, I understand where that comes from. You want things to go well for your student as any good parent does. But instead of panicking reactively, consider what you’re actually worrying about. Is it really the SAT score that concerns you, or the fear that Dartmouth will say no? Sometimes coming right out and naming the real worry takes away the power of that panic.

Concerns have their place—in parenting, and in college admissions. But consistent alarmism is not a desirable feature.

Are you mentorable?

I appreciated this recent piece, “Are you mentorable?” from the group who produces the TED Talks (appropriately, the article also includes a TED Talk video of the same name). I’ve often heard students or working professionals lament the lack of a mentor in their lives, as if they’re passive observers just waiting for the opportunity to present itself. It’s true that a degree of circumstance and luck exist at the start of any mentor/mentee relationship. But it’s also important to consider what you are doing to earn the interest and time of a mentor who can help you achieve your goals.

From the basic value of expressing your appreciation for the mentor’s time, to understanding what type of guidance you’re seeking, to remaining open to new ideas and even constructive criticism, the article is a good reminder of just how much agency you have and must commit to retaining if you want to draw and benefit from a mentor’s interest.

High school is an excellent training ground for college and for life. Students, what are you doing to earn the attention and interest of your teachers, counselor, coach, boss, etc.? If someone is already guiding and encouraging you, what efforts are you making not just to extract maximum value from that resource, but also to give back in the form of openness and appreciation?

These are skills that can be learned. And the sooner you start developing them, the more effectively you’ll be able to wield them when you get to college. Your future college will likely have no shortage of faculty and staff who could eventually serve as resources, references, and yes, mentors. But the path towards finding the right match starts with making yourself mentorable.

Bite-sized chunks

Any big, long-running project, from college applications to a professional’s initiative at work, can feel overwhelming at the start. An as yet undefined but probably long list of to-dos. Difficult choices to be made. A feeling of urgency without a clear triaging of priorities. It can be enough to paralyze you to inaction or to send you scrambling to start something just to enjoy immediate progress.

One approach is to make an exhaustive list of everything that will need to happen and then simply start with the first item. If that’s worked for you in the past, don’t abandon a successful strategy.

But another approach is to ignore the totality of to-dos and instead answer this question:

What would make you happy to accomplish in ____ weeks?

The number of weeks depends on the length of the project. You can’t spend five weeks taking the first steps of a project that’s due in six. And this approach doesn’t work for projects due much sooner than they are later.

But imagine the college applicant who said in early August, “Four weeks from now, I’d be very happy to have finalized my college list to show my counselor, and to have a final draft of my Common App essay.”

Now you’ve bitten off a bite-sized chunk of a much bigger project. But more importantly, you’ve set yourself up to make reasonable progress while simultaneously retaining some sense of control of your time, task and technique.

Every project can be broken into bite-sized chunks. If you’re unsure where to start, decide on how much you can bite off–and finish–in a short period of time.

How, not who

I’ve heard the conversation-starter, “Who would play you in a movie about your life?” But for parents of kids going through the college admissions process, I think it’s more compelling to consider the how, not the who.

If a movie were made that accurately depicted your words, your actions, your relationship with your student, and all of the associated outcomes as pertaining to the college admissions process, how would your actor of choice portray you?

Would your character make college admissions the focal point of family conversations? Would they prioritize the outcomes above all else? Would they step in and take over, making decisions or filling out applications or revising (or even outright writing) essays themselves?

Would they be portrayed as someone who was putting their needs (from social pressure to parental pride) ahead of their student’s needs?

Or would they be portrayed as someone who decided their most important job was to just be the parent of a college applicant? Would they be the parent who understood this was not their process and that all the adverse pressures were happening to their kid, not to them? Would they be a supportive guide, offering opinions and encouragement when necessary without overstepping and taking over?

And whatever your answer, how would you feel watching how you were portrayed? Would you be proud, or secretly wish the script and the actor hadn’t captured you so completely?

As parents, we’re on stage all the time. Our kids are watching, listening, and learning from what we say and do. But it can sometimes be difficult to evaluate our own behaviors, especially as they relate to our own families. We and they are too close to the action.

Sometimes it helps to step outside and consider the ramifications of what we’re doing. And one way to do that is to imagine this time in your life on film. Sure, it’s fun to think about who would play us. But it’s more thought provoking to consider how they’d do it.

Answer the question

My wife has learned the hard way that I am not a good viewing partner during televised presidential debates. Ten minutes is all I need to launch into the diatribe she knows is coming, all leading to the inevitable outcome when I get too frustrated to continue. This isn’t aimed at one particular side of the aisle—politically, I’m an equal opportunity critic around this one pet peeve.

Just answer the question.

Somewhere in the history of political debate prep, consultants decided that their candidates needed talking points paired with seemingly related anecdotes that must be wedged into the conversation at all costs. Yes, the degree and the frequency varies from candidate to candidate. It might even vary from party to party depending on the issue. But I can’t remember a presidential debate in my adult lifetime when I didn’t wish aloud at least once, “Why don’t they just answer the damn question?!”

Ignoring the question for the sake of injecting your preferred answer is akin to saying: “What I want to talk about is more important than what you want to know.” And for some questions, that leaves viewers very well informed about what a candidate wanted to say, but unable to decipher what a candidate would actually do.

Students often make the same mistake in their college applications.

Some students decide preemptively what their own talking points will be in their application. That’s not a bad strategy. It’s your application, after all. If it’s important to you, the college will almost certainly want to know about it.

But you have to find the right opportunity to share it. And it doesn’t help your admission campaign to ignore the question being asked.

An essay prompt that asks you to describe a time you failed or made a mistake, and to explain what you learned from it, is not an invitation to tell your admissions readers about an impressive accomplishment. Example: “I didn’t prepare as well as I should have for my audition, so imagine my surprise when I was selected to be the lead in the school play!” Failure is a part of life, particularly for successful people who put themselves in failure’s path. A thinly veiled effort to wedge in an accomplishment might tell them what you wanted to share, but it doesn’t tell them what they really wanted to know. That’s the disconnect that occurs when you don’t answer the question.

Colleges spend a considerable amount of time crafting, debating, and refining their applications. Every question has a purpose. Thoughtfully consider, revise, and polish your answer? Yes. But clear and compelling responses always start by answering the question.

Earlier vs. faster vs. better

Writing a blog that dispenses advice about a ritual that repeats annually, like the college admissions process, means that while some readers have been here (and part of the process) before, some are going through this for the first time. The choice to write new material for a returning audience or to rehash old messaging that’s fresh for the new audience is an interesting balance, one that I may not always get right.

But as the Common App went live this week in what’s become an annual signal of the college admissions kickoff, I’d like to return again to an old message, and a few past posts to help this year’s applicants get off on the right application foot.

Extreme approaches work against you in the college admissions process, especially around time management. Procrastinating until the deadline forces you into application submission is a terrible strategy that will increase your anxiety, decrease the quality of the application, and perpetuate the feeling for the entire family that this is a process to be survived, not enjoyed.

But efforts to combat that procrastination shouldn’t cause you to overcorrect, either. Thoughtful applications and essays need time for reflection and revision. There’s no reason for any applicant to already feel like they’ve fallen behind. August is a great time to start because you’re so ahead of the curve, not because you’re already behind it.

Here are two past posts, one touting the benefits of starting early and another reminding you that too fast is just as ineffective as too late.

The learning opportunity

I always appreciate when a press entity or industry publication features an article with a collection of advice from admissions officers or even the directors of those offices. I’ve written many times before about the importance of seeking and taking college admissions advice from the right sources. And admissions officers share the top of that desirability list with a student’s high school counselor.

But editing and space considerations can render some of that advice open to misinterpretation. Tidbits like “Clearly express your interest in the college” is fundamentally good advice that’s often flawed in practice. For example, some families will take that to mean they should spend an exorbitant amount of money to visit all of their colleges, but no admissions officer I’ve ever met would recommend a family end up in college-related travel debt at all, much less before the student has even applied.

Not surprisingly for regularly readers, Brennen Barnard’s latest Forbes piece, “Admission Deans Share Tips For College Applications,” reads like an article that was curated by an expert of Barnard’s caliber. It’s full of clear, sound, and easy-to-follow guidance that happens to be arriving at the perfect time.

But readers still need to use the advice responsibly, as some applicants will allow confirmation bias to get in the way of the intended advice. For example, if a family is determined to send unsolicited extra letters of recommendation or press clippings or copies of awards, they can find a way to substantiate that inclination with the article’s advice to “Go the extra mile.” And inclinations like that will work against you in this process.

Please read the examples that accompany advice like that. Don’t ignore the fact that an equally knowledgeable admissions officer in the article also offers the advice, “Don’t be redundant,” which is exactly what unsolicited materials often lead you to be. When you take in the reasoning and the examples of how and why to employ the advice, it’s very clear what’s being recommended and what’s being discouraged. But you’ll need to read closely and openly enough to take in the advice as they intend it to be taken, not as you wish it could be interpreted.

If you appreciate Barnard’s articles as much as I do, you might be interested in his forthcoming book, authored with former Georgia Tech Director of Admissions Rick Clark, The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, scheduled to be released September 19, 2019.

It can be difficult to slog through the clutter of admissions advice, especially when dished out unsolicited from sources who lack the expertise. But when it arrives from experts who have no agenda other than to help families make sound, reasonable college planning decisions, take them up on the learning opportunity.

How to beat cell phone distraction

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of six books ranging from study skills tips for high school and college students to the role intense focus plays in producing great work, and most recently, the New York Times bestseller Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. In this 2 ½ minute video interview with Dan Pink, Newport shares three tips to prevent our phones from becoming a distraction.

While I know very few adults my age or younger who would not benefit from these tips, the evidence is piling up that technological distractions—along with the accompanying social pressures—are having significantly detrimental effects on teens in the form of diminished attention spans, altered cognitive development, and increased rates of depression and anxiety.

I can imagine people of all ages dismissing some or all of the tips as being impractical or even impossible. But the truth is that constant connectivity is a comparatively new expectation. It wasn’t all that long ago that everyone somehow found a way to survive being unreachable unless they were near a landline. I won’t call for a return to those days as I think it’s safe to say the world has changed. But with the possible exception of those for whom being unreachable could carry serious or tragic implications, just about everyone in the developed world with the means to own a smartphone could probably benefit from allowing it to distract you a little less often.

Who is this really for?

I saw an ad on social media recently that included this language:

“The competitive edge your child is missing…”

“The secret behind taking your child’s soccer game to the next level…”

“See better decision making, improved performance, and more confidence…”

It’s pretty clear this product is designed to appeal to the parent, not the player.

Sure, there could be instances where a young athlete laments their lack of progress or outright asks for this kind of assistance, in which case a parent might feel like they’re just supporting their kid’s interest.

But it would appear from that language that the market for this product is the parent. It’s for the parent who believes the “competitive edge is missing.” It’s for the parent who wants the child’s game raised to the “next level.” It’s for the parent who wants to “see better decision making, improved performance, and more confidence.”

For that particular parent customer, how much agency is their child feeling for his or her own experience? How much additional pressure is being layered on from Mom or Dad? How does it make a young player feel to know that their own parents want to see improved performance in an activity that, no matter how competitive it may be at some levels, is always supposed to be enjoyable at the core?

Before you invest in tutoring, test prep, college counseling, private coaching, or any other product or service purported to help your child, it’s worth asking the question, “Who is this really for?” And if it’s not for them, maybe it’s worth reconsidering the investment.

Even a generous gift doesn’t feel so thoughtful when the giver actually bought it for themselves.