Seek the light

When brainstorming a college essay with a Collegewise student, our counselors know when a topic has real potential—the moment a student lights up when telling us about it.

That pure, involuntary spark in a student’s face and voice when they tell us all about their favorite class, that one achievement of which they’re most proud, the feeling when they learned they’d been promoted to “shift leader” at their part-time job–whatever it is, genuine emotion cannot be faked. It draws the listener in, wanting to hear even more about the experience that’s generating that reaction right in front of us. And that’s exactly the feeling a good college essay should inspire in the reader.

The best college essays don’t necessarily have to be about positive experiences—they just need to be sincere, engaging, and an effective way for a reader to get to know the real student behind the application. But when the words come freely and easily during a brainstorming session, when the student seems eager to share more, and especially when we see their mood and energy improve, the topic on the table is the fuel that caused the change. And that’s almost always a tale worth exploring for essay potential.

For students writing essays for your applications, seek this light. Go towards those topics that don’t require a lot of cajoling for you to find, and even better, those that you enjoy discussing and exploring with an interested listener.

And for students progressing through your younger high school years, seek this light. Go towards those subjects and teachers who inspire you to learn more. Go towards those activities you’d choose to do even if they had no bearing on your future college applications. Go towards opportunities and experiences that inspire you to bring your best self and work over those you do out of obligation.

Imagine how many stories you’d have to tell when you apply to college. And imagine how much more successful and enjoyable the journey to that time will be.

Your starting product

If you’re stuck on your college essay before you even start, here’s a deceptively simple tip—just start. Set a timer for 10 minutes and don’t stop writing until the time is up.

If you can’t think of something good to write, start writing something bad.

That idea you’re considering but don’t know how to approach? Just start.

No idea where to start? How about your best day in high school? Your worst day? Your most challenging day?

Just start.

If someone asked you to talk about your high school experience, you wouldn’t get talker’s block. But writer’s block happens when you reject ideas preemptively. So much of what you put on paper in high school is eventually evaluated and graded, and it’s hard to remove that lens from the starting point. Remember that what you start writing is a world away from where you’ll finish.

The admissions committee will evaluate your finished product. But nobody but you will see, much less evaluate, what you write today. There’s no pressure on your starting product. So get momentum on your side and just start.

Need help with supplemental essays?

Completing your Common Application essay doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done writing. Many colleges also require that you write supplemental essays on a specific topic, like explaining why you’ve decided to apply to this school, describing the activity that’s meant the most to you, or relating a time you failed or made a mistake and what you learned from the experience. If you’d like some advice, we’ve got two experts ready to help in an upcoming free webinar:

The Art of the Supplemental Essay
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees.

You’ll find information here about the webinar and how to register. Whether you’re still pondering, just starting, or finally polishing your supplemental essays, I hope you’ll join us.

Parents and college essays: be afraid

Fear almost never belongs in the college admissions process. Collegewise counselors work hard to remove it. We commit to never injecting it. We want to help families embrace the journey to college as an exciting time where fear has no place.

But there is one instance where I intentionally instill fear because it’s both legitimate and necessary—when parents over-involve themselves in their student’s college essays.

What does “over-involvement” look like? Insisting (over the student’s objections) that they write what you want them to write. Rewriting portions in the way you think they should be written. Flat out writing the essay for your student. They’re all different versions of the same behavior—taking away the thoughts, words, and ensuing stories of a 17-year-old and replacing them with your own.

So, why should you be afraid to do it? Because when you over-involve yourself, admissions officers know it.

Admissions officers have read enough essays to know how students (and unfortunately, how over-involved parents) think and write. That sixth essay sense comes with experience. If you put 20 essays in front of me and asked me to pick out the one that was the product of an over-involved parent, I’ll bat 1000 on that exercise, every time. And I’ve read a fraction of the essays most admissions officers read.

Once the reader recognizes that an essay is not entirely the student’s, it triggers a cascade of negative application effects.

Now the reader is forced to question the integrity of the rest of the application. How much did Mom or Dad do? How much of what’s presented is unvarnished truth from a teen, and how much is over-polished (at best) or fiction (at worst) from the parent?

How often does this behavior repeat itself in the student’s academic work?

Will this parent take over the work once the student is admitted to college (no college professor wants to teach a student whose parents do some or all the work for them)?

Some parents might cry foul and claim this treatment isn’t fair. But the question of fairness isn’t the issue. It’s reality, and an entirely avoidable one.

And consider the effect this over-involvement has on your student. When you take over their essay, you’re telling them their stories aren’t good enough, that their writing isn’t good enough, and that they aren’t good enough. You’re telling them that they can’t get into college without you doing the work for them. And worst of all, you’re telling them that it’s OK to misrepresent themselves in the hopes that the end will justify the means.

Parents can absolutely suggest stories and approaches. You can correct grammar and spelling if you have that skill set. And you certainly know your student well enough to share feedback around questions like these.

But there’s just no nice way to say this. Parents, if you think your essay over-involvement is the exception, if you think you’re improving their essay and improving their chances of admission, you are kidding yourself. You’re making the essay worse. You’re making your student’s chances of admission worse. I know your intentions are good, but you’re making things worse.

If this sounds surprisingly critical or alarmist, that’s intentional. These risks are real. And if parents are going to take them, you deserve to know what you’re risking.

So if you’re afraid, listen to those fears. Step back and let your student get back to writing their own essays.

And if you’re looking for another voice to add to this chorus, please see this recent NY Times piece, “How I Know you Wrote your Kid’s College Essay.”

Three questions that lead to better college essay feedback

I’ve written many times before about the importance of taking college admissions advice from people who are qualified to deliver it, and this includes giving feedback on a college essay. You don’t need to be an admissions officer or a counselor to correct grammar and spelling. But if your family, friends, and neighbors have never been trained to guide or evaluate students during the process, they likely don’t understand the purpose of the college essay, which stories stand out and which are like all the others, or the many ways in which strong college application essays are not at all like strong academic essays.

Still, some non-admissions experts can give you great advice if you ask the right questions. Instead of simply asking, “Can you read my essay and tell me what you think?” try asking for feedback in three specific areas:

  1. Which parts of my essay are confusing or make it hard to understand what I’m trying to say?
  2. Which parts don’t sound like me?
  3. Are there any parts that just didn’t hold your interest?

Someone who knows you well is qualified to answer those questions. It’s still your responsibility to seek out the right people who care enough to feel invested in your success. But sticking to specific questions won’t just give you feedback you can actually use to make changes–it also lets you receive feedback at the reviewer’s level of expertise.

Focused, plowing, or creative?

You might make even more progress on your college applications if you choose to work on the right portions at the right time of day.

In the best-selling When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Dan Pink explains that our biological clocks dictate our likelihood of performing at our best on a task. That’s because most people experience three stages each day, which Pink calls a peak, a trough, and a recovery. The peak, when we’re best able to concentrate, focus, and ignore distractions, occurs for most people in the morning (not first thing, necessarily, just when you’re ready to get started on your work day). The trough is when that sharp focus and deep thinking starts to wane, which for most of us happens in the early to mid-afternoon. The recovery, when we get some mental juices flowing again, typically occurs in the late afternoon or early evening (one in five people—the night owls—move in the reverse order).

According to Pink, here’s how to make the most of those times:

Do your analytical tasks, those that require you to concentrate and think more logically than creatively, in the morning during the peak. It’s a great time to revise your college essay, but not a great time to brainstorm a new one.

The trough is best reserved for administrative tasks, those that don’t require your mind to be at its sharpest. That’s a great time to fill out the informational portions of the applications—you don’t need to be on your mental A-game to remember your name, your contact information, the name of your school, etc.

And the recovery period is perfect when you need your most creative side to come through. You’ve left behind the lull of the trough, but you’re also more relaxed, more open, and less head-down and focused than you are in your morning peak. This is the time to dive into draft one of that new college essay with the story that just hasn’t presented itself to you yet.

Focus in the morning, plow through during the afternoon, and get creative in the early evening.

Too early, too late, and just right

When we brainstorm a college essay with a Collegewise student, we always set a deadline for that student to return their first draft to us. Depending on the student and the application deadlines themselves, the average time we give them is 1-2 weeks. But some students are so excited about their topic that they return their first draft in less than 24 hours. We’ve always admired these students for their pluck (finishing early is a lot better than finishing late). But we’ve also learned over the years that most of these early submissions are rarely the strongest of the first drafts we’ll see.

Like anything worth doing, great writing takes time. We don’t expect perfection in a first draft—that’s why it’s a first draft. But the best versions aren’t actually first drafts at all. A student may have rewritten their opening paragraph two or three or five times. They may have worked and reworked a story that just didn’t read well on first pass but tightened up nicely on the second effort. The conclusion that felt forced yesterday benefits from fresh eyes and a fresh start today. It’s a first draft to us because we’re seeing it for the first time. But it often bears little resemblance to the actual first pass.

The early submitters, on the other hand, usually haven’t spent nearly as much time revising and refreshing. They let their enthusiasm carry them from beginning to end, unchecked. What ends up on the screen the first time is what stays and gets submitted. It’s laudable that they don’t wait until the last minute. But what they first submit usually doesn’t represent what they’re really capable of.

College applicants, try to find a balance as you complete your essays and your applications. Procrastinating until the last minute is a terrible strategy—an impending deadline just coaxes your fastest, not your best, work. But there’s also no prize for finishing first. In fact, it often results in a quality penalty. Take your time. Sleep on it. One extra day or week makes little or no admissions difference. But it can make all the difference in the output.

We now remind our students that they should take their time on their first drafts and come back with something that shows us what they’re really capable of. Yes, it’s just the first draft, and the finished product will be the most important piece. But we’ve learned that the best route to that destination is the one that doesn’t get you there too early or too late, but just right.

Give me just 60 minutes, and you’ll give colleges better essays

It’s last call for my college essay webinar happening on Tuesday, August 7, from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. PST. All the information and the form to register are here.

I advise students to be both proud of and clear about their strengths and achievements when applying to college, so let me take some of my own advice here. I’ve been running Collegewise for 19 years. College essays are one of the components of college admissions I enjoy speaking and teaching about the most. So here’s my promise. Students, whatever your level of academic achievement or your comfort around writing, give me just 60 minutes. Embrace the four tips (and I really do only need four) that I share around finding and writing your best stories. I promise you will write better essays that will help admissions officers see you for the person you are behind your grades and test scores.

I hope you’ll join me.

Join me for a college essay webinar

I’ll be teaching a free college essay webinar on Tuesday, August 7.

How to Craft Compelling, Cliché-Free College Essays
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

All the details and registration information are here. I hope you’ll join me.


Telling your story vs. searching for it

The University of Virginia comes through yet again with great advice on their blog, this time with tips for writing the UVA essays. I’m sharing it here because, as is often the case with their shared wisdom, applicants to many if not most colleges could benefit from their tips. Especially the first, “Don’t overthink the topic.” My only addition would be that it’s just as important not to under-think the topic.

Here’s the difference.

Overthinking a college essay topic means that an applicant spends an inordinate amount of time agonizing, seeking advice, or flat out researching in search of a perfect response. This is a misguided approach because it presumes the college is testing applicants to see who can come up with the supposed right answer to the essay prompt. But as I—and UVA—have written before, there’s rarely a specific essay-related answer to the question, “What is the college looking for?” Whatever your honest answer is, one that helps the college get to know you in a way they couldn’t from your application alone is the best approach. And that’s why, done right, a hundred applicants could feasibly write a hundred strong but completely different responses to the same essay prompt. Think more about what you want to say than you do about what the college supposedly wants to hear.

But it’s also possible to under-think the topic.

If you casually reuse an essay from another application, or simply force feed a story you really want to tell but that comes nowhere close to answering the question, you’re not showing the thought necessary to accomplish your essay objectives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with recycling an essay you wrote for another application. Strong stories do have a way of offering you applicability to many other responses, and our Collegewise students frequently reuse essays (often with some minor changes) when the answers overlap with other prompts. But recycling an essay that ignores the new prompt just creates waste—a wasted opportunity for you, and wasted attention from a reader who really was interested in reading what you had to say in response to the prompt they and their colleagues had chosen.

So yes, read the prompts carefully. Thoughtfully consider your potential responses, not with the goal to impress, but rather to engage, your reader. But then shift your priorities to telling—rather than searching for—the right story for you.