College Essay Consultation

2017 Drop-in College Essay Consultation

Drop-In Essay Hours

Early Decision applications are memories now. The UC Personal Insight Questions and a few pesky Supplemental Questions (Why **** College?  -  ugh!) are all that remain. 

Still wonder if what you have represents you well?

Come by and get a free consultation for last minute checks. We can review your essays and make suggestions to improve them.

Call to set up a time to come by and talk. 

(925) 302-8030

Writing the College Application Essay

The College Application Essay

Writing the College Application Essay

Writing the college application essays causes stress for both students and families. It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge students face is writing reflectively about themselves. While they have been writing throughout high school, they have worked on persuasive essays, expository essays, and literary analyses, not reflective writing about themselves. So, when they have to write to prompts about themselves, they often suddenly become unsure of what is of value to share.

Parents often try to help but usually with an eye to having the student mention as many accomplishments as possible. English teachers often read essays and comment on form, grammar, or word choice but have little opportunity to accomplish more. Furthermore, since teachers are steeped in expository writing forms for class assignments, they often don’t provide the best advice to students, especially for the brief responses now required by the UC questions.

As with all things college, there is no one correct answer for what a student should write about or how the student should go about saying it. The appropriate content and form necessarily arise from the student, who must find her own voice and method.

Students, parents, and teachers should consider that the essay is the primary opportunity the student has to speak in her own voice in the application process. It is meant to complement the other application components. Consequently, the essay shouldn’t replicate what appears elsewhere in the application. It should, instead, reveal the student’s response to or transformation as a result of an experience.

Certainly, that experience likely appears elsewhere in the application but in a different form. The laboratory internship at Berkeley Lab appears on the activities list as dates and activities. What’s missing is the meaning of that experience for the student. That a student plays the violin isn’t unusual or, in itself, necessarily meaningful. However, if student has come to see all his successful endeavors in life through the lens of his mastering a musical composition with the judicious bowing of strings, sure placement of fingers, and immersion in technique and emotion, then he reveals a part of himself seen nowhere else on the application.

This is precisely what the essay supplies the admission readers. It refracts the individual into the consideration in a way no test score, no grade ever can. It offers the possibility of revealing thought, maturity, capability, compassion, and humanity.

Students are always best served when they remember the role these personal responses play in helping college admission officers see the individual behind the quantitative measures. It’s not so much to reveal that a student can write well or to explicate a serious reason a college should admit her as to give her the opportunity to tell her story her way. In this light, why wouldn’t it be fun?

Write well.

September, 2017

Everyone says to “tweak” my essays for different prompts…

Tweak??? my essay?

What is the difference between the “personal statements” for application to the UCs and essays written for application through the Common Application or proprietary application processes? Everyone tells you they are different and you need to “tweak” the essays for one or the other. But what to tweak?

In California, the college application season usually starts with students focusing on either the essays necessary for early applications or those for the UCs because these both have earlier deadlines than others. While not ideal, a chronological approach to essay writing is very often a reality for students managing a rigorous course load after coming out of summer with only one or two rough drafts of an essay completed. These students will pragmatically prioritize by deadline to get their essays completed.

A commonly asked question is whether the essays for the UCs will work for the Common Application essay and supplementals, or vice versa, depending on the student’s application schedule. And the answer almost always involves some aspect of “tweaking” whatever essay is first to fit the second. Of course, there is truth to this, but what does a student tweak and how?

The University of California admissions process is one driven by its mandate as a public institution. One primary result of this condition is the non-inclusion of letters of recommendation from either counselors or teachers in the undergraduate application process. These letters, even though their contents remain unknown to students, provide admissions officers with perspectives on students in their high school classes and in their academic and social environments. Such perspectives carry weight because they come from professionals knowledgeable about the conditions in which the students have performed over the last few years and hint at how students will perform at a particular college.

Because the UCs do not accept such letters, UC application essays have somewhat different territory to cover than do Common Application and other application essays. It is not so much that the UC essays must address what might have been in the letters as it is that they should complement what is in the entire UC application. Consider carefully how complete the UC application is and use the essays to address anything important that hasn’t been considered elsewhere in the application.Newton-WilliamBlakeSm

Yes, you will still write your essay to show your brilliance. Yes, you will still use your rhetorical skills to their utmost. Yes, you will still address a meaningfully topic. But you will choose what to write based on what the admissions officers need to get about you to admit you. Without those letters of recommendation, your essays may have to do a bit more with less.

So what gets tweaked when revising essays for other uses? The answer isn’t simple, but it is straightforward. Consider what picture the application creates with all its components and make sure that your essays complement the other elements to form a whole. There is creative flexibility available in most essays, but those you write for the UCs should be constructed to help admissions officers best understand you with the limited range of information accepted in the application.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to what a good tweak is, and it’s nature depends on the essay you start with, but the constant is making whatever tweak improve the perspective the admissions officers have of you with the materials they receive.

Consider your application holistically and tweak to complete.

Your Selective College List–not Hers

Your Selective College List–not Hers

So what is a college list? With thousands of colleges and universities available–and most of them accepting up to 80% of applicants–a college list is about choice not status. When you apply to the colleges on your list, you are applying to schools you want to go to–not schools others want you to go to. You are also applying to schools that are likely to accept you, some just more-or-less likely to accept you. In fact, colleges want to accept you. Yes, you. 

But as hard as colleges are looking for you, you have to work harder to find them, or at least the right ones to fit your learning personality, your interests, your goals, your...you get the idea.

With all the emphasis on you, it is no surprise that the first step in developing a college list is not to go on a gazillion (yes, there are almost that many schools) virtual campus tours to learn about all of those schools. A tour of a real campus nearby can be a good idea, just to pick up the vibe and scent of a college campus. The best thing is for you to focus on yourself because knowing yourself is tantamount to knowing what you want, the precursor to getting what you want.

Maybe all this talk of self-knowledge is making you uncomfortable, making you squirm a bit. And it’s true that you do not need to declare a major (a few exceptions), but you do want to access the right environment to help you figure out a major if you don’t already know it. To get accepted to schools that provide you with the right environment, you need to think about how you learn best, what physical, social, and academic environments suit you, what you and your folks will afford, and your responses to the many other components of a college education. Knowing these things, even if a little hazily, can help you select the colleges that will select you.

This takes work, and your best friend is your school counselor. He or she can help you make sense of things by suggesting exercises and work sheets to clarify your values and your goals. And if your counselor is swamped, there are many resources out there on the web or through private counselors to help you.

It is no small irony that so many people blindly race toward the elite schools that have to be selective and find ways to eliminate applicants when so many other good institutions want to accept those same students if they are a good fit.

To be selected, you have be selective, and to be selective starts with you knowing as much about yourself as you can. You want to build a college list that reflects you and that offers you choice when notifications come in.

Know yourself to build a selective college list–of choice and opportunity.

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The Essay is Complementary

The Application Essay as Complement

What makes a good college application essay?

The obvious answer is that which gets you into the college you most want to attend, and into a few others for good measure or bragging rights. Pretty simple.

Now go write that essay. Nothing stopping you.

Easy, wasn’t it? Congratulations, you just got into college. Remember to send it in with your application before the deadline (online application sites open soon).

If the answer is so simple and direct, why is writing college application essays often so very difficult? The answer, if there is one, to this second question is that what assures a particular student of acceptance to My First Choice University will not assure another student of getting into the same school. There is no one-size-fits-all essay that guarantees any student acceptance at any one college. You can’t write to a paradigm. (Yes, your English teachers lied to you steered you in that direction for education's and efficiency’s sake.)

The essay has to complement the other aspects of your college application and help the college admissions officers make better sense of the compendium of personal metrics–grades and test scores, AP classes and extracurriculars, awards and letters of recommendation–so they can see through to the person interested in studying at their school. The essays complement what you have already done; they reveal what you already have, what is already, to use an on overworked phrase, in your DNA. We all know that stuff is pretty unique. Look, Ma, no paradigms!

And while, considering how often we leave some of it behind, DNA can be a bit troubling for those doing nefarious things, but for you, this circumstance is a good thing because you already know what you are made of, what you have done, what you have learned, and what you now want to do or learn. You know all this stuff. Go write it down, revise it a few times, proofread it, and then buy your plane ticket for the following September; rates will never be cheaper than with early ticketing. Go girl!

Why are you still reading? You’re done, right? Lie down and rest; sleep in; you deserve it. Senior year is about to start; you don’t want to be caught tired, not up to it all. So much fun ahead to be had!

Still not there yet? Well, it’s true, you’ve not really spent much time analyzing your experiences or synthesizing the lessons you’ve drawn from them. You don’t have much practice. You certainly know what it feels like to be alive, but you haven’t been assigned papers on anything more personal and exciting than the meaning of green symbols in “The Great Gatsby” or the establishment of personal values in “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Oh yes, there were those chemistry write-ups and the dissection paper for biology, but no, you haven’t stopped to ponder your life, let alone write about it in any detail for a while, maybe even since elementary school: “What Did I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Few teachers have assigned you topics in navel-gazing with only the expectations that you touch on something real about yourself and that you feel free to construct the passage in the rhetorical manner best suited to your intent.

Ackkk! Just kidding. Had a teacher assigned you such a paper, you’d have left it until 5 minutes before class and written some BS that sounded as if it came from the Pop Psychology Channel deep in your cable company’s listings. You’d have gotten a C and been happy to pass because you really needed that time to study for the AP Chem final, which you nevertheless bombed, c'est la vie. However, this all-too-likely reality doesn’t alter the outcome (>.<): you haven’t taken much time to reflect on who you are, what you have done, and why in God’s name you’ve done it (yeah, I know, your parents said you had to, but you don’t have to go that far into the weeds when explaining), nor have you had much practice writing out the results of those thoughts.

Get the zafu. Time to medicate meditate. Collect those thoughts.

Your essay should represent the very same person that also appears in all that data the colleges see, and it really, really, really helps the admissions people if you can show them that everything somehow all adds up (remember, most of them are only about 10 years older than you and hated math, too. And chemistry, especially chemistry). Certainly, this situation doesn’t call for a summation of your life, that’s already been done on the application form; indeed, it calls for the refraction of some additional light into an essential part of yourself that allows them to understand you, kinda like using something small and simple to represent something bigger and more complex, you know, like maybe using a color, yes, maybe green, as a symbol, maybe...oh...

So what do you write about? What helps these essay-weary souls see your soul clearly? Truth is, only you know. That’s why there is no paradigm to write to. Only you have seen life through your eyes. Only you have worn your shoes (why do they always wear down on the inner heels first?). Only you know what it feels like to see mehndi curling along your arms or have someone tattoo art on your....uh, yes, there. Only you can know what you experienced as your plane landed in Johannesburg, and what it meant to you (remember? that annoying kid two rows up threw his binky, hitting you in the temple, splattering some wetness, and making you swear never, never, never, and never once more, to have kids. Never. Not gonna happen).

The story’s yours, and so is the telling. This is a paper you don’t have to research. You just have to sift the data for meaning. And there aren’t any wrong answers (alright, if you say what presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently said about Jewish people and baking, that would be a kind of a wrong answer, but he’s only running for president while you’re applying for college, seeking a position at one of the most enlightened places, in theory at least, that civilized man creates).

But of course, it is an untruth to say you cannot write the wrong essay. You can–if you don’t write your essays yourself, if you try to come up with a flashy or gimmicky approach just for the sake of it, or if you simply aren’t authentic. Essay readers are looking at the whole; and they can get pretty chary, going all CSI on your application when something doesn’t quite seem to line up. Unluckily for you, there are many other applicants in line after you whose essays and data do help reveal their readiness for that college and for which readers have an easier decision (btw–CSI: Ivy League Admissions was tested in pilot, but the action was flat and Miami and Las Vegas made better film locations than various college admissions offices, so the networks didn’t produce it, sigh).

If you still haven’t written your essays yet, perhaps it is because you cannot choose what most represents you out of all the many worthy experiences you’ve had. My guess though is you are overlooking some meaningful stuff. You know, the unglamorous stuff that makes up the fabric of our lives even as it often goes unnoticed. Explore that stuff to find yourself in those experiences. The point might not be to write about that experience of everyday life, but to track back to how you came to know or appreciate something (the time you finally found the missing sock balled up at the foot of the bed may not make for scintillating reading, but that the missing sock helped you appreciate the power of remembrance despite the lack of a physical presence might have some potential). Your story about something, your presentation of it, may take a different shape than that of the quotidian manner in which you discovered it. Regardless, this reflection will help you consciously know yourself better and develop a better intuition for might best represent you in your essays.

If you are still having difficulty in writing your essays, talk to a guidance counselor, a teacher, your best friend’s mom or dad, but don’t talk to your friends or your parents. Seriously, these last few people are likely to derail you. Oh, they mean all the very best for you, but they have different ideas than you do about who you are. They think they have your number, but only you truly do. Certainly keep your parents up to speed with your drafts (if they express an interest) but accept only those critiques that help you more fully recognize what you want to write about or how you want to tell your story.

Anything else isn’t being true to your DNA. And that’s the whole point of the application essay, of the application process: to show your authentic self as only you can.

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Summer is here…write your essay

Summer is here, and the livin' is easy...

If you are a high school senior planning to apply to college this fall, summer is the time to get your essays started because the living is easy–or at least easier. 

College application essays provide your greatest opportunity to show your readiness for college to college admissions officers. Certainly these people can discern a good deal about you from your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation, but they best grasp who you uniquely are when you address them in your own voice about topics you care about. The essays are your opportunity to speak directly to those making admission decisions.

The word "uniquely" above does not imply that you tell a story with an unusual topic, especially a gimmicky one. While it is a trend in college application essays for people to dig ever deeper and reveal more challenging, and often more private, information to get the attention of admissions officers, the sensational aspect of an event or quality should never be the focus of your essay. Instead focus on what an experience means to you or what it reveals about you. Being genuine and conveying something real about yourself is useful to admissions officers seeking to find students who are a good fit for their schools. Your unique qualities are not those that reveal how different you are compared to others but those that arise from forming your own perspective and your own understanding of our world. You already are unique; you simply need to find the “you” in yourself, and then express it.

Summer is a great time to start writing your essays, especially if you have some free time around your internship, family vacations, and college visits. Reflecting on your qualities and writing a thoughtful and telling essay, something you most definitely want to do, takes time–and failed attempts–to accomplish. Waiting for school to start again  to tackle your essays will shorten the time you have to climb to a comfortable cruising altitude in your writing. We've all traveled in airplanes, and hearing the increased stress of take-off, wondered if the plane was actually going to make the leap into the sky. It always does, and then we can relax into the relative calm of level flight. If you take advantage of your time now, you can be relaxed, at cruising altitude, with much of the stress behind you when school starts.

Being genuine in your essay is your primary goal, so aim to speak in your own voice to reveal a glimpse of the qualities that make you a good fit for your top-choice schools. If you have a BFF, then you know that person has qualities that make him or her, not some random person, your BFF. Analogously, you have qualities that make you a Best College Applicant for the right schools. You want to take the time now to know those qualities and choose which ones to focus on.

You may need to engage in brainstorming and listing activities to assess your qualities and topics. You may need to scribble down or type in several drafts which no one else will ever see. You may want to talk with someone else to get additional perspectives on your important qualities and behaviors. Be open to all of these possibilities, and use anything that helps you make progress. But make progress.

No one else has lived your life. Only you know what is most important to you. You may not know what to say right away, but with time, effort, and perhaps a little guidance, you can begin to take off and find your voice. Take advantage of summer’s relative leisure and start your essays while you have a greater abundance of time.