Essays

Put together your own writing workshop

Put together your own writing workshop

Last week I was inspired and energized, though. I was invited to be one of the instructors at a week-long college admissions essay writing workshop. Even though I was brought on as an admissions coach and gave talks about things like test scores and how to understand holistic admissions, the organizers still let me lead a workshop group of six students as they took a college application essay from planning to a third draft. It was exciting to see people get real help from peer review, and all week I kept thinking to myself “people can do this at home.”

So today I’d like to share what made the workshop successful, and how a small group of students could set up their own workshop of peers.

Why I do what I do

Why I do what I do

Last weekend I was fortunate to be one of the presenters at a college access workshop presented by Wonderworks, an enrichment program sponsored by Rice and the University of Houston. The pre-written text of my talk, called “Temporary Insanity: College Admission, American Style” is below. I welcome your comments and questions!

Don't submit that Mission Trip essay!

Don't submit that Mission Trip essay!

If you’re finishing up your college application essay and it has to do with a mission trip you were part of, I’m going to ask you not to submit it. At least not yet.

Some of the most common complaints against the Mission Trip essay is that it is cliché and therefore admissions officers are really tired of reading it because all the mission trip essays sound the same. To be clear: both these things are true. But I really don’t like that as a reason to avoid the Mission Trip essay. It reinforces the idea that your job is to write something the admissions officers will like, so they’ll like you and admit you—if you know they don’t like that essay topic, then you shouldn’t write about.

But your job isn’t to be a product that you’re “selling” to the colleges, and you shouldn’t change what you write about based on the idea that your meaningful experience isn’t valuable because colleges are tired of hearing about it.

Yes, you can write about that

Yes, you can write about that

One of the most common questions I got from students working on their college application essays when I was a high school teacher was "Is it okay to write about...?"

Is it okay to write about my depression? Is it okay to write about coming out as homosexual? Is it okay to write about how I used to be a really bad student? Is it okay to write about being an abuse survivor? Is it okay to talk about being bullied? Is it okay to talk about the time I was a bully?

Yes, it is okay.

How should you handle supplemental questions?

How should you handle supplemental questions?

While it’s common knowledge that most college applications involve writing an essay or two, it’s not as well known that many—but not all—also require you to answer some shorter questions. These are often referred to as “supplemental questions” or “supplemental essays,” because even schools that participate in the Common Application may ask you to supplement the common essay with some short questions specific to their admissions program. These questions usually ask for very short and concise answers, ranging from 50 to around 200 words. They’re not essays, but they’re more than just filling in a blank with objective information.

Thinking about your special circumstances

Thinking about your special circumstances

Let's be clear here: the point isn't to write a "sob story" that makes people feel sorry for you and want to give you special treatment for your special circumstances. This isn't about victimhood, quite the opposite. The point is to acknowledge to yourself and be able to explain to others the challenges and frictions that make you who you are. It's about celebrating how far you've come and the skills you've acquired. When colleges ask about your special circumstances, and not all of them ask, it's not about feeling sorry. It's about understanding what kind of resilience you have and how you got it. Nobody makes it out of high school and into college without friction and resilience, so it's okay to think about your own. There are plenty of ways to think about your special challenges.

The two-minute time machine

The two-minute time machine

What most of us would really love to have instead is a time machine that takes us back just a few minutes. When we say or do something really embarrassing, when we take a wrong turn or get into a car wreck, when we speak in anger and hurt someone's feelings, we'd really love to go back two minutes and have a do-over. Most of the time when it came up in class, it was when somebody (usually me, the teacher) said something silly, and the students would tease "don't you wish you had the two-minute time machine!"

Alas, the two-minute time machine is not real. When I say something embarrassing I can't just jump back in time and make it go away. But what is so cool, so magical even, is that if I write something embarrassing I often can go back and make it go away.

You know where this is going. This is about admission essays and revision.

The new Common Application essay prompts

The new Common Application essay prompts

The Common Application has released the essay prompts for the 2017-2018 year. You can find the official announcement on their official site here.

Two of them are exactly the same as last year--the one about your "background, identity, interest, or talent," and the one about "the problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve"--and the other three from the previous year got some tweaks and revisions but are basically the same.

What's really interesting, though, are two new and additional prompts, bringing the number of prompts up to seven.

Talk with the Dean

Talk with the Dean

Back in December I had a phone conversation with Christine Bowman, the Dean of Admission and Enrollment Services at Southwestern University. [See full disclosure below.] I originally reached out to her to ask about admissions essays and how they're analyzed, but over an hour we talked about a number of things. Here are the three main ideas that came up.

Is it okay to write about....

Is it okay to write about....

One of the most common questions I got from students working on their college application essays was "Is it okay to write about...?"

Is it okay to write about my depression? Is it okay to write about coming out as homosexual? Is it okay to write about how I used to be a really bad student? Is it okay to write about being an abuse survivor? Is it okay to talk about being bullied? Is it okay to talk about the time I was a bully?

Thinking about pleasure

Thinking about pleasure

I understand if you don't normally associate college applications with pleasure, but perhaps you should.

The first and most important step to treating the college search like a relationship is working on knowing yourself better. If you're going to really get what you want out of college, then you have to know what you want. And thinking about what brings you pleasure is one of the more fun ways to do that.