A New Book!

New in 2019 is Seven Steps to Confident Writing,  my general guide to writing that has just been published by New World Library.

 

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All my years of experience as a writer and a teacher of writing has gone into this, and, as with Conquer the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, readers tell me that I have created something that is entertaining and highly accessible. Its premise is that anyone can become a better writer, and Booklist, in an excellent review, says, “Appropriate for newbies while also useful for practiced writers, Gelb’s book begs to be read from cover to cover and then kept within reach for regular consultation.”

You can find out more about it, including how to order it, at:

 

alangelb.com

 

Victory Lap

T.S. Eliot said that “April is the cruelest month,” but that has not been the case with my students. Although results are still coming in, they have done extremely well. Consider these placements:

  • Amherst
  • Boston College (2)
  • Brown (3)
  • Bryn Mawr
  • CalTech
  • Carnegie-Mellon
  • Case-Western Reserve
  • Colby
  • Cornell (2)
  • Emory (2)
  • George Washington
  • Georgia Tech
  • Harvard (2)
  • Johns Hopkins
  • MIT
  • Northeastern
  • Northwestern
  • NYU (2)
  • Princeton (2)
  • Purdue
  • Smith
  • Stanford
  • State University of New York Binghamton
  • Tufts
  • Tulane
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of California Davis
  • University of California Davis
  • University of California Santa Barbara
  • University of Illinois (2)
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Michigan (2)
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Rochester
  • University of Southern California (2)
  • University of Wisconsin
  • Virginia Commonwealth BS/MD Program
  • Yale (2)
  • Washington University (2)

I salute these hard-working and talented young women and men! It was an honor to work with them.

Confessions of a College Essay Coach

Twenty-two years ago, when my older son was getting ready to apply to college, I realized that there was no one in his high school who had the expertise to guide him through a particularly difficult part of the process: writing the college admissions essay. We lived in a small, rural community and, as well-meaning as the English faculty and the advising staff were at the high school, very few students were looking to go on to the most selective colleges. As a writer, I quickly realized that the best approach to the Common App essay, which was essentially a life review exercise, was to craft a strong narrative, as the narrative form is designed to capture the attention of a reader or listener. I guided my son in that direction, he got into the school of his choice, and soon I was helping other students in the community, and then the children of friends, and then I compiled my theories and turned them into a book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in Ten Steps, published in 2008. Over the last ten years, I have worked professionally with many hundreds of students, guiding them through the difficult assignment of writing about themselves, just as I guided my son.

The newly-exposed machinations of the college counselors, coaches, and “Desperate Parents” that figure in the college admissions scandal has surely made anyone who works in this area, as I do, reflect on the ethical pitfalls of what we do. As a society, we would like to think that we live in a meritocracy, but we know that we do not. There is nothing meritocratic about inheriting wealth—and the Brookings Institute reports that an estimated 35 to 45 percent of wealth is inherited rather than self-made. Regarding legacy, those students who are designated as such made up around 14 percent of the undergraduate population at Harvard in 2018. Nothing meritocratic about that either.

The current college admissions scandal is shocking. To see privileged people seeking to accumulate more and more privilege is a sobering spectacle indeed. Of course, we see such behavior in all quarters of our lives. I recall my late mother, then 90 years old, reporting to me with great excitement that she had been to a dentist with “a beautiful waterfall” in his waiting room who had presented her with a comprehensive plan for a whole new set of crowns. In my mind, it is a fairly short step from a dentist who pushes expensive treatments on a nonagenarian to a coach who accepts bribes.

When I begin working with students, I start by laying out the ground rules. I don’t write for students, I explain. The writing must be theirs, I tell them. I am old; they are young. The point is to capture their authentic voice so that they can feel a sense of ownership around their work. I edit their writing, as an editor edits my writing, and we engage in a rewarding collaborative relationship, focused on bringing their work to a place of true excellence. I am gratified to see that students, when they understand the degree of attention that a piece of writing demands, will often stay at it, molding the piece and refining it without my prodding them to do so.

Our time together becomes deeply intimate, and students might tell me things they have never told anyone else. In the few weeks during which we connect, remotely, I hear about their desires, their fears, their disappointments, their triumphs over adversity, their pursuit of the American dream—and I help them gave shape to all that. I charge a significant amount of money for what I do, based on the expertise I offer and on the time spent, but I don’t look to charge more than that formula warrants. Essentially, I deal with the ethical pitfalls that pock this field by wanting less. And when students and their families talk to me with such longing about Ivy League schools, I counsel them to want less—or at least to want different. Having spent another phase of my career writing recruitment and development materials for many different colleges and universities, I tell my clients that there are many great schools out there where they can find what they are looking for. Consider Tim Cook. He got his bachelor’s degree at Auburn University, and he seems to be doing just fine.

I also try to level the playing field by keeping a significant percentage of the slots I have—something around ten percent—for pro bono clients. Usually, these are students who possess the considerable moxie to cold-call me. I have found that to be a better way for me to achieve that pro bono threshold than reaching out directly to school systems, where my offer generally gets snagged in bureaucratic netting. I wonder if blue-chip educational consulting firms that go by names like IvyWise, Ivy Dean, and Ivy Coach follow that practice; I would hope they do.

One can see that this new college admissions scandal could serve as the “perfect crime” for the era we are living in—an era marked by unfettered wealth, rampant corruption, and deep cynicism. It is important to put this scandal in context, however, as just one more expression of the ethical corners that society cuts. As a practitioner in this ethically ambiguous arena, I keep these issues in my mind at all times, striving to conduct myself honorably and do no disservice to those who choose to work with me.

Decisions, Decisions…

Northwestern or Johns Hopkins? Dartmouth or Cornell? University of Michigan or University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?

This is the time of year when some of my students, like so many others around the country, are trying to figure out which college to go to. They have multiple good choices and now they are looking at all the variables, from curriculum to quality of life to location to diversity to climate. It’s a hard process, but it’s nice to have choices.

Here are three tips about how to approach that decision:

1. Consider finances.
College is fearsomely expensive. Don’t let all that beautiful ivy pull the wool over your eyes. While we are all hard-wired to lust after a picturesque college experience, you must remember to be an informed consumer and consider your best deal.

2. Talk to people.
Go to your accepted college visit and really talk to people. That includes students, teachers, admissions staff, and anyone else you choose to. Now is time for intangibles and you can only start to hear those when you get into conversations with people.

3. Remember that nothing is irrevocable.
Although this is a momentous decision and you’re likely to make the right one, if you don’t you can always change things up. That’s what transferring is all about and many students manage to transfer successfully and happily. Sure, it’s not your first choice–but it is an option.

Way to Go, Class of 2021!

Word has it that this was the hardest year ever for students applying to the top colleges. Cornell University reported both record applications and acceptance rates. The university got more than 47,000 apps and opened their doors to a new low of 12.5%. The University of Pennsylvania also smashed records this season. There were more than 40,000 applications, including both early and regular apps, and they admitted only 9.15%. The acceptance rate is the lowest in UPenn’s history. Brown received their highest number of applications with 32,724 and accepted a record low of 8.3%.

I am proud to report that my students this year did splendidly. Here is a partial list of schools that my 50+ students were admitted to:

MIT (2)
Cal Tech (2)
Princeton (1)
Harvard (1)
Yale (2)
Brown (2)
University of Michigan (4)
Cornell (2)
Stanford (2)
Oberlin
University of Pennsylvania (2)
Wake Forest (3)
Syracuse (2)
NYU
Columbia (2)
Ohio State
Purdue (2)
Johns Hopkins
University of Chicago
University of Virginia
Georgetown
University of California Irvine
University of California Santa Barbara
University of California San Diego (1)
Claremont-McKenna
Colgate
Emory
University of Virginia (2)
Boston College (2)
Boston University (2)
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Northeastern

Congratulations to you all. You were hard workers and met the challenge. I’m glad these Conquer essays worked for you.

Great News

This is such an exciting time of year when I get to share in the success of my students. And what success they have had in this, a very difficult year for college admissions. Look at this list of acceptances from a client base of approximately 50 students:

  • Stanford (2)
  • Yale (2)
  • Northwestern
  • Williams
  • University of Chicago
  • Brown (2)
  • Duke
  • UCLA (2)
  • SUNY Geneseo
  • SUNY Binghamton
  • Cornell (2)
  • NYU
  • Vassar
  • Bowdoin
  • USC
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Colorado College
  • Boston College
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • Rice
  • University of California at Santa Barbara
  • Boston University B.S./M.D. program
  • Dartmouth (2)
  • University of Michigan
  • Case-Western Reserve
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Hofstra B.S./M.D. program
  • Wake Forest
  • Davidson
  • Washington University

Reason to celebrate, yes? And maybe the highlight of my year was having one of my Yale admittees send me a screenshot of his acceptance letter, on which the admissions counselor had handwritten a note, singling out his essay as one of her favorites of the year.

Congratulations to all of my students on a job well-done.

Conquer Comes to China

Please see my article in this week’s Global Times of Beijing on the cultural challenges that Chinese students face when writing the college admissions essay:

http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/928965.shtml 

Summer is Prime Time

Surf’s up, but summer is also an ideal time to get the jump on your college admissions essay. Summer offers time to think, reflect, and connect with a writing topic that you care about. Here are some good tips for making the most of the good old summertime:

  • Clear your head. Distractions like TV, texting, video games and Internet surfing can seriously inhibit inspiration. Once your school term is over, schedule some time away from those electronic diversions and find a park bench, rooftop, library carrel, or some other quiet place where you can hear your thoughts bubbling up from deep down in your consciousness.
  • Ask yourself exploratory questions. In looking for an essay topic, an excellent way to begin is by asking questions that can turn up some juicy conflict. Some examples: What has been the hardest thing I have ever had to face? If I had to quickly replay my life, which two or three moments would jump out ahead of all others? Which experiences have really pulled me out of my comfort zone? When have I ever felt pure rage? You’ll find questions like these, as well as a strategy for approaching them, in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.
  • Write it down. Thoughts and ideas will be bubbling up for you this summer, as you look toward this time of your life that is so significant. Take it from this writer: if you don’t write it down, you’re bound to lose it.
  • Enjoy yourself. These warm, feel-good months make it easier to relax, and approaching the college admissions essay with less anxiety is a good thing. In fact, it would be extremely beneficial to view this assignment not as an onerous task but as a creative act. In that vein, you’ll want to commit yourself to the work, accept the idea that your essay will evolve through a series of drafts and allow yourself to take some pleasure in the process. Who knows? You may even discover the joy of rewriting.

Go ahead. Take some time off, go bike riding, swimming, hiking, or what have you, but then take a deep breath and start the work that’s needed on the challenging task of writing your personal statement.

Let Us Now Praise…

…William Zinsser, who died this past Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 92. Zinsser was the author of the classic writing tome, On Writing Well, which sold over a million copies and which certainly had an influence on me. As the New York Times obituary said, “His advice was straightforward: Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece.”  I particularly like this nugget: “Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he is or she is.”

That last bit feels particularly germane to the college admissions essay. Many students feel that they have to find, “THE story.” I tell them that there are many stories that can be told, but mostly this assignment is about finding your authentic voice and making your readers feel that you are someone that they want to know (and that, hopefully, they want to invite into their college community). Authenticity means sincerity, self-reflection, humor, modesty…all those good things. Leave the boasting and home and tell your story, as Mr. Zinsser suggested, as if you actually enjoyed writing the piece. And guess what? Many of my student writers wind up enjoying this assignment a great deal. Why? Because they have engaged in some deep exploration about themselves, which can be exciting, and because they have come away from the experience learning some very valuable lessons, which is also very exciting.

The Results Are In!

Kudos to my small, ragged band of college applicants this year. They did very, very well in such a competitive season. Here’s the breakdown of where they’re going:

  • Cornell (3)
  • Harvard (2)
  • Yale (2)
  • Princeton (2)
  • University of Pennsylvania (2)
  • Pomona (2)
  • Boston University (2)
  • Brown
  • UCLA
  • Tufts
  • Middlebury
  • Vanderbilt
  • USC (film studies program)
  • Temple (dentistry program)
  • Washington University
  • McGill
  • Occidental

Everyone is happy, although I do have two students who are on the waitlist at two top schools. I’ve just been helping them with their Letters of Continued Interest (LOCI, if you don’t know about that). Anyway, they were a great group and I am happy and proud to share in their excitement.

Lily’s College Essay

“I know you’re terrified of this act,” said Ann, my director, “but you have to let yourself become vulnerable. We’re all here to support you. Trust us. We love you.” 

We were just days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I needed a breakthrough, and this was Act Three.

 

At the end of this act, Emily, my character, dies but has the chance to relive a day with her family. She learns that the people around her did not really see what was important in life. Her idealized recollection of her life is shattered. She is deeply disappointed and saddened by her discovery. The only way to perform this last act is with great emotion. But, even though I knew this, I would not allow myself to go to a place where I could really feel Emily’s pain and loss. 

A few months before I left for this theater program, my sister, Beth, who was living in Chile, suffered a seizure. We learned that it was caused by a brain tumor that had been growing undetected for many years. Beth was flown home immediately for brain surgery.

 

 

The first time I saw my sister in seven months, she was in the hospital on a stretcher with IVs in her arm. The night before her operation, the doctor told us what could happen during brain surgery. Beth could become paralyzed, lose memory, and she could die. I have never been so sad and terrified in my entire life, and I was so angry that this had happened. As it turned out, Beth came through the surgery well and the tumor was benign, but the horror of the experience has stayed with me. 

Day after day, we rehearsed the last act and day after day I stayed dry-eyed and emotionless.

 

Talking to Ann, I came to realize why I couldn’t get to the feelings that this act required. The scene hit too close to home for me. Death had come so close and I did not want to relive those feelings. 

I stood there and said my lines. I tried as hard as I could to not just talk about death, but to allow myself to feel. I couldn’t. Ann stopped the rehearsal. She asked a staff member, Howie, to go on stage. “Hold Lily. Don’t let her fall,” Ann said, “but try to make her feel physically off balance.”

 

 

Howie held on to my shoulders and pulled me in all different directions. As this happened, I said my lines and suddenly started to cry my heart out.

 

This was my breakthrough. 

My sister’s illness threw me off balance and changed my life forever. When, once again, I was thrown off balance, Act Three changed forever. In that moment, during rehearsal, my defenses fell and I was able to reconnect to the sadness I had felt. I discovered that I could go there again safely and grow from this experience. From that moment on, each rehearsal and each performance was done with great emotion. We were days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I had a breakthrough, and that was my Act Three.

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