A New Year and New Challenges

Usually, around this time of year, my mind is on things other than college admissions essays. This–and a vacation to Mexico–explains the lag time between my last post and this one. (That and a healthy dose of good ol’ procrastination too). I haven’t even weighed in on the changes in the SAT, but my feeling is that the written word and good vocabulary will always count for something so let’s just move on. Anyway, traditionally, the first three or four months of the year is when I focus more on my college marketing work–right now, I’m writing the viewbook for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute–and less on my college essay coaching. So far, however, the start to 2014 has been quite atypical as there has not been much of a hiatus on the college essay front. This year, I have had a significant number or transfers and students applying to graduate school, which has meant, in several instances at least, working with people who are fully adult (let’s say over 30).

The graduate school essay (and, to a lesser degree, the transfer essay) is less about coming up with some marvelously original concept, as you need to do with the Common App personal statement, and more about giving your life and your academic career a really smart retrospective and packaging. This is not easy for anyone to do, and I find  that a bit of narrative flourish at the beginning can really make a difference for the writer and ultimately for the reader (i.e. the graduate school admissions counselor). So, for instance, I had an adult student, working as a banker, who wanted to go into a top-notch international business program. We worked together to review his accomplishments and one of the things he was most proud of was creating a kind of microloan program at his bank. We opened up his essay with a one-on-one exchange with the recipient of such a loan, and that bit of narrative, which felt immediate and fresh and very human and related, was an excellent idea. The rest of the essay, which naturally covered his past accomplishments and his future aspirations, all went much easier once he got that narrative hook down. The upshot? Harvard has invited him in.

I’m very pleased to be working more than usual with this population–but very pleased too that I got that beach time on the Caribbean!

What a Day!

It’s still not over and here are some of the acceptances that my students have received within the last 24 hours:

  • 2 to Princeton
  • Stanford
  • Cornell
  • Yale
  • Dartmouth
  • UPenn

Congratulations to them–and a round of applause for all of you students who have given it your best shot this season. Even if you were disappointed today, who knows what great news tomorrow might bring?

A Salute to the Students

Right now is real crunch time for a lot of my students. They are waiting to hear from their early decision choices and are trying to get more essays done in case those dreams don’t come true. (And, as we know, dreams often have a habit of not coming true, so a little prudence is definitely called for). As I have always found with my students, however, neither they nor their parents take out their anxieties on me. When I first began doing this work, years ago now, I was a little worried about that. Would I be dealing with very entitled students and parents who thought they were owed something they were not? I am pleased to report that I have never, in my hundreds of associations with students and parents, ever encountered anyone like that. I suppose the fact that these families know they are not acquiring “bought essays” is the reason. I make it clear from the start that I don’t write for students. I help students do their best writing. That means that we are involved in a highly collaborative process that results in mutual respect and often very warm feelings. It is an intimate process to hear about people’s private thoughts, dreams, concerns, disappointments, triumphs–the stuff of these essays–and I feel honored to be trusted with all that.

I also find myself often in awe of my students. Not only for their energy and commitment and stamina, but also, in many cases, for the breadth of what they’ve done. They have patents and businesses and research accomplishments; they create visual arts and fiction and poetry and music. They juggle sports and community service with staggering workloads that they perform at exceptionally high levels. And those who may not be so accomplished often strike me as genuinely interesting, thoughtful, complex, and worthy human beings.

So here’s to you, students, as you near the end of this grueling admissions process. May your dreams come true, but please know that there are so many great schools out there and I see kids all the time who are thriving and growing in schools you may not even have heard of. It’s a big world with a lot of surprises. Be open to that.

A Winning Review

The second edition of my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, has just been favorably reviewed on the website of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC):


They cited the following:

Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps is a helpful tool for any high school senior who needs a little guidance in writing his or her personal statement.  The book breaks down each step in an easy to follow manner and only provides the essential information.  Gelb is relatable and gets to the point quickly.  By using the steps described in this book, students can achieve a winning personal statement.

Thank you, NACAC!

Quirky Time

Suddenly, it seems that quirky essays are all the rage. This weekend, the New York Times ran an article about just that:


I found the article especially interesting as I am currently working with a number of students who are coping with the University of Chicago’s quirky prompts (created by current students, no less). Now, my students are trying to tell jokes very seriously, some are contemplating the skill set of the mantis shrimp, and still others are comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

From time immemorial, the University of Chicago has been regarded as a bastion of industrial-grade intellectualism. Nobody went there who wasn’t ready to spout Schopenhauer. In recent years, I’ve noted with interest that a number of my students, who I suspect had never even heard of Schopenhauer and were–gulp!–even kind of jocks, were going there. This year, I find that everyone seems to be applying to Chicago, so obviously they have some marketing geniuses over there working their magic. However, these quirky prompts spell intellectual intimidation for many of my students, who are gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair but soldiering on. Some of these students have been looking for the “easier” of the prompts but I tell them that the whole point of this exercise is to show yourself as an intellectual daredevil and if you’re not ready to do that kind of skydiving then maybe you should look for another school. By design, such essays are meant to separate the wheat from the chaff. And so, this year, I have found myself applying a surcharge for these essays from Chicago as well as for some of the essays required by the more select UPenn programs. Such essays are just a lot of work, so be prepared!




The Crunch Is On

As always, this is an extremely busy time of year. I work long hours from now until New Year’s, but my work is nothing compared to the work that I see my students taking on. They are so dedicated and some of them are quite driven. For the most part, that drive is coming from them, as they take on the hardest courses, the biggest academic burdens, tons of activities, and now all these essays they have to write. Of course, I have my share of procrastinators, and so I’d like to remind those folks who have that tendency that you can help nip it in the bud with a few easy behavioral modifications:

1) Request and respect deadlines. Asking a procrastinator to respect a deadline is sort of like asking a jewel thief to respect a safe, but it’s worth a try. I actually have some students who ask me to set deadlines for them. It’s not my inclination to do so, and I’m always a bit surprised when I hear this request, but when I do, I’m happy to say “Tuesday” (or “Thursday” or “Monday”). And I find that these students, who know their limitations, do a pretty good job of respecting these deadlines.

2) Set goals for yourself. You have to write a 650 word essay, which is not exactly Atlas Shrugged, but, even so, you’re procrastinating. If you’ve spent weeks looking at a blank page (or computer screen), now is the time to set yourself a quota. Write 25 words tonight. That is attainable–and it will feel good once you do it. You can build on that feeling as you move forward.

3) Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Everyone procrastinates for some reason or other. If you spend a great deal of time berating yourself for being a procrastinator, then that is time spent away from the work you could be doing…and, hence, it is just another form of procrastination.

3) Reward yourself. If you’ve met a goal, give yourself a treat. Make it commensurate with the goal, to create a “reward system.” So then, writing 25 words means that you get to play a video game for 10 minutes. Writing 100 words means a half hour on the video front. (Chocolates, TV, texting–choose whatever works for a reward).

All right then. Back to work for me!


Make ‘Em Laugh

Here on the East Coast, we’re having a real blast of summer before all the leaves fall and we start to focus on apples, pumpkins, and getting the house in shape for winter. I am also marking the change of season by the volume of calls I’m getting from nervous students and parents who wished that they had gotten their essays done before the start of school. Oh well. That would have been nice. But there’s still plenty of time.

Thinking back over the students I worked with in these last few months,  I have come to see that one very nice ingredient I haven’t talked about much is humor. I had several students this year who actually wrote quite humorous pieces. Now if you think of a college admissions counselor reading hundreds of overly earnest essays, you can imagine that person’s relief–and interest–when something comes along that is actually funny. And, of course, funny stuff can be just as brilliantly revealing about a person as anything else. There is, to be sure, such a thing as great comic literature: Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Cervantes. Well, your college admissions essay is probably not going to scale those heights, but it can still be amusing and profound at the same time, as in the vein of Welty and Wilde.

The thing about humor, however, is that not everyone is capable of it. I believe that virtually everyone is capable of writing a decent college admissions essay–my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, is premised on this conviction and that may explain why it  has been so successful–but not everyone can do humor. And if you can’t do humor, don’t do humor. You know if you’re funny. Your family and friends think so. People laugh at your jokes. If you have never thought of yourself that way and can’t remember a time that you ever said anything that anyone else ever laughed at, then you’re probably not very funny. But that’s okay. Not everyone has to be. If you are funny, however,  maybe you want to try that direction, at least in part.

Didja ever hear the one about the rabbi, the priest, and the minister? Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk.

Catch This Article

I urge you to read a very interesting article by Lacy Crawford in last week’s Wall Street Journal. She is a college counselor who endorses everything I believe in. That is, when people tell you that you can’t write about sick relatives, don’t believe them…and other such myths. Have a look at:



Watch Me

If you weren’t at yesterday’s CollegeWeekLive presentation and would like a video crash course in the college admissions essay, go to:


Working Out the Kinks

As you must know by now, this year has ushered in changes in the Common App, particularly around the required personal statement. As I have reported in previous blogposts, the maximum length of the essay has been expanded from 500 to 650 words and there are new topics. There also seem to be some new mysteries regarding formatting and uploading.

This summer, I worked with a student who told me that when he and his father were trying to enter the essay into the online file–just to test things out and make sure all was good– they found that they couldn’t break up the essay into more than two paragraphs. Naturally, I freaked out, as  every paragraph break (along with every word, every comma, every everything) is thought-out and important to me (and to the student, who, I like to think, understands the logic of all that we do by the time we finish our work together).

I began to imagine myself trying to penetrate the Common App heirarchy, arguing with the faceless powers there about the need for more than a single paragraph over the course of 650 words, when I got a second email from the father. He told me that you are, in fact, allowed to enter as many paragraphs as you want…but you can’t indent them. Well, I’m fine with justified left margins for paragraphs with spaces between them, as should you be. The point of this all is that if you encounter any confusions or difficulties entering your essay into the allotted format, please know that you are entitled to your paragraphs. And I will keep an ear open to any other kinks I may hear about and let you know what comes up.

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.