Thinking Is Action

One reason why my book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps has been so successful is because it helps people understand what a narrative is and how you, as a writer, can effectively convey your narrative (i.e. story). A lot of people are under the impression, however, that the story has to be a Big Story. Well, in fact, people who have unfortunately led very conflict-ridden lives–political refugees; those who have dealt with serious illnesses; homeless people; those who have a parent who has deserted the family, let’s say–have a very Big Story to tell. Of course, their challenge is to find a manageable way into a story that might be so big that it could overwhelm the 650-word allotment that the Common App allows. On the flip side, we have all those people who have grown up in affluent, comfortable suburban America who may not have a conflict-ridden Big Story, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a story that will work really well for them.

A lot of my students who fall into that latter camp write about activities that they are passionate about–dancing, baking, swimming, archery, crew, running, singing, what have you–and they depict themselves in that activity, with reflective material sandwiched in amid the “action” of the piece. This allows the reader to stick with you because he/she can see that something is “happening,” (balls are pitched or yeast is added or arrows are shot) and that gives the reader the patience to stay with the reflective content when it appears. That reader may also be interested in the activity depicted, so that’s an added bonus for him/her.

What I have come to realize, however, is that some of the most “active” pieces my students turn out are those that depict really interesting thinking. A student running through the woods but thinking about biodiversity. A student baking cookies and considering how food can serve as a kind of connective tissue between generations. A student biking up a hill and thinking about the mind’s ability to prevail over the limitations of the body. Reading the thoughts of a bright and inquisitive mind can be exhilarating for a reader. So don’t feel you need a Big Story. Just tell one that conveys your energy and spirit and you’ll be halfway home.

The Fear Factor

The brilliant American writer Cynthia Ozick once said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” Fear and writing go hand in hand, and the writing process is largely about suppressing the fear (you can never make it go away altogether).

There are some fairly reliable ways to handle the fear that goes with writing, however, and I discuss them at length in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. Briefly, however, here are some good tips for getting your writing fears under control:

  • Acknowledge your fear head-on, rather than trying to escape it by playing Candy Crush or whatever. Confronting your enemy is a powerful thing.
  • Focus not on failure, but on the work itself. Writing is really about an accumulation of words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, drafts. If we allow ourselves to go through the paces and concentrate on the process, we can put fear into the corner and make real progress.
  • Perfection is an unattainable goal when it comes to writing. It’s unattainable for the greatest writers, even if their work may seem perfect to us, because there will always be little things that a writer will see that he or she wishes had been changed. So let’s focus on finished pieces, rather than perfect pieces. That means that there comes a time when it’s okay to say that the work is finished–so long as the work is as good as you can make it.

Of course, when Cynthia Ozick was talking about writing as an act of courage, she wasn’t just talking about suppressing the fear of writing. She was also talking about the courage that is involved when we confront personal issues and try to give meaning to them through writing. That is a big part of why students often struggle with the Common App personal statement–because this is writing that has to do with your internal life and it takes courages to put your internal life out there for everyone to see (or read). That act can also be exhilarating, however. I see that with my students–the pride they take in achieving real expression around personal matters. That excites me as well and, most importantly, it excites the admissions committees at the colleges.

The Joy of Editing

For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of my work is seeing students begin to appreciate the editing process. There is so much pleasure to be had in making one’s work better. Truman Capote, author of the classic In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, once said, “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” (If you’re wondering what scissors have to do with writing, writers used to literally cut and paste text, before Word came along with virtual “cut-and-paste”). Writing, in fact, is mostly about rewriting. Another great writer, the French novelist and Nobel Laureate Anatole France, said, “You become a good writer just as you become a good joiner: by planing down your sentences.” That act of planing is what makes writing feel not just like an art but also like a craft that one can excel at, when discipline is applied.

When my student writers write their first drafts, I always caution them that they mustn’t get hung up on making these drafts great or even especially good. It’s better to just get something down, send it on, let the collaboration of writer and editor begin, and grow the piece that way. The best thing for me is when I see a student care as much about his or her piece as I do. And that’s something that I see not that infrequently, I’m pleased to say.

Soccer Memories

Watching the World Cup today–hooray, USA, for surviving the Group of Death!–I was transported back to those days when I was devoting so much of my energies to shepherding my younger son from soccer game to soccer game. He was an extremely talented player, always was, and we knew that soccer was going to be his calling card at colleges. Not that he wasn’t also academically achieving, but soccer was his strength and his distinction, even in a crowded field.

When it came time to actually apply to colleges, I helped my younger son with his essay, as I did his brother. One of the great things about having children is that you have subjects handy for experimentation (only kidding!). I didn’t know much of anything about the college admissions essay at that point and I suggested he write something about soccer. He had gone through a really bad year with a very bizarre coach, and just before he was due to go to soccer camp at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, he ran over his beloved pit bull, who died after hanging on for a day. It was traumatic and yet, even though he called home in tears each of the nights he was away (really wrenching to hear a 17-year-old boy cry like that), he still applied himself well enough to come away with the all-important positive write-up from the Wesleyan coach. The essay then became about the confluence of these events–off year with the coach; trauma before the soccer camp; prevailing over the adversity–and it turned out to be a really excellent job. Good enough to help him get into his first choice school, Oberlin College, where he played soccer for a year and then called it quits.

I’m telling you this story not only because I’m in a nostalgic soccer mood, but also because I want you to know that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules when it comes to writing the college admissions essay. Oh, I do firmly believe in the rule that you shouldn’t brag about yourself or approach this assignment as if you’re writing a resume–that’s a very big mistake–but people tell me that you can’t write about sports injuries and you can’t write about dead pets and you can’t write about grandparents and I don’t buy that. There are no new stories–only new ways of telling them. If you can make your dead pet story sound like something more than a familiar and obvious attempt to pull at the heartstrings, then why not write about it, if it was as important a moment in your life as it was in the life of my son? Indeed, an interesting variation on a tried, true, and often trite situation can make for a particularly effective essay.

Go, USA!

A Must Read

Frank Bruni had a thought-provoking column in the New York Times yesterday about students who are writing extremely “oversharing” essays in their desperation to gain attention at the most selective schools. You can read it at:

I must say this has not been the case among students I’ve worked with. They write pieces that are frank, open, and often deal with issues of real stress and hardship, but they are always disciplined and thoughtful pieces of writing.

You have to understand that there is something basically confessional about the college admissions essay. And there’s no problem with that, as confessional writing is certainly a time-honored genre. If you understand as well that your essay has to follow a form, then that will help to ensure that your product will have the discipline necessary to allow others to enter into the reading experience. An understanding of the narrative form, as I lay it out in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, will help to keep you anchored. One aspect of the narrative form that is particularly important to understand is The Point. Why have you actually decided to tell this story? What are you and your reader meant to take away from it? If you can answer that question, then there is a good chance that you have not merely indulged in a sobfest or a desperate appeal for attention, but, rather, you have written something that somebody else will actually want to read.

What’s in a Word?

The fact that the College Board is deemphasizing vocabulary on the SAT has been widely covered. See this report in the New York Times if you missed it:

This makes me a little wistful on several accounts. For one thing, I remember how I, as a high school student, decades ago, had to study lists of obscure words, which today’s crop of students won’t have to be bothered with. Sure, I never used words like pusillanimous, penurious, virago, and uxurious very much (if at all), but I took a certain pride in knowing them. And there were many words I discovered and came to understand from that early learning experience that became part of me and that help make up my vocabulary today.

When I work with students, I try to get them to understand that vocabulary is an important part of writing and that words like meticulous, fastidious, and punctilious are not interchangeable but that they all have their own nuances and connotations. In fact, any one of these words  might be exactly what you’re looking for when you’re trying to express a specific thought or feeling in your writing. To read in the Times article that the College Board has come to the decision that the word vacated is “obscure” is, frankly, a bit depressing. I know, however, from my experience working with writers that they appreciate the precision that good writing demands and they come to value le mot juste, which means “the right word.” Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, one of the greatest novels ever written, believed in the principle of finding “le mot juste,” which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art, and he could take an entire week to find that word. It’s gratifying to me to see the level of dedication that so many of my students bring to their essays and how much they come to value the power of words.



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.

The Layered Approach

There is a lot that excites me about working with bright, ambitious young women and men, but one thing that definitely races my motor is when one of my students manages to take a layered approach to his or her essay. In fact, I usually help steer them in that direction, as I love layered essays, but once they get the idea, they generally run with it. That’s how excited they are by it.

The way my students usually come to this layered approach is through the exercise of answering the exploratory questions that appear in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps (which, by the way, just came out in its second edition, so make sure you buy the red one, not the now obsolete blue one). These questions are far-ranging and when I get them back from a student, we go over them together and look for interesting relationships between them, powerful juxtapositions, and so forth. A few years ago, I had quite a brilliant student who answered these questions for me. To the question, What has been hardest in your life?, she spoke about the fact that her father had developed a degenerative muscular disease within the last few years. To the question, What have I worked at the hardest?, she described the very prescribed motions she has to go through in equestrian competitions. Suddenly, a powerful juxtaposition presented itself. Here was this person who has dedicated so much time to practicing these extraordinarily prescribed movements and then Wham! Chaos (in the form of disease) entered her life and threw asunder all knowable patterns . Her essay, in which she described executing these prescribed movements in a competition while internally processing the reality of her father’s illness, helped gain her admission to Princeton.

Can you come to this kind of layering on your own? I think so. Get the book, answer the questions, and then put those answers side-by-side and see what you come up with. It’s not easy–but give it a try.


Welcome to the Party

When I’m trying to get students to understand the dynamic that is involved in the Common App essay, I often ask them to imagine themselves at a party. They have sat down next to someone they don’t know and they want to engage that person in a conversation. How do you that? Do you say, “Hi. I’m Jack. This year I’ve been vice president of my class and I can honestly say that if it weren’t for me, seniors would not be able to go off campus on their lunch break.” Try that as an opening line and this person who doesn’t know you–this stranger–is going to say, “Excuse me, but I just saw someone I have to say hello to.” And that will be the last you will see of that person.

Or perhaps this is your opening gambit: “Hi. I’m Jack and I think that climate change is the most pressing issue we face today.” Yes, well, it is…but off goes your stranger again, allegedly in search of a Coke.

The person who is going to be reading your essay is a stranger and you have to find some way to engage that person, to have a conversation with that person, and the best way to do that is by telling a good story. We all like a good story. So something that goes like this–”Hi, I’m Jack. I don’t know what your day has been like, but I was stuck in an elevator with a porcupine”–is sure to capture that person’s attention. Who can resist such an opening?

Take heart. You needn’t have been stuck in an elevator in order to write a good and engaging college admissions essay. But it surely does help to know how to find the stories that are within us and to know how to tell those stories. That is why my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, has been so popularIt tells you how to tell a story. And the good news is that anyone can.

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.