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.

Help is Needed

The New York Times recently ran a sobering piece on the lack of good counseling available to high school students in many of today’s public schools:

Applying to college is a very rough process and without the right kind of help, students really have an uphill battle pulling together their applications. That’s exactly why I got into working on college admissions essays. My two sons graduated from a high school in a small town in upstate New York. The school certainly had its fair share of talented and dedicated students and teachers, but when it came time to apply to college, I got the sense that the counseling folks and the English teachers really didn’t know much about how to write a college admissions essay. Neither did I at the beginning, but, being a writer, I figured it out and ultimately began working with more kids in the community, with the children of friends and friends of friends, and then with an ever-growing roster of clients, all around the world. I gathered my theories in my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, and people have valued its simplicity and clear thinking about a complicated topic.

Now, whenever I work with students and their parents, I hear a lot about how difficult it is to grab the attention of their guidance counselors. Naturally, these counselors are overworked and underpaid. The big secret, however, is that I hear the same thing when I work with students from some of the most exclusive preparatory schools in the country where the tuition is 40K and up. There too it’s a struggle to grab the counselors’ attention. That’s why people come to me, because they know that I will give them my total attention and my expertise, and I like to level the playing field just a bit by taking on some pro bono clients every year.

Well, here on January 6, 2015, the season is already starting up again for me with transfer students and early birds. Every year’s crop holds excitement and promise, however, so away we go…



A Quick Inspiration

I’ve been way too busy to blog these days, trying to meet the ED deadline along with so many of my students, but today’s New York Times has an extraordinary article about a young man who went from a wasteland in Rwanda to Harvard. Now he’s got something to write about! And his story of survival should act as a nice inspiration for any of us who feel that we have too much on our plates right now. Read it at:

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.

It’s Getting Harder…

At least that’s what the NY Times is reporting. Reporter David Leonhardt, in his article “Getting Into the Ivies,” offers some sobering statistics. For American teenagers, it really is harder to get into Harvard — or Yale, Stanford, Brown, Boston College, and many other elite colleges — than it was when today’s 40-year-olds or 50-year-olds were applying, Leonhardt reports. “The number of spots filled by American students at Harvard, after adjusting for the size of the teenage population nationwide, has dropped 27 percent since 1994,” writes Leonhardt. “At Yale and Dartmouth, the decline has been 24 percent. At Carleton, it’s 22 percent. At Notre Dame and Princeton, it is 14 percent.” The culprit? The globalization of these schools, with U.S. students competing against international students who are seeking the same prestige as they are. You can read this interesting article at:

Interesting, I should say, but perplexing. I feel like I’ve lived in an alternate universe this year. Out of the 50+ students that we have worked with, two got into Yale, two into Brown, one into Harvard, four into Stanford, two into Cornell, five into University of Pennsylvania, three into Princeton, and so on. They were all great kids, but I didn’t think any of them were the Second Coming. So, as I’m wondering about this, I’m thinking that the one thing they all had in common was a darned good Common App essay.


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.



Raising the Stakes, But Not to Panic!

The New York Times published an article on April 8th entitled Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%:

In this article, it is soberingly revealed that Stanford only took 5% of applicants this year. They received 42,167 applications for the class of 2018 and sent 2,138 acceptance notices for a first-year class that will ultimately number about 1,700. These are statistics that might cause  high-achieving students to simply throw up their hands in despair and defeat–but I say, Don’t! In fact, I didn’t see anything approaching gloom-and-d00m among the 50+ students I worked with this year. I am proud to report that three of our students were admitted to Stanford, as well as three into Princeton, two each  into Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell, five into U of P, and so on. Magic? I hardly think so. These kids were all terrific. And they had terrific essays, I have to say.

The overall point? Stop worrying so much, do your best, keep your head down, and there’s a very good chance you too can get good news around this time next year.


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!




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:


Join Me on CollegeWeekLive

I’ve presented many times on CollegeWeekLive, the largest virtual college fair, and those who participate report a positive experience. I will be part of their Back to School event, which is being held on August 8th, 2:00PM-10:00PM EDT. This free online event is dedicated to helping you prepare for the coming year. Login anytime during the hours above to check out live presentations on conquering the admissions essay (that’s me), succeeding in college, managing college stress, and much more. And enter to win a $2,500 College Scholarship from HP Academy. My interactive presentation, during which I will be taking questions from those who are logged in, will be at 5:00pm.

To register now, go to:


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.