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!

This One is For Parents

To my way of thinking, if you work with students, you are also going to be working with parents. Fortunately, I have been very fortunate on both ends. Parents and I generally regard each other as allies. They respect the boundaries I set, which mostly have to do with respecting a student’s privacy around a piece of writing, and they often help keep the student on track. Not infrequently, a good essay idea can also spring from a parent, who might happen to mention something to me about a child that is very worthwhile and relevant. And then there are those times when parents will question our product because they feel that something is missing. They may feel that some aspect of their child has gone overlooked, and, at such times, I listen carefully and may even agree that the parent is right, which means we’ll go back to the drawing board. Of course, on occasion, I may have to deal with a parent who is a bit overwrought about the whole admissions process, but that’s understandable too. The admissions process is stressful, and I like to feel that I can alleviate some of that stress in such situations and help the parent keep everything in perspective.

So what can a parent do to help with the writing of the personal statement? Let me mention four good places to start:

  1. Help your child get organized. The essay requirements around college applications, which include not only the Common App essay but also supplementals, can be overwhelming. Parents should try not to get into conflicts with their kids around all of this, but, instead, should see themselves as facilitators who can keep their children on task.
  2. Provide creature comforts. Everything goes better with food, and that includes writing. Carrots and celery sticks, peanut butter on rice crackers–children need the foods from their childhood, because there is going to be a lot of regression. A blanket on a cold day, a fan on a hot day–that sort of thing.
  3. Offer positive reinforcement. If your son or daughter shows you a draft (which I hope they won’t do, but, rather, will wait till they’re finished), find something good to say about it.This is the time for positives, not negatives.
  4. Try not to offer advice about things you don’t know about. Please don’t tell your child that he or she can’t write about grandparents, pets, sports injuries, or any of the stuff that somebody might have told you is off limits. Nothing is off limits. There are no new stories. There are only new and interesting ways to tell them and that is your child’s task–-to find a new and interesting way to tell a story. My younger son wrote about running over his dog–and he got into Oberlin College, his first choice school.

Well, that’s probably enough for today. And good luck. Parenting is not an easy job, but somebody’s got to do it.

What I Learn From My Students

I often give thanks for having the best teaching situation imaginable. I get to work one-on-one with a lot of very talented and motivated students. There is no bureaucracy breathing down my neck (and only an occasional parent breathing down my neck). Seriously though, when I first started to get involved with tutoring students on their college admissions essays, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would these kids be overly entitled and would they ask me to do things for them that I was not prepared to do? I’m happy to say that this has never been the case. Since I make it clear from the outset that I don’t write for students, I seem to attract those individuals who are ready to do the work and who appreciate the learning. And they learn a lot during the time we intersect. Perhaps the most valuable lesson they learn is that writing requires a lot of work. When I get their drafts back to them and they see that they are covered with red, I tell them not to freak out because that’s just how my drafts look when I get them back from my editor That’s the way a piece of writing should look because that means you are giving it the amount of attention and concentration that it deserves.

The teacher-student relationship, however, is very much a two-way street, and I learn from my students. I learn about applying yourself, motivation, optimism, and resiliency. I learn about emotional openness and honesty. So many of these young people are obviously going to become exceptional adults, and if you can’t learn from such people, then that’s your problem. Gladly, I don’t have that problem and so I savor these relationships that are brief but often profoundly meaningful.

I look forward to this year’s crop.

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.