The New Common App Essay Prompts

This week, the Common Application released its essay prompts for the 650-word personal statement. No big surprises here. Four of the five prompts are essentially identical to what they have been in the past few years. The one significant change is that they dropped the following prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful?” In its place, they have put this new prompt: “Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.” In fact, that substitution doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me, as this question is now not that different than the question that asks you to, “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.” That might have been around an ethical dilemma, and so I see a bit of redundancy there. Still, there’s plenty for any student to work with, and so now the work can begin for any of those super early birds who want to get going. A truly rara avis, I must say!

The Letters are in the Mail

I had a bunch of happy students who applied early this year and got into places like Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Pomona, and so on. Others were disappointed, having been waitlisted or outright rejected by their schools of choice. So it goes when you set your sights on the most selective colleges and universities in the country. Now these students are waiting with bated breath to see if their letters are fatties or thinnies, and I am waiting along with them, hoping for the best. It is important for everyone to realize, however, that you can have a grand life without getting into your first, second, third, or sixth-choice school. There are tremendous schools all over the country. Over the last five years, for example, I have been writing the annual report for Nazareth College, a small school in Rochester, and each year I am so impressed with so many of the students I hear about. They are having a great education and will have a great future.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni had a good piece this month about putting the whole admissions thing into perspective. I suggest you read it:

And best of luck!

Make Your College Visit Count

It’s been bone-chilling here in the Northeast these days, and in such weather things give off the impression of crawling to a stop. We know, however, that time waits for no one, and before we know it, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Williams, Bowdoin, and all the other frozen colleges and universities will thaw and parents and students will be setting off on their college tours. These can be both exhilarating and excruciating, and it’s good to know how to make the most of them. You will find a number of useful articles online about how to approach the college visit. The New York Times’ blog The Choice had a good piece on it:

None of the articles I saw, however, sufficiently stressed the importance of documenting your visits. There were references to making videos of various places that you encounter on campus, which is a good idea, but I’d encourage you to make notes as well that you can then refer back to, months later, when you are faced with writing that college’s supplemental essays. It makes a very big difference when you are talking about why you want to go to Michigan or Penn or Rice or Pitzer to be able to “see” a spot on campus and talk about why it felt special to you. Evoking that spot with language that hearkens back to what you actually saw when you visited will be powerful.

So, just a thought. Keep it in mind.





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…



Bragging Rights

Please excuse the long absence, but I’ve been up to my neck with student essays. Fortunately, I have been motivated in the end run by great news on the early acceptances. So far, I have students admitted, one each, to Harvard, Brown, Pomona, Cornell, and two to University of Pennsylvania. Not too shabby. I’m sure more good news awaits those in the regular pool, and wherever they land, they will do well, as this was a fine group of students. I salute their fortitude and forbearance getting through this process…and mine!

Happy holidays to all and the best for the new year.

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:

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.

Exciting News!

I’m happy to share with you my good news. Soon I will not only be working with high school students and aspiring graduate students on their essays, but also with folks on the other end of the lifeline. I have just sold a new book to Tarcher Penguin entitled Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story. This book is, to a large extent, based on the work I’ve done with students–that is, it uses the same kind of exploratory process and the same kind of attention to the narrative form–but those doing the life review have a lot more life to review. The idea is to reflect on your values and beliefs, write a 650- to 1,000-word narrative to convey a value or belief in a highly readable way, and thereby create a keepsake for your loved ones or even a piece of writing that could be read at a person’s own memorial service. Tarcher Penguin, which specializes in mind, body, spirit titles like The Artist’s Way and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the perfect house for this, and they will be bringing it out in the summer of 2015.

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.

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.