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.

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.

Writing About Money

Ron Lieber in today’s New York Times has a really good article about students writing about money for their Common App essays. He also includes four such essays, ranging in topics from one student writing about shopping in thrift stores with her mother and another about working at McDonald’s. I loved this piece because it confirms the advice I’ve given to some of my financially challenged students, with whom I work on a pro bono basis. I tell them that writing about working in McDonald’s (or Burger King or wherever) can be just as rich and memorable as an affluent student writing about a service trip to Haiti that his parents paid for him to go on.

I also think it’s interesting to look at what Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, has to say about the college admissions essay. “It’s the one part of the application where they completely control the voice, and that makes it a really valuable document for us,” said Quinlan. “When you’re applying to an institution with thousands of students who have the same general academic and testing credentials, those things only get you in the door. The rest of the application will separate you out.”

This is exactly what I have always said about the college admissions essay. It really, really counts.

Click Here to check out the article.

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.


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?

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.