Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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College Application Essays: You Don’t Need to Go on An “Adventure” to Write A Great Essay

“For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers” is a title of an article in the New York Times today. It’s about the extraordinary things high school students are doing to find interesting topics for their college application essays, including traveling to China and studying health care in Rwanda.

Parents send their students on these expensive adventures in the hope that it will “put them in the spotlight” when they apply to college, especially when it comes to competitive schools.

A friend of mine said, “As a mom, I think it is bad news.”

There’s nothing wrong with filling your summers with exotic adventures, or even sports camps, academic camps and volunteer work. But don’t seek out an activity because you think it will make a great college application essay.

Why? Because admissions counselors know you don’t have to travel half-way around the world to find an essay-worthy experience. They look for how students find meaning in the world, wherever they are —  babysitting for neighbors, bagging groceries, or even scooping ice cream downtown.

I recently spoke to Joanne Robertson, Assistant Director of Admissions at Quinnipiac University. For her, exotic summer experiences don’t give students an edge. She says, “As an admissions counselor, I would rather see an essay from a student who could provide a reflection on a summer job than one who sought out a ‘special’ activity just to build a resume. Bringing a creative voice to a simple activity shows more to me than just the significance of the experience.”

A college application essay is a story about you. It asks you to reflect on who you are, what makes you unique, where you’re headed, and what you have to offer.

You don’t have to go on great adventures to answer those questions. You just have to know who you are.


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Writing College Application Essays: First Commandment: “Know Thyself”

Question: What’s more important than the topic of your college application essay?
Knowing who you are.

What do I mean when I say “know who you are?”

  • Know what kind of person you are
  • Know what your values are
  • Know why you make the choices you do
  • Know how you want to represent yourself to the colleges who will be reading your college application essay.

This can be tough. We usually don’t write about ourselves, or think about what makes us interesting or what our goals are. We usually don’t reflect. But reflection is very important. You can even do it before you choose a topic. In some cases it will lead to a topic. And wouldn’t that be great?!

Question: How do you figure out who you are?
Do the research. Interview your subject.

You’d do research on a subject for a school paper, right? Of course. Your college application essay is no different —  it’s just that the subject is you. So let’s get started. Here’s how you get to know yourself:

1. Schedule: You need a quiet time with no intrusions. It can be one longer session or several shorter ones, but try to get it done over a few days at most. Your don’t want long interruptions of time —  you want your thoughts to flow.

2. Prep: Make sure you have a pen and paper or a computer to write down your answers. After each question give yourself time to think.

3. Interview questions. Here are 6 questions to get you started:

1. What are 3 values I respect? For instance — respect, loyalty, courage? (There are many values you can think about. Google them.)

2. How do I reflect these values in my choices?

3. How would I describe myself to a stranger?

4. What do my friends like about me?

5. What’s been the hardest thing in my life?

6. What are my goals and how do I plan to reach them?

You’ll probably think of more questions as you go along. After all, you know your subject best.

When you start writing you’ll find you may not use all of your answers in your college application essay. That’s okay; you have a reservoir of material to draw from. What’s even better is these answers don’t belong to anyone else — they can’t. They help define who you are. They detail what makes you interesting, what your journey has been. No one else will be able to write your essay. That’s the way it should be. That’s what colleges are looking for in a great college application essay.

One more thing about your interview subject: Make sure he or she is honest. If you allow your subject to skate by with half-truths or skirt important answers you won’t really get to know him. Neither will the college you want to attend. And that would be a real shame.


Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic

I was speaking to the Joel Barlow High School PTSA in Redding today (thanks, PTSA!) about writing college application essays, and was asked a great question: Do I have any suggestions for the student who’s having trouble deciding what to write about? Yes!

Choosing a topic for a college application essay can be a daunting, if not downright intimidating experience. Many students think that because nothing big or dramatic has happened to them in their lives they don’t have anything to write about. Wrong!

You don’t have to be the best athlete, have won lots of awards, or had a big “moment of revelation” to write a great college application essay. Far from it. While big experiences can make good essays, the small things can be just as powerful, if not more so.

Remember, colleges look for 3 main things in a college application essay:

  • How well you write
  • How well you organize your thoughts
  • You. What makes you unique? What kind of person are you? What kind of choices do you make?

When you’re choosing a topic you want to find an experience — a story — that will reflect what’s unique about you. You never want 100 other students to be able to write the same essay you’re writing. It should only be able to come from you.

Here are 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re having trouble choosing a topic for your college application essay:

1. Is there a time in my life I’ve taken a risk?

2. Is there a time I’ve turned a failure into a success?

3. Has there been a difficult choice I’ve had to make, but am glad I made it?

Notice that these questions deal with a personal journey —  they ask you to discuss and reflect on some way that you’ve grown into the person you are.

Start with these questions. If you can’t think of an answer, ask your parents. Parents are excellent resources when you’re looking for college essay topics because they know you well, have seen you grow, and may remember something that you don’t.

Always remember that no matter what topic you choose, you want to represent yourself in a positive light. But that light can shine just as brightly on the small things as the big ones — as long as it reflects you.

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Looking for Ideas for Your College Application Essay? Look Behind You

Looking for ideas for your college application essay? Look behind you.

Why? Because life moves forward. We don’t stop. What gets our attention is what demands the most of us at any moment —  often the loudest, the biggest, the most entertaining, or the next most important thing we have to do.

What’s not demanding your attention? Pay attention to that. See what you find.

Here’s an example: I was traveling in rural China when our group stopped to visit a preschool. The children at the school often had visitors, and when they saw us they ran toward us, hoping we’d brought toys or candy. As they held up their hands for colorful balloons I took out my camera, knowing this would make a great picture. Then I turned around. Peeking out from behind a tree was a little girl, holding a small washcloth in her hands. Her eyes were focused on her friends. This was the picture I took. A shy little girl, protected by her tree. Her eyes told a much better story.

When I say “look behind you” I’m saying “pay attention.” Look around and see not only the things that demand your attention, but also the things that don’t. You will find ideas in those moments. You’ll find details. You might just find the makings of a memorable college application essay.

little girl


College Essay Writing: Make it Easy! Keep a Journal

Have you thought about writing your college essay yet? Is that the sound of laughter I hear?

I know, it’s April. It’s way too early to think about writing a college application essay. There’s school and classes and tests — enough stress in your life. But here’s something you can do to have less stress later:

Keep a journal.

  • It’s quick
  • It’s easy
  • You can use it to get to know yourself
  • Later it can help you come up with ideas for your college application essay


Colleges want to know who they’re accepting — not just from grades and test scores — but what kind of people they’re choosing. That’s what your essay will show — what makes you unique, why you’re interesting, what you can offer your school and community. Why they should choose you.

It’s a tall order. Most students have never written this kind of essay. That’s why a journal can help. It’s just like a diary if you’ve kept one. You can put anything in it. It doesn’t matter what. Even what you ate for dinner.

Make it fun. No stress. Just open a page or flip open your computer and away you go.

Put in your journal:

  • Ideas
  • Observations
  • Plans you’d like to make
  • Descriptions of people, places, activities
  • Questions
  • Funny things
  • Small things
  • Big things
  • Surprising things
  • Things that make you proud, sad, cautious, laugh…
  • Anything

Write on a notepad, on your computer, whatever’s easiest. Get to know yourself. Then, when you’re finally ready to begin, you won’t have to stare at a blank page wondering where to start. You’ll have a notebook full of inspiration.

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College Essay Writing: Will The College Think You’re A Match?

I had lunch this weekend with a friend from Norwalk, Connecticut, who told me about the essay help her daughter had gotten from a high school teacher. The teacher asked her students to be very creative with their ideas, and my friend’s daughter wrote about a dream to fly in hot air balloons.  My friend said the essay was good; it was interesting, filled with ideas and a good sense of self, and was, indeed, very creative. But it wasn’t a good submission for their daughter. Why? Because this young lady was applying to a physician assistant’s program, and her parents felt she needed to show that her goals matched the goals of the school. They were right.

If this young lady were an aspiring writer or pursuing another form of the arts, a creative essay on balloon flight might have served her well. But for her, the essay didn’t achieve an important purpose.

Colleges want to see that you can write creatively about your goals and aspirations. But colleges also want to see that you understand who THEY are. Do you understand their educational philosophy? Can you show them how you’ll fit in and make a positive contribution to their school? Are you a match?

Given the program she wanted to attend, this young lady hadn’t done that. She needed to make a change.

So my friend’s daughter wrote a different essay, discussing the influences in her life that led her to want to care for others. She was creative, but she also found ways to show the college that she was a good match for their program. It was a good essay choice. This year, her mother told me, she’s starting their physician assistant’s program.