Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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.


Real Life Story: College Essay Rejection

This is the story of a young man who made a mistake in one sentence of his college application essay and it cost him admittance to Amherst.

Here’s how it goes:

Recently an NPR reporter went behind the scenes at Amherst College in Massachusetts to see how college admissions decisions are made. The admissions committee was having one of their final meetings; they’d narrowed it down to the top 15 percent of applicants and now, one by one, they were presenting each student’s grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and essays.

The Essay is Discussed

The committee turned to the application of the young man in question. His college application essay caught the attention of a dean, and not in a good way. She was troubled by a sentence that read ”I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject.” The student went on to say that music was his exception. No one was pleased.

“That was flabbergasting,” commented one of the admissions readers.

“Intellectual passion is a must,” said the Dean of Admissions. Everyone agreed. The student was not admitted.

What Went Wrong?

The student clearly intended to write about his passion for music. So why did the college admissions committee care more about what he said first: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject”?

The Student Violated 2 Major Rules:

1. Know Your Reader

Amherst is a small, prestigious liberal arts college. If you go to their website and read the school’s philosophy it’s all about intellectual curiosity. Did this student visit Amherst’s website? I don’t know. But when he said he wasn’t fascinated by anything other than music he certainly seemed not to understand.

Remember you’re not writing your college application essay for you — you’re writing it for college admissions readers to read and like. You want them to finish your essay and want you to go to their school. You have to figure out what makes you a good fit and how you’re going to convey that.

One way to begin is to visit the school’s website. You can get a lot of information from a website. What’s their educational philosophy? What kind of students do they want to attract? Then you can begin to decide how to show them you’re that kind of person.

2. Don’t Cast Yourself in a Negative Light

I’m sure this student had no idea he was saying anything negative about himself. After all, he was writing about his love of music. But by saying “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” he casts himself in a negative light. He’s telling the college admissions reader “I really don’t care much about stuff, except I like music.”

One other thing I want to point out is his use of the present tense: “I rarely get truly fascinated by a subject” By writing in the present tense he’s talking about now. It’s not something that used to be — he’s not interested now.

What if the sentence were changed slightly? What if this college application essay began, “I started getting fascinated by new ideas when I fell in love with music”? Doesn’t that sound more positive? Instead of the word “rarely” I used the word “started” — something has begun. A transformation. A journey. That might get the attention of the Amherst admissions committee. I’m not saying it would have been right for this student, but you can see the difference it makes. This sentence is now about someone who loves the idea of learning, and is completely positive.

You always want to showcase yourself in a positive light. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about a personal journey or a learning experience; we all make mistakes or come to important realizations in our lives — that can make a powerful essay. But you don’t want to give a negative impression. Not a smart way to portray yourself.


  • Know your reader
  • Don’t cast yourself in a negative light

If you’re not sure,  have someone read your essays. Find someone who understands what colleges are looking for, and where the pitfalls lie, and ask them for constructive criticism. Make sure to give yourself time to make adjustments.

Ultimately, the admissions process is not an exact science. But college admissions committees don’t take the process lightly; they struggle with knowing they hold each student’s future in their hands.

Make sure you hold as much of your future in your own hands as you can. Write a great essay.

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College Visits: Great Prep for College Application Essays

Planning to visit colleges during spring break? You’re not alone. March is the time many high school juniors (and some sophomores) start their college tours.

On these visits you’ll be looking for answers to questions like “Is this school for me?” and “Will I be happy here?” But let me give you another question to ask yourself: “What can I learn from this visit that will help me write a great college application essay?”


Here are 3 ways to make college visits work for your college application essays:

1. Make contacts

Making contacts is great for two reasons: 1. You can learn a lot from the people you talk to, and 2. You can get in touch later if you have more questions.

There are several ways to make contacts:

  • Schedule an interview for the day you’re on campus. If the school doesn’t offer interviews see if you can get an interview with a professor in a field of study that interests you. Get your contact’s name (correctly spelled) and email, and send him or her a thank-you. That way if you have more questions you can follow up knowing you’ve already made a good impression.
  • Are you an athlete? See if you can meet a coach or a student athlete. Same goes for the thank-you note.
  • Chat with your tour guide when you go on the tour. At the end ask for his or her name and email and ask if you can write if you have more questions.

2. Notice details

Details are important in college application essays. They make your essays personal and separate you from students writing essays so generic that 1,000 others could have written the same one.

When you visit each college notice what makes an impression on you. It can be anything from how you feel walking on campus to the kind of students you meet. The details don’t matter, as long as they matter to you.  Do you see a dorm you might want to live in? Find out its name. Is your tour guide a member of the student council and you think you’d like to join? Ask what her experiences have been.

The more details you collect now the more information you’ll have for your essay later.

3. Write it down:

Take a pad with you and write it down. Let me say it again: write it down. At the end of the day your note pad should have the names and emails of your contacts, and a detailed list of what you saw and liked, and why.

Why go through the trouble? Let me give you an example: A student of mine had to write a short essay about why he wanted to go to college X.  In his first draft he wrote that he went on the tour and liked the campus and dorms. It was too generic, so I asked him to find an alum or someone on campus he could talk to. He surprised me by saying that he’d hit it off with his campus tour guide and had gotten his email. So he emailed him with some questions about campus life and extra-curricular activities, and asked him more about the dorm he’d liked.  When he re-wrote his essay it was full of detail. He also made sure to mention he had corresponded with his tour guide — an impressive fact that was not going be lost on the school.

Prep for your college application essays. Use your college visits as opportunities to make contacts and gather details. The end result will be essays that are detailed, personal, and well worth the effort.

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College Admissions: Competitors to the Common App

Got applications? Maybe you’ll be using the Common Application. Then again, maybe not.

A recent article in the New York Times, entitled “More Than One Way to Apply to College,” discussed competitors to the Common Application, including the Universal College Application, the Common Black College Application, and a portal called Xap. Here’s some information you should know:


The Common Application is the granddaddy of the one-stop application, allowing students to apply to multiple schools with one form. Currently, the Common App has 414 member schools. But the requirements it makes of its members, including requiring a college application essay, have excluded many institutions from joining. Public schools are especially under-represented.


Universal doesn’t ask its schools to require a college application essay. In fact, if you’re applying to one that doesn’t, you won’t see that requirement pop up in your application. For schools that do require a college application essay, Universal suggests a maximum of 500 words. That’s much different from the minimum 250 required by the Common App, which often means essays go far beyond 500 words.

The Universal College Application is accepted by over 80 colleges. The hope is that as this number grows, schools will gain access to a broader range of students who are applying to both public and private colleges, thereby increasing the diversity of their applicant pool. A wide range of schools accept Universal, including the University of New Haven, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Harvard.


According to the New York Times, this portal processed 4 million college applications last year. From here students can apply to over 900 colleges and universities.

One section on the site connects to state-wide “Mentor systems.” What’s great about this system is that it imports information from one application into all the other applications in that same state. Several dozen, including Connecticut, participate. You can access this section from Xap, or from each school’s website (although not all schools have it listed). For UConn, go to, click “apply online” and you’ll see info for creating a CT Mentor  account.

There’s no charge for using the Mentor system, other than the application fee.


From here a student can apply to 35 historically black colleges and universities at once. There is a $35 fee which covers all the schools, replacing the individual application fees charged by each institution. That can save a lot of money.

Which to use? That’s up to your college choices. If you’re applying to a lot of schools in-state, Xap can make the process easier. If you’re applying to primarily public schools, the Common App might be your best bet.

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Writing the Short College Application Essay: Make Every Word Count

Chances are you’ll be writing one or two  — or maybe many — short essays for your college applications. At about 150 words the short essay demands that you be brief, informative, and hopefully memorable. Here are a few tips to help make every word count:

1. Don’t: Repeat the question

Let’s say a college asks why you’re interested in going to their school. You don’t need to begin with “I’m interested in going to your school because…” That wastes words (and isn’t very interesting anyway). Get to the heart of what you want to say right away: i.e.: “From the moment I set foot on the arts quad and had my first cup of coffee at Java Cafe, I felt at home at Whatever U. ” Likewise, don’t repeat the question at the end (“…which is why I’m interested in going to your school.”)

2. Do: Be specific  — but spare the adjectives

Are you a writer who likes adjectives and long sentences? Then you may need to work at editing your essay down to the prescribed length. But while you’re cutting out adjectives don’t cut out the specifics, which help make your essay unique and interesting. For example, let’s say you’re writing about overcoming your fear of flying. The sentence “I had always been afraid of flying” is good. But “I had always been afraid of flying, ever since a turboprop came too close to my family’s car”  is more specific and evocative. However, “I had always been afraid of flying, ever since that hot summer night when a buzzing turboprop heading in for a landing came too close to my family’s car” adds adjectives that you probably won’t have room for.

3. Do: Use your conclusion effectively
Even if the question doesn’t state it specifically, the school always wants to know how you’ve been affected by the experience or event you’ve just written about. So use your conclusion not to summarize, but to show what you’ve gotten out of the experience —  how it changed you, how it shaped your goals, etc.

4. Don’t: Leave the college admissions reader with a weak ending

If you’ve followed step #3, then you’ve probably got a pretty strong ending. But I know how it is – several schools x several short essays adds up to a lot of essays, fatigue sets in and time gets short, and it’s easy to look for shortcuts. But never bail on the ending. Make sure it’s well-written and reflects well on you. Remember that the ending is the last impression your college admissions reader will have about your essay – and you.

5. Do: Stay within word count. College admissions readers have a lot to read.

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Join Me: Free Talk on College Essay Writing Oct. 28

Join me for “The ABC’s of Writing a Great College Application Essay,” Thursday, October 28th at 7:30 pm at the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Connecticut. I’ll be joined by Matthew Dempsey, Assistant Director of Admission at Fairfield University. This is a program for both students and parents.

I’ll give an overview of the college application essay writing process — what colleges generally look for, essay writing style and tips, and time management. Matthew Dempsey will share his role as an admission counselor and essay reader, and also talk about Fairfield University’s new test-optional policy, which requires a second long essay.

Come — have fun — learn — and bring your questions!

There’s no charge for this program. Please contact the library to register at (203) 938-2545

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Writing College Application Essays: Overcoming Procrastintation

So it’s almost the end of October and your college applications are due soon. You’ve written some of your short essays, but haven’t started the long one. You know it’s got to be done — it’s niggling away in the back of your brain, slightly annoying, starting to become more and more persistent, but you keep pushing it back, thinking you’ll start it tomorrow, or the day after, or sometime after that. So when are you going to start writing your college application essay?

Let me ask that question another way. Why haven’t you started? Here are some common reasons I hear:

1. Too busy
2. No topic
3, Too nervous
4. Writer’s block

Let’s tackle these problems one by one:

Too Busy? Divide your essay writing into manageable pieces. Do it in small bites. Take a look at your schedule and see where you can give yourself a half hour at a time. Then divide up what you need to do. The first half hour choose a topic and jot down some thoughts.  The next make an outline. The next begin to flesh it out, and so on. You’ll have an essay before you know it.

No topic? Try these exercises:

  1. List 3 or 4 people who have influenced you. Then write down what you’ve learned from them and how that’s made you a better, more interesting or different person in your life.
  2. Ask your family to help you try and remember a time when you struggled with something that you learned from or helped you grow as a person, and then jot down some of your own feelings about that time.

After you’re done, take a look at what you’ve written. You’ll probably find a good college application essay waiting for you in one of your answers.

Too Nervous? Nerves are common, but too many nerves can stop you in your tracks. The trick is to start writing. Even if you don’t have a topic, just write. Don’t know where to start? That leads me to the last problem:

Writer’s Block: Writer’s block can be caused by lots of things, including nerves, but if you’ve got it you’ve got to find a way to get rid of it. I like free-writing. Go to a quiet place and write for five minutes.  Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what to write, just do it. It can be about anything, or nothing. You can write about the pieces of lint on your carpet or how your little brother is annoying or anything that comes to mind. The trick is don’t stop. If you’re writing and draw a blank, write the last sentence over again until something new comes to mind. Have fun and try to enjoy it. After you’re done, free-write again, this time about the topic you’ve chosen for your college application essay. But don’t write your essay. Write about one aspect of your topic, one detail, or one emotion. When you’re done, look it over. If it’s awful, toss it in the trash. It’s okay to do that. Not everything we write is for keeps. But keep on with this process and you can be well on your way to overcoming your writer’s block and moving ahead.

Figure out why you’re procrastinating and you can get on with the business of writing your college application essay. I hope these tips help speed you on your way!

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Join Me October 18: Danbury High School College Fair

It’s almost here! Danbury High School’s College and Vocational Fair is October 18 at the Danbury Fair Mall from 5 to 8:30pm. I’ll be there, along with over 200 representatives from colleges and vocational schools from around the country. Wow. That’s a lot of resources at your fingertips — you’ll be able to meet college reps, ask questions, set up interviews, get information on financial aid programs, and begin to get a real sense for which schools feel like a good fit for you. There’s no charge — it’s all free.

I’ll be there to talk about — what else — writing great college application essays and acing your college interviews. Stop by and pick up handouts with interview tips and essay-writing information, and bring your questions. I look forward to seeing many new faces.

For directions and a list of participating colleges and universities:

For more information on the Danbury High School College Fair, check out this article in the Danbury News-Times:

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Writing College Application Essays: 5 Editing Tips

You’ve chosen the topic for your college application essay and written a draft or two. It’s a bit longer than you’d like and feels like it rambles in places. Now what? Edit.

Editing your college application essay will help make your thoughts flow more easily and your ideas stand out. It will certainly make it a more enjoyable reading experience for the college admissions reader.

Here are 5 tips for good editing:

1. Be objective. Take a step back and pretend you’re the college admissions reader. You’re looking for how well the student (you) writes, organizes your thoughts, and presents a picture of what makes you unique.

2. Don’t fall in love with your prose. You may have written the best sentence of your life in your college application essay, but if it doesn’t fit it has to go. Just to be clear: If it’s not helping you make your point, let it go. Cutting a great sentence can be painful, but take heart in knowing that you’re not alone. All writers have had to press that delete key, and hesitated a long time before doing it. It’s tough, but it’s necessary. Just remember, it’s the strength of what’s left that counts, and how your essay finally comes together as a whole.

3. Read your essay out loud. Reading your essay out loud is a great way to see where you need editing. You should be able to read your college application essay easily, without stumbling or stopping. If you stumble it’s possible your sentence structure is too formal. Or perhaps you’ve gone overboard with a string of adjectives, or used words that sound like they came from a thesaurus instead of directly from you. Take note of the rough spots, work on those areas, and then read it out loud again. This is an editing tip that works wonders.  (For more tips on how to write in your own voice, read my previous blog post, “Finding Your Authentic Voice.”)

4. Editing can be about adding as well as subtracting. Often we think of editing as removing something that’s not wanted. But when you re-read your essay you might find that an idea or transition doesn’t work not because there’s too much prose, but because there’s too little. If that’s the case then you need to add a sentence or two. If you’re not certain, ask someone who hasn’t read your essay to read it and make sure they understand the points you’re making. If they’re not as clear as you’d like them to be, you may be missing something.

5. Sleep on it. Put at least one night’s sleep between you and your college application essay. Then go back and read it again. It will do wonders for your objectivity and your editing.


College Admissions Essays: Finding Your Authentic Voice

If you walked up to your friends and said  “What’s shakin, bacon?” instead of “Hi” would they laugh? Would they wonder what alien abducted their friend, or whose voice you borrowed?

There are lots of ways to say hello: “Hi, How are you, How ‘ya doin’, Yo, Peace, Hey, What’s up…” the list is almost endless. How do you say “Hello”? Whatever way you say it, it’s your own, because you’re speaking in your own voice. And that’s important to remember when writing your college admissions essay. Write in your own voice. Your authentic voice.

How do you know if you’re writing in your authentic voice?

Here are four tips:

1. Read your essay out loud: If it reads easily , you probably have a good handle on your voice. Take note of places you stumble and work on those.

2. Is your writing style too formal? If your essay has a lot of formal language like “thus” and “however” take another look and make sure it’s necessary. If not, choose less formal words. If some of your sentences feel stiff when you read them out loud, try changing the sentence structure around and then read it again.

3. Is your writing style too casual? It is possible to be too casual. Remember, you’re writing your college admissions essay for an adult to read. This isn’t a text message to your bff.

4. If you’re having trouble finding your authentic voice: Try writing a mock letter to a friend who doesn’t know you very well. It can be about anything: school, your friends, what you do for fun, what the dog did yesterday.  Be the narrator and explain what that part of your life is like. As you write, you’ll find you start using more of your authentic voice.

Your college admissions essay needs to reflect you, and who you are. One important way to do that is to write in your own voice.

I’m outta here.