Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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2015 Common Application – Your Essay May Be Optional!

Common App optional essay 2015

The Common Application just released this information:

“Starting with the 2015-2016 application year, Common Application Member colleges and universities will have the choice to require or not require the Common App Personal Essay.”

This change means that it is possible some students may not be required to write a Common App personal essay.

Do I hear cheering?

Hold on a sec…

The Common App also says that students will always have the option to submit the personal essay.  

So if you’re faced with the choice – to write or not to write – what do you do?

WRITE, of course!

The Common App essay gives you the chance to stand out. Schools get to know you apart from your test scores, grades, and activities list.

So, take the time. Write a story about yourself that highlights your unique qualities and shows how you’re growing into a mature young adult.

Give the schools another reason to know you’re the kind of student they can’t afford to be without. 

Find more information about the Common App’s new essay changes on their blog.
For a list of the 2015-2016 Common Application Essay Prompts, click here.


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


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Join Me October 3rd at the Ridgefield Library: “The ABC’s of Writing A Great College Application Essay”

What do colleges look for in a great college application essay? That’s the question I’ll be answering at the Ridgefield Library on Monday, October 3 at 7pm.  I’ll be joined by Matthew Dempsey, Assistant Director of Admission at Fairfield University.

I’ll give an overview of the college essay writing process, discuss what colleges look for, how to choose a good topic, and give writing tips that will make every essay unique.

Matthew will share a first-hand account of the admission counselor’s role, give examples of essays that have and haven’t succeeded, and talk about how essays are viewed in the context of the entire application.

Bring your questions!

This program is for high school students and their families. Registration isn’t required. For more information visit or call 203-438-2282.

I hope to see you there!

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College Application Essay Writing: Putting the “I” in Essay

Don’t be silly. There’s no “I” in the word essay.

Wrong. It’s everywhere.

Your teachers may have told you not to use the word “I” when you’re writing a paper. It may have been drummed into you for years. That’s because most high school papers are not about you; they’re about defining a topic, discussing it, and convincing the reader that you’ve made your point. Not much room for “I.”

Your college application essay is all about “I.” Or rather – you. You are what the college admissions officers want to know about. Not 500 words about how your mom cooked pancakes on Christmas Day or the time you went bowling with your dad and how bad he was. They want to know about YOU.

They want to see how you’ve grown, and what you’ve learned. Yes, you might write about the time you went bowling with your dad. But that essay needs to be about YOU. What did you learn that day?

So you have to use the word “I.” Or “me.” Don’t be afraid: “I” will tell you a lot. “I” will give you the direction to write a great college application essay.

Here’s why:

1.    You need to be able to summarize the point of your essay in one sentence using “I” or “me.” For instance, “It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with my multi-cultural roots, but now I celebrate each culture because I know they all belong to me. (Were you counting? That’s two “I’s” and 2 “me’s.”)
2.    A good essay is about a personal journey. You should be able to fill in this sentence: I learned _________.
3.    A good essay represents you in a positive way. You should be able to fill in this sentence: I want the college admissions reader to know that I am _________. (Thoughtful? Mature? Sensitive? Compassionate?)
4.    A good essay is one that only you can write; it’s specific to you and your experiences. When you write your essay, you need to use specific examples from your life. You’re going to need some “I’s.”

Caution: Too many “I’s” are a bad thing. You don’t want to be writing “I”, “I”, “I” in every sentence.  Boring, not to mention bad writing. Change it up a little. Add some details. Describe a few things. Include some dialogue or a quote. In other words, make your college application as interesting as you can.

But don’t forget the “I.”

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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.


How to Succeed with the Common Application Essay 500 Word Limit: pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)

Welcome! This is the first of a 4 part series on how to succeed with the Common Application Essay’s 500 Word Limit.

In April 2011 the Common Application changed the word limit for the personal essay. The Common App essay word limit is now 500 words.

Why the switch? According to Common Application Executive Director Rob Killion, allowing students to write essays of unlimited length “led to essays that were far too long, less well-written, and…often skimmed rather than read by admission officers.

Are there drawbacks? Yes. Some students will have trouble saying everything they want to say in 500 words or less. You may be one of them. But don’t be discouraged, you can write a great 500 word Common App essay.

Here are 7 Important Writing Tips to Help You Stay Under 500 Words:

1. Be Focused. Know what you want to discuss and make sure each sentence helps you get there.

2. Be Succinct. Choose your words wisely.

3. Be Specific. Create interesting imagery.

4. Be Clear. The introduction should flow clearly into the body of your essay. The body of your essay should transition into a clear conclusion.

5. Make Your Point. What do you want the college admission reader to know about you by the end of your essay? Make sure you achieve this goal.

6. Keep Count. Count your words. Don’t wait until you’re finished — you might have to rework your entire essay.

7. Edit.  Editing is essential with a 500 word essay. If you’re using three words where one will do, toss the extra words. If you have a sentence that gets your essay a bit off point, leave it on the cutting room floor. Be brave! Your essay will read better and come within the word count.

These are the important basics for writing a good essay. Print them out and check that you’re doing them as you write and you’ll be on your way.

Now you’re ready for part 2: How to Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think small and still tell a big story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay samples)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that work)
for more info: read on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.

Leave a comment — I’d like to know what you think.


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 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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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


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.