Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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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.

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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 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.