Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 1): The Hook

Guest blogger: Joanna Novins

What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About WritingPart 1 The HookSince I have over a decade of experience writing and managing analysis for senior US policymakers and another decade of experience writing novels, reviewing manuscripts, writing cover and catalogue copy for a publisher of commercial fiction, as well as blogging and tweeting, what I’ve learned about writing couldn’t possibly fit into a single blog. So I’ve decided to craft a series of posts with what I consider the most important lessons.

Number 1:
Always hook the reader with the first line.

Policymakers, book buyers, and college admissions officers have at least one key thing in common (besides their need to breathe oxygen). They’re busy people facing a lot of choices. Policymakers need to know why the issue you’re writing about requires their attention more than the all the other crises that have landed on their desk. Book buyers, scanning the cover jacket of your novel or the first page, want to know why they should choose your story over all the other books in the store. And college admissions officers want to know, why you?

What makes a good hook?

When you read the title of this blog did you wonder what the CIA and bodice rippers have in common? Were you curious about whether I might let national security secrets slip? Or were you simply intrigued? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then I hooked you.

An effective hook includes what I like to call the three “I”s, that is, it intrigues, invites, and introduces. More specifically, it includes an intriguing statement or idea, invites you into a world, and introduces you to the narrator.

Here are some examples of great first line hooks. The first two I’ve copped from a 2015 list published by the British newspaper, The Telegraph. Number one on the list, and probably number one on most such lists is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In a single line, Jane makes a teasingly intriguing statement (are all wealthy men really in need of a wife?), invites you into a world where matrimonial pursuit it all-important, and introduces you to a narrator who has her tongue masterfully tucked in her cheek.

The opening line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby cues you in that your narrator is going to invite you into a past experience he’s had, one that’s shaken his traditional beliefs:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticising any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Intriguingly, the line suggests that despite this experience, the narrator holds so tightly to these beliefs, (his father’s advice) that despite his experience, he may still not be ready to abandon them.

The last example, from M.T. Anderson’s FEED, isn’t from the list, but it’s one of my favorites:

“We went to the moon. And the moon sucked.”

In two very short lines, the narrator has given you a wealth of information. First, he’s telling you that you’re entering a world where travel to the moon is not only possible, it’s so commonplace that the narrator and his companions find it boring. The language (the moon sucked) makes it clear he’s young and jaded. If this young narrator lives in a world where trips to the moon are passé, what, the reader has to wonder, could possibly happen to shake up his life?

So what does great literature have to do with college essays?

At this point, you may be thinking, sure it’s easy to write a good hook if you’re an English lady, living in the roaring twenties, or regularly traveling to the moon. I’m just a senior in high school. Take another look at these lines. Jane Austen’s talking about dating. Fitzgerald’s talking about questioning parental advice. And Anderson’s talking about a trip. It’s their voices, Austen’s snarky, Fitzgerald’s questioning, and Andersen’s blunt and bored, that draw you in.

So how do you craft your hook?

For starters, don’t expect to start out with something amazing like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”  

Because you can bet dollars to donuts, Dickens didn’t either.

Find your story. Find your voice—are you passionate, questioning, offbeat, funny? Do you text or tweet? That’s also a good place to find your voice.

Let it shine through. Write your draft. Write several. Circle back. Now find what makes your story intriguing, introduce yourself, and cast your line to reel your readers in.

Next! Read the other posts in this series:
Part 2: Keep it Simple, Stupid
Part 3: Beware Disconnected Ideas

With oJoanna Novinsver two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or how to present yourself.  She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.



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Writing College Essays: Skills for the Real World – One Student’s Story


Applying to College welcomes a guest post from Yue Ren, a freshman at Harvard College. Yue currently works at Argopoint LLC, a Boston-based management consulting firm.

Editor’s Note: When Yue wrote to me he said, “As a regular follower of your blog, I just wanted to reach out to tell you what an excellent job you have been doing…I believe your blog helped me immensely in being accepted at Harvard where I am a current freshman. However, it is only recently that I realized that your advice extends far beyond the scope of just the college applications process. Your nuggets of wisdom actually helped me develop a good ethic for applying to courses, clubs, and jobs...I believe that prospective students would gain much from understanding the value of your advice beyond the scope of just college applications because these skills are absolutely essential in the real world.”

This is Yue’s post:

I have found Sharon’s advice on Applying to College to be insightful in helping prospective college students write great essays. Not only have I found her advice integral to writing great college application essays, but also applications in general for jobs, internships, and more. First, I would like to provide my thoughts on college essays to highlight the importance of these elements in the real world.

When admission officers flip through your application, they see your transcript, GPA, SAT or ACT scores, the quick descriptions of your extracurricular activities, perhaps a few AP scores and even a couple of awards, but all that seems very quantitative. What part of the application defines you? After writing quite literally over a dozen college essays and supplemental essays, I believe I have garnered a couple of observations. Although I do not have all the answers, I believe these tips would have been helpful when I was writing my first college essay as well as subsequent essays for jobs:

  •  Express Yourself with a Story: In my experience, the best way to communicate an idea is to tell a quick, concise anecdote. Think about all those lessons you have learned in your extracurricular activities or throughout your life. What do these stories tell about your talents, aspirations, or character? I also believe the manner in which you tell a story, including your tone, mood, and attitude, reflects on how you react to certain challenges or successes. This provides just as much information to the reader about your character as the actual story you write. Therefore, word choice in your expression is crucial.
  • Be Human: Why is talking to your friend so much more fun than reading an old biography? Construct your stories with feelings and emotions such that the reader can experience the breadth and depth of your happiness, anger, pain, or excitement. If you are ever wondering why your friend refuses to give any hints about his or her essay, it might be because it is personal; it might reflect intense emotions. A journey in a day in the life of you is filled with crescendos and decrescendos that may ultimately shape your outlooks. Do not be afraid to share them with admissions.
  • Write Truthfully: Honestly, lying is hard. No matter how much detail you slap on a lie, there are crucial, significant elements that are still missing. Not only do these missing elements signal a lie, but also they are the parts of the story that provide genuineness and insight into your life. Save yourself the trouble of trying to write about stuff that you have never done, and just pour your heart and mind into those events you have faced. If you participated in a thousand extracurricular activities in high school, now is a perfect chance to talk about a few of those thousand topics.
  • Seek Peer Critique: Although many people choose to not let anyone see their essay, I found that letting your teachers and maybe a close friend see your essay brings new perspective.

Going back to how word choice is crucial: Some words simply rub people the wrong way, and it is probably best not to rub admissions the wrong way. Here is an example:

Original: “Students from Estonia to Chile took the course; we were in this together from all around the world.”
Edit: “From Estonia to Chile, our interdependence garnered an engaging international learning experience.”

In the first example, there is a sense of camaraderie and hints to a sense of mutual benefit from engaging with students all over the world. However, to my teacher, it also sounded rather suspicious and implied that students were in it together to defend against something. In addition, admission officers are only taking so much time to read your essays. Make your expression clear. The edit uses more sophisticated, mature language, which demonstrates a fluency with words. The advantage of the edit is the clear message that learning together with diverse students derived mutual benefit.

You cannot control what your reader thinks or how your reader interprets your essay; you can control how you express your ideas. Therefore, express them wisely and always be conscious of your audience.

To keep the college essay in context, it is just one part of your application, but I would recommend treating it as the part of the application that truly identifies you. It is an opportunity, not another barrier keeping you from clicking that submit button.

Beyond the College Essay: Writing for Jobs, Courses, and Internships

Sharon’s blog is truly awesome. I would check some of the posts like “Stuck? 5 Tips to Jump-Start Your College Essay,” “How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit” series, for advice on college essays. I know I found them abundantly helpful when I was writing my essays. But her advice extends beyond just the scope of college essays. I would like to stress that for courses, jobs, or internships, I found these tips equally as applicable and useful as they are for college essays.

  • When I wrote my cover letter for my internship at Argopoint, I specifically used examples of past experiences and extracurricular activities in form of anecdote compressed in a sentence or two to highlight my skills and abilities. I also sought help from peers who have experience with applying to jobs, and who helped critique my cover letter. Of course being frank and honest is important. Here is an example of a question I had to answer:
  • Question: “Why do you want this position?”

This question is an almost guaranteed question at any place of employment. I responded along the lines of: “Although I am only a freshman at college, I have great vision of what I want to do. (Give a quick idea of what you want to do). To be frank, I may not be fluent in everything provided in the job description, but I am an eager, fast-learner. I once (I would have specified the exact activity here) led a body of over 100 students with no prior leadership experience to great success. I found that the keys to my success were consistency, encouragement, and commitment. I am confident that this combination will allow me to make a contribution to your organization.”

Because I gave a quick example of an activity I led, I clearly communicated to the listener that: This kid wants to learn and can be honest on areas where he needs improvement. He clearly faced a respectable challenge and emerged successful. Even though that may not align perfectly with the work done at the organization, this is the attitude required to succeed. Finally, this freshman seems ready to contribute.

Going through the college applications process, you will discover that the tips garnered from the Applying to College blog and lessons learned from writing great college essays will be crucial in scoring opportunities in your future.


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Writing College Essays: 3 Words to Ditch

college essay writing: 3 weak wordsSome words shouldn’t find their way into college application essays. I’m not talking about words that make you sound like a thesaurus (I’ll get to that at a later date) – I’m talking about words that are weak.

Weak words are like limp handshakes – a little damp, a little icky – you wish the person shaking your hand had the confidence to do it right. Maybe nobody told them. Which is why I’m telling you.

3 of the Weakest Words in College Essays:

1. Things
2. Get
3. This

What Makes These Words Weak?
They’re all vague. (What “things” are you talking about, anyway?) They’re also BORING.
Please, don’t bore your college reader (zzzzzzzz).

How Do You Get Rid of Weak Words?
Easy. Learn to recognize them, and then substitute stronger, more interesting words. Interesting words are often more specific words.

Here are examples of how to change weak words to strong:

1. Things

Weak: “I enjoy learning about certain things on my own.”
Strong: “I enjoy learning about science and math on my own.”
Weak: “I frequently hear things like, “Hey Smart Girl, I bet you know everything.”
Strong: “I frequently hear comments like, “Hey Smart Girl, I bet you know everything.”

2. Get

Weak: “The day after getting the ping-pong table, I asked my dad to play with me.”
Strong: “The day after the store delivered the ping-pong table, I asked my dad to play with me.”
Weak: “If snow was predicted, I’d head out in the middle of a storm to get the driveway cleared.”
Strong:If snow was predicted, I’d head out in the middle of a storm to clear the driveway.”

3. This

Weak: “I’ve been working on this since last summer.”
Strong: “I’ve been working on my carpentry skills since last summer.”
Weak: “I didn’t pursue this expecting to become a professional.”
Strong: “I didn’t pursue dance expecting to become a professional.”

Find the weak words in your essays and substitute stronger ones. You’ll show off your writing skills, and impress your college reader.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

follow Sharon Epstein on Twitterfollow Sharon Epstein on pinterest
Leave a comment — let me know what you think!

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Writing Successful College Essays: Revise, Revise, Revise

write a successful college essay: reviseToday’s post is a guest blog from my good friend and colleague, Debra Wilburn. For more than two decades, Debra has facilitated student development through career advising, first at Antioch College and now as Assistant Director of Career Services at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio.

When I asked Debra what she’d like to write about, she knew immediately: the importance of revising your essays.

Here is Debra’s post:

I work with top-achieving students on essays for a competitive internship program. Along with a résumé, the student’s essay is circulated to hiring managers for review. This package is the first impression the students make: it either opens the door to the next step (an interview), or leads the manager to believe the student is not the right fit.

When that first door opens and they make good professional contacts, the students find other doors opening, and step by step they build interesting, rewarding careers.

It all starts with their essay.

And yet – they often complain about the work of writing it.

Specifically, they complain about my requirement for revising the essay.

They say things like:

I don’t think I need to revise it. I get As on all my papers.
Professors have never complained about my writing before.
Is this really necessary?
It looks good to me.

Me is not the audience for the essay!

After they’ve revised the essay, they say things like:

I thought I was a good writer, but now I know there’s always room for improvement.

I wish someone had challenged me like this before.

Thank you for pushing me.

These top-achieving students do not bring me solid and winning essays on the first go-round. They get there by doing the work of revising.

An experienced reader can tell when revisions have been made in a written essay. Revising makes for a better quality piece of writing, but what may be more important is how evidence of revision speaks to the quality of the writer’s character: taking pride in what they produce and having conviction about the importance of their story. Even more significant is how evidence of revision lets the reader know that the writer truly values the opportunity that is in front of them and has worked hard to make a meaningful connection.

If you really want the opportunity, then do the work of revising the essay. Remember what my students say: Thank you for pushing me.

– Debra Wilburn has assisted her own and other students applying to and fulfilling internships, co-ops, study abroad, and career positions in New York; Washington, D.C; Boston; Los Angeles; San Diego; Miami;  Atlanta; Cork, Ireland; London, England; Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; Greece, and other destinations.  Prior to working at public institution Wright State, Debra was a faculty member in the co-op department at Antioch College, a private, liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Since 1998, she has been a campus liaison to the Disney College Program and The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. She is the parent of a National Merit Finalist and founder of FilmDayton. Debra earned her B.A. from Cornell University, and her M.A. from Wright State University.


Stuck? 5 Tips to Jump-Start Your College Essay

5 ways to reduce college application essay stressHow are those college application essays coming?
For many students, not well. For many parents, not fast enough. It can be hell out there.

Here are 5 Tips to Reduce the Stress of Writing College Application Essays:

1.  Make a List of All the College Essays You Need to Write

  • The Common Application requires two essays: A “personal statement” of 250 – 500 words, and a shorter essay about an activity or interest (1000 characters, including spaces).
  • If you’re applying to a school that requires supplemental essays, make a list. Write down the exact prompt of each supplemental essay, and the word limit.
  • Some schools don’t accept the Common Application: Write down the exact prompt of each essay, and the word limit.

2. Streamline Your Work

  • Don’t give yourself more work than you need to. Look at all the essay prompts and decide if it’s possible to use an essay you’ve already written, or an idea from that essay, for more than one school.
    • For example: For the Common App, one of my students wrote about a life lesson he learned while playing ping-pong with his dad. But another school, which didn’t accept the Common App, asked him to write about an activity he enjoyed. So he adjusted part of his Common App essay, and wrote about playing ping-pong with his dad as his activity essay for that school.

3. Get Past Writer’s Block

We’ve all been there, staring at the keyboard, waiting for inspiration that never arrives. You can’t relax. You can’t say what you want. It all sounds like garbage, and you might as well toss the whole thing. Here’s how to Stage Your Own Writing Intervention:

  1. Trick your brain: Think about your essay everywhere EXCEPT in front of your keyboard. This works, because it allows your brain to become more creative and relaxed.  Walk your dog, ride your skateboard, take a shower –  let your brain be inspired.
  2. Freewrite: Are you having trouble knowing where to start? Then don’t! Forget about writing “THE ESSAY.”  Instead, try a freewrite. Give yourself 10 or 15 minutes, and write a train of thought paragraph about your topic. Make sure to include the details: who, what, when, where and why. Then move on to sensory details: What you felt, heard, tasted, saw, smelled. What were your emotions? What were you thinking? How did it affect you? You’ll be surprised at the material you come up with. Then, you should be able to move on to writing your essay.
  3. Write Like you Talk. Is your writing too stilted or formal? Talk it out. (Better yet, talk to someone– even if it’s your  dog or cat.)  As you talk, your sentences will start to flow.
    • Tip #1: Don’t feel like you have to speak in finished sentences. Start by talking about what you want to write about, and why.
    • Tip #2: When you say something you like, write it down. Better yet, record it, and then go back and write down the parts you liked.

4.  You Don’t Need a One-of-a-Kind Topic

It’s okay not to have a unique topic, because YOU are what’s unique in the essay.

Your perspective – the lens through which you view your topic – is far more important than the specific topic itself.” (My favorite quote, from a college admissions counselor at Yale)

  • It means, be honest and specific, and write about what’s important about you –  what kind of decision-maker, or leader, or artist you are – what’s inspired you, or how you dealt with a problem, or how your life has shaped you. As long as it’s from your point of view, and says good things about you.

Write your essay from your perspective, and don’t sweat about finding a unique topic.

5. Escape the Family War Zone.


  • If You’re Overwhelmed, Ask for Help. Never be embarrassed to ask for help. Guidance counselors, teachers and private professionals can answer questions, guide you through the application process, provide feedback on your essays, and work with you on achieving your deadlines. Help is out there – you just have to ask for it.


  • Despite a family’s best support, sometimes a student’s stress level can build to overload. If you’re concerned about meltdowns, missed deadlines, and becoming the “application police,” consider enlisting a professional to help with college search, essay writing skills, application filing, etc. The peace and ultimate success will be worth it.

related posts
7 Tips for Parents to Reduce College Application Stress

10 Tips for Students to Reduce College Application Stress

Dealing with the Stress of College Applications
Peterson’s: Reducing Stress About College Admission Requirements
New York Times: The Burden of the College Admissions Process (students write about their college application experiences)

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

follow Sharon Epstein on Twitterfollow Sharon Epstein on pinterest
Leave a comment — let me know what you think!