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I’ve made my “early decision” on this college essay coach

Everyone’s upset about the parents depicted in Lacy Crawford's article, but what does it say about the essay coach herself?

I had a real adverse reaction to the article by essay coach Lacy Crawford that ran in a recent New York Post article, “Tutor Reveals Ivy-admissions madness of rich penthouse parents.” Crawford has now penned a novel, “Early Decision,” based presumably on her experiences of working with kids of big-rich parents who basically bought their kids’ way into the Ivies.

In the article, she trashes all the parents who, she says, “raised their children to reach for the stars without teaching them how to so much as stretch out an arm.”    (The best line in the whole piece, by the way.) She condemns them for asking her to write the essays for their children at $7,500 a pop, and rails that honesty is “harder and harder to find in these days of tiger parenting.”

But what she fails to acknowledge is that she is part of the problem.  A problem that made her a very good living for 15 years.  She also never answers the question if she wrote the essays for the students.  She recounts one anecdote where a girl applying to Yale wrote the essay herself, but you’re still left to wonder  if Crawford perhaps didn’t pen some.  

Also, in the Yale anecdote, she admits that the girl struggled with her essay for no reason since her parents’ donation of a building with their name on it all but guaranteed her entry.

If that is true, why was Crawford even needed?  If the essays were mere window dressing, then why hire a pricy expert?  She seems to see no irony in this fact.  In fact she asserts, “My name was shared among wealthy families who would not have dreamed of hiring one of the big college-application consulting shops; they wanted exclusivity, someone other students couldn’t have.”

And now, she’s sacrificing all the parents who she lived off for so many years in order, it appears, to publicize her book.  

I am not saying the parent's antics to money and status their way into college isn't obnoxious and disheartening, but in this case, it takes two to tango (anxious, fabulously wealthy parents + willing essay coach).

My “early decision” on her novel:  I think I’ll pass.

The Best Strategy for Approaching the Common Application Essay


When writing the common application essay, should you write about what you want, then shoe-horn it into one of the prompts, or let the prompt guide you from the start of the process?

The answer depends on your life experiences and which prompt you chose.

In the past, the common application prompts were broad and included a “topic of your choice” so students could write about anything they wanted.

This year, the five prompts have become more pinpointed.  The responses are therefore going to be more specific.   For example, take the question about failure:  Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? The focus of the question is so narrow, that students will almost automatically know if they have a story to tell on this topic or not.   

On the other hand, two of the prompts are still quite broad:  1) Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story, and 2) Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Almost any “background” story can fit into the first prompt (a tale of cultural identity, an illness, being homeschooled, coming from a large family, etc.).  And almost any event or achievement can fit into the second prompt, as long as you add something to the essay about the transformation from childhood to adulthood.  And I am discovering that while most students would not originally characterize an event in their lives as a transition from childhood to adulthood, once they think about it, 99 percent of the time, they realize that it actually did mark such a change.   

I have also found that most of my students start the essay writing process not knowing what they want to write about.   Therefore, I think the best way to approach the essay prompts is to read all five carefully and see which “leaps” out at you as a possible topic.  (Or there may be two or even three that look like possibilities.)  Almost always, students can find at least one that sparks a story.   If, however, you look at the topic choices and draw a blank, then, instead, mine your intellectual interests, hobbies and extracurricular activities, and cultural background to come up with a topic.  Write a draft of the essay, and then, later, tweak it to fit one of the prompts.  Or, in the process of writing it, you may even find that the essay naturally “drifts” into one of the essay prompts all on its own.

Either way, the end result will hopefully be the same:  an authentic essay that shows your personality, your passion, and your strengths.

Confessions of a UC Berkeley Reader


The New York Times Education Life section  ran an interesting article, Unnatural Selectionby Ruth Starkman in the Sunday edition of the paper.   Starkman, who teaches writing and ethics at Stanford, writes about the ambiguities of being a reader for U.C. Berkeley’s fall 2011 admissions cycle.   She struggled to fairly rank applicants on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest, and talks about how readers were instructed to view the “bigger picture” of a student’s life beyond just grades and test scores. 

Starkman’s piece raises the issues of race, socioeconomic stressors, and a parent’s ability to pay full tuition that lurk just below the surface of the admissions department’s “official” screening process.

It also, however, revealed few gems about the college essay:  

  • Starkman writes that in the personal statements, socioeconomically disadvantaged students writing about hardships that prevented them from achieving better grades, test scores, and honors may play better than accounts of achievements written by more advantaged students.
  • On the other hand, she said she grew tired of what she calls stories of “generalized misery” by students trying to get sympathy  –essays about yet another student suffering from divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff.
  • She was also told to look for the “authentic voices” in essays over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege.” 
  • However, she noted, finding such voices was rare.   Many essays, she said, had the “cloying, pompous” style of “pricey application packagers.” 

What’s the take-home message of these nuggets?   I guess I would sum it up as 1) be true to yourself as a person and a writer, 2) be careful when writing about struggles, and 3) find something else to write about than that trip to Africa to help the orphans.

Of course this is only the take by one reader of one university; still it’s revealing and worth paying attention to. 

College Application Essay Topics to Avoid

June and July may seem early to start thinking about college application essays, but in truth, the timing is perfect.  Rising seniors should take advantage of the summer "lull"  to tackle their essays before fall rolls around and their lives get hectic.

Of course, for most students, the hardest part of writing the Personal Statement is picking a topic.

This year, the Common Application prompts have changed.  Applicants have the option of writing on one of five topics, which you can find here. I  think the best technique is for students to think about what story they have to tell, and then fit the story into one of the prompts rather than vice-versa.  This way, students won’t see the prompts as constricting, which can cause writer’s block.

So, what should students write about?  Part of this equation is what not to write about.  So here is a list of topics that should probably be avoided:

  • Your  Championship -Winning Shot or Goal.   Admissions officers say this type of essay has become a cliché.  If  students wants to talk about a sport they love, they should try to think of a different angle, one that isn’t apparent on the rest of their application.  
  • You Helped the Needy and Got More Than You Gave.  Again, this is a very common essay topic and also has the disadvantage of having a student come off as privileged, which doesn’t go over well with  admissions officers.
  • Your Great European Vacation.  A moving, or enlightening experience when a student is abroad can be great fodder for an essay.  However, a general essay on a trip took with Mom or Dad will make a student come off as spoiled or privileged.
  • The Day You Stepped Onto Stage and Knew You Were Destined to Be a Singer/Dancer/Actress.   This is too common of a theme, especially for performing arts students.
  • The Death of a Grandparent/How Much You Love Your Grandparent.  Since this is the only death most teens have experienced, it is an overused topic.
  • The Death of a Pet.  While no doubt the applicant felt great pain when Fluffy or Fido died, it is not  a dramatic or unique enough event to make an impression on an admissions reader.  
  • Controversial Topics, such as Politics or Religion.  These  issues are divisive, and since you never know the beliefs of the person reading the essay, students run the risk of angering or upsetting the person reading his or her application.
  • Your Life/Family/Culture  is a Recipe.  This metaphor is overused, in my opinion.

And while it may seem obvious, students should also not write about:

  Dealings with the Law, Excessive Drinking, or Drugs.    Even if an applicant has reformed, these misdeeds are hard for college admissions staff to move past.

Personal Statements should show the applicant in the best possible light.   This is a student’s chance to show his or her passion, individuality, growth, maturity, and resilience.   Colleges want to know that the students they accept will bring strengths, creativity, and curiosity to their campuses and that they will be successful members of the college community.  If an essay topic doesn’t express this, a student should find another one to write about.

New York Times Selects Four Essays That “Stand Out”


In January, Ron Lieber, a money columnist for the New York Times, asked high school seniors to send in college admissions essays about money, class, working, and the economy.

Sixty-six students submitted essays, and with the help of Harry Bauld, author of “On Writing the College Application Essay,” he picked four essays that he felt were superior.

What all the essays had in common, said Lieber in a column that ran today, was that they had an “appetite for risk.”  The students weren’t afraid to tackle tough topics.   They also took “counterintuitive positions” on class, money, and the application process. 

One student critiqued the college application process, noting that all the mailers colleges send to applicants is a waste of money and that instead they should spend the funds on their students.   This student is going to Oberlin College in the fall; however, interestingly, while he did send this essay to Antioch College, which accepted him, he did not send it to Oberlin.

Another student wrote about his immigrant experience in the United States – a difficult topic to put a fresh spin on – but the admissions staff at N.Y.U, where the student will be attending next year,  felt the take was unique  enough, and accepted him.

The third student wrote about how she never felt the United States was her home.  "The earth is my `home,'”  she wrote.  This declaration caught the eye of – and an acceptance from --Hamilton College.  The admissions officer at Hamilton told the Times that she liked this one because she did not feel it had been written by parents or another adult, which according to her, often happens.

The fourth student, when applying to Princeton, wrote that she wondered if the college should be poorer.  She did not get accepted to Princeton, but did to Cornell, where she did not write about the university’s level of affluence.

I recommend everyone  read the complete story as it offers a window into the minds of admissions’ officers.  For example, the admissions officer at NYU said he liked the student’s essay on his immigrant experience because the essay brought the student's background and circumstances “into Technicolor.  He paints a very vivid picture.”

This comment is key to what makes a college application essay stand out – details.   It’s also interesting to think that officers can tell when an essay has been written by adults.  This is crucial information for all of us out there who are helping students with their essays, whether we are independent counselors, parents, English teachers, or high school counselors.   While for sure young writers often need brainstorming and guidance in writing their essays, their voices must be their own.

Colleges Continue to Get More Competitive


The results are in for the 2013 college admission statistics, and two trends are clear: the applicant pool is growing larger and colleges are growing even more selective.   The Choice, the New York Times college admissions  blog, reports, for example, that USC received more than 74,000 applicants this year – 10,000 more than just two years ago.   And UCLA received the highest amount of applicants ever in the history of college admissions:  99,559.  

As far as selectivity goes, seven of the eight Ivy League schools lowered their acceptance rates this year.  The University of Chicago, as an example of another selective school,  accepted a paltry 8.8 percent.  Stanford took the prize for the most selective school of the season – accepting 5.69 percent of students.  

The Choice concludes that “the competitive nature of college admissions has yet to reach a tipping point.  As students continue to apply in droves to an increasing number of schools, the admissions officers must become more selective.  This selectivity, of course, gives applicants more cause to become more competitive, and, year after year, increase the number of colleges to which they apply.”

Click here for a comprehensive list of acceptance rates for colleges this year.

Despite how bleak this news sounds, don’t forget that there are still hundreds of colleges out there with 50 percent or over acceptance rates.  It seems clear that as the acceptance rates continue to decrease, students will need to stretch their imaginations and apply to a broader base of colleges.  The good news is, they may discover some hidden gems when they do.


Breaking News: Common Application Prompts Released

For any high school junior wanting to get a jump on his or her college admission essays, here is your chance.   The Common Application has released its essay prompts for the 2013-2014 school year, reports the New York Times blog, The Choice.

Making  next year even more interesting is that all of the essay prompts are brand new.
In addition, a tried-and-true favorite, the prompt that students can write on "the topic of your choice,"  has been removed.

So, without any more fanfare, here are the five prompts applicants will be facing:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
 And,  for some more news:  next admissions cycle, students will only be allowed to download a maximum of 650 words.  Previously, it was suggested that students stick to 500, but students could still download a longer essay if they wanted.   It had been reported earlier that the Common Application was going to cut off the essay at 500 words, but supposedly, the folks at the Common Application changed their minds after talking to counselors, and expanded the word count .

I personally thought that 500 was a better limit as it forced students to write more concisely, but I think that probably most kids will be happy that they have another 150 words in which to tell their stories.

So now that the prompts and word limit are out, I suggest juniors start mulling over topics  in the backs of their brains.  Then, as they ease into the summer, they can start drafting their essay.  The earlier they begin, the easier the entire application process will be, especially considering that for most applicants, the Common Application personal essay is only one of many  they'll be penning.   So thank you, staff of the Common Application, for the heads-up!

SAT PREP: Last-minute secrets that really work


I know that SAT Prep isn’t normally in my repertoire, but I am posting a recent story I wrote on last-minute prep for the parenting web site,  

 A few tips I wasn’t able to put into the story:

Practice Tests.  Experts recommend taking at least three, but no more than one a week or you may burn out.

What to Study.  Experts said too many kids waste valuable study time drilling high-level math, such as pre-calculus, that is not even on the SAT.   Also, for the English portion of the test, experts advise students to focus most of their prep time on reading comprehension skills.  Many students spend hours prepping vocabulary, but there are many more reading comprehension and analysis questions on the SAT than strict vocabulary questions.

The Essay.   Don’t worry so much about the prompt.   You are not being tested on your knowledge of the subject you are being asked to write about, say experts, but rather on your ability to organize your thoughts, take a position, and stay on-topic.  


College essay writing workshop at the San Marino library

September is suddenly upon us, which means that seniors are hopefully working  on their college application essays.  For those students in the San Gabriel Valley area, I will be putting on a workshop next Wednesday, September 19, at the Crowell Public Library in San Marino on “Everything You Wanted to Know About College Application Writing.”   I will cover what sorts of essays you should expect to write, topics to avoid, style tips, how to recycle essays, and more! 

The library is located at 1890 Huntington Drive in San Marino.   I hope to see you there!

Seven more style tips for the essay

  1. Narrow your focus.   Many young writers spend paragraphs talking about details or events that really don’t pertain to the heart of their story.  For example, if you are writing about a trip to Israel that changed your life, don’t start your story with you packing your bags or with the flight.  Plunge right into the action that matters most.
  2. Write in the active voice and not the passive.  For example,  “The ball was kicked into the goal by Sam.”  Active:  “Sam kicked the ball into the goal.”  Too much use of the passive voice can slow down an essay and make it dull.
  3. Use strong verbs.  Often writers think the most important words in an essay are adjectives or adverbs.  Actually verbs do a lot of the heavy lifting.   For example, you could say, “She ran slowly,”  or you could use a punchier verb and get rid of the adverb all together:  “She jogged.”  Also, try to avoid over-using “ to be”   -- is, are, etc.  because your essay will come alive with more interesting verbs.     Example:  instead of “My brother is the person I owe the most to for my success in high school”   say, “My brother deserves credit for my success in high school.”
  4. Avoid clichés, such as “one in a million,”  “ he never falls asleep at the wheel,”  “clear as a bell,”  “take one for the team,”  “to make a long story short,”   Instead, this is your chance to add unique detail and to explain a person or event uniquely and powerfully.
  5. Delete all wishy washy words, such as “sort of,”  “ a little bit,”  “kind of.”  For example, “I felt sort of scared.”  When you see these in your essay, take them out.  Just say, “I was scared.”   These small vague phrases undercut the drama and power of an essay.
  6. Be specific as possible.  For example, if you are saying you enjoy playing volleyball, avoid saying something like, “The activity has allowed me to develop powerful qualities I didn’t know I had.”  Instead, be direct, “Volleyball has helped me develop my leadership abilities and communication skills.”
  7. Try the present tense.  Try putting your essay in the present tense because sometimes this can make an essay pop. 


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