School Applications and College Essays and Short Questions, Oh My!

I have a special fondness for school applications. It’s an area of expertise for me. Both of my kids went to private boarding schools (The Hill School and Groton), and now attend universities (Princeton and Emory) with scholarships. We also applied to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer camps – my kids attended these on scholarship for several years. (JHCTY is a great opportunity for kids who want to study robotics or coding or politics over the summer. You can find out more about them here)

I’ve helped students/parents with successful applications to USC, Bryant University, various east coast prep schools and private elementary schools in Los Angeles.

I understand how deeply school applicants care about the results. The school you attend affects everything: quality of education, friends, location, connections, whether you become a sports enthusiast or an aesthete, what color sweatshirt you’ll be wearing the rest of your life (you won’t find me in red).


The Dreaded Application

Whether it’s a college or an elementary school application, you need to impress the admissions office with your amazing virtues and convince them that their school is the only perfect fit for you. Your essay and answers must be insightful, precise, and flawless. Meanwhile, you’re doing the same for several other schools (ten prep schools in my son’s case; six elementary schools in one client’s case). God forbid you use a boilerplate and accidentally insert the wrong [school name] in your application. Getting an editor is crucial in these cases. Multiple applications become a blur, and you need fresh eyes on them to avoid errors.

Consider, as you embark on this task, the school admissions office reading application after application – how boring they must get! How easy it is to for your earnest application to get lost in the slush pile.

On the flip side, how easy it is to stand out.


The Dreaded Essay

My main piece of advice here is to avoid bragging. You’re much better off describing something you messed up, and what you learned from it. People, including admissions officers, appreciate humility.

Secondly, be memorable. I remember going to a big boarding prep school trade show with my daughter when she was in eighth grade. Each of the posh prep schools had tables set up with admissions officers at the ready. It was pretty daunting. My daughter was interested in The Hill School, but thought it out of reach. So we avoided their crowded table – darting around it like gnats until the show was almost over. At this point, we were like, what the hell, so we walked up and I said “Does The Hill School accept klutzes?” (My darling daughter is not especially athletic.) I happened to be addressing the Director of Admissions, and we three proceeded to have a hilarious conversation (my daughter has a brilliant sense of humor). Daughter went on to apply, went through the interview process, and was accepted with a scholarship.

I think she was memorable.

OK, back to the dreaded essay. I know that there are resources on the internet to help with your college essay, such as this article from about the “7 Worst College Application Clichés and How to Avoid Them.” (Digression: I must confess that, as a writer, this article makes me cringe. For many reasons, so I’m going to restrain myself. Most clichés appear in your writing unbidden, and you don’t notice them, just as you don’t notice your right forearm. They are the words and phrases and ideas that have become dull with overuse. Item #7 in their list isn’t a cliché, it’s a mistake people make. Also, spot the cliché in the last two lines of the essay about clichés!* Evil chortle.) Yes, avoid the clichés they mention, but perhaps read some better writing on the subject.

There are also “personal statement writers” out there in internetland. They must churn out a lot of statements. The process looks remarkably impersonal for a personal statement writer service. Not to mention expensive. Shameless pitch: Having a writing coach is not only more fun, you might learn some things. I will actually talk to you – hopefully in person if you’re in the Los Angeles area.

It’s important to note that I am not a ghost writer. I will not write your application for you. My job is to provide support and guidance as you reach into your guts and pull out what you want to say. I help writers avoid cliché and logical fallacy, and I will help you create a good, interesting way into your essay (the launch), flawless text with vivid concrete detail, and a “Big So What” that leaves your reader wanting more of you.

I have had clients who expected a simple line edit from me, and I’ve told them the whole essay needs to be re-envisioned. So don’t wait until the last minute!


The Dreaded Short Questions

Most applications need not only a good essay, but answers to a series of questions. Often the schools impose a word limit or even a character limit on these answers. And, surprise! Writing short is the hardest thing to do. Imagine a 500 character limit – that’s 83 six-letter words, or 71 seven-letter words…I could go on but math isn’t my thing. And, by the way, each space and bit of punctuation is a character. How do you convey your superior sincerity and worthiness in 83 words? This takes craft. I actually enjoy doing this – it’s like a puzzle you have to piece together precisely.

There’s a reason these schools want short answers. Consider again those bored and overwhelmed admissions officers. And consider these short answers an opportunity to stand out from the befuddled crowd.


A Bit of Fun

A famous college application essay has been circulating the internet for some years – it was posted as a successful application essay to NYU and became an urban legend. It’s one of my favorite bits of writing, and you can find it here.

It turns out Hugh Gallagher wrote this for a writing contest. But, happily, he says he did send it to some colleges. I wonder what they thought.

Once when I was on, a man wrote me an email presenting parts of Gallagher’s essay as his own wit. I recognized it immediately and called out his plagiarism.

So, some wisdom to accompany this last funny bit: don’t ever plagiarize, whether in college applications or internet dating sites or in research papers or in anything!

And . . it’s good to make people laugh. It’s even better to make them laugh, then make them cry.

Ciao for now!



* “the big picture” is cliché. Consider it in the context – it doesn’t mean anything! The irony. . .