How important are the essays?

A college counselor once told me that the application shows that a student is academically qualified to be at a given school and the essay shows that they are the type of person the school would like to have as a student. So pretty important.

The fact is that a lot of students have solid transcripts, test scores, and activities but they don’t take advantage of the essay as a way to set themselves apart from their peers. The essay is the only piece of the application that’s in the student’s voice. It’s a chance for the student to “talk to” the admission panel and share some insights that transcripts, SAT/ACT scores, and lists of activities simply cannot convey. A fabulous essay can help round out a student’s application package. A bad essay, well, it can really hurt a student. So it’s best to think of the essays as opportunities rather than burdens and they can actually be a lot of fun to write.

If the student doesn’t have a strong application, the essay can explain why or show a different side of the student.

Why should we trust you with this important piece of my student’s application?

The college application essay is unlike anything a student has typically written. It is not the traditional, five paragraph academic essay. It’s a personal/creative non-fiction narrative (some would even say memoir) and that intimidates a lot of students.
Some English teachers will have students write a draft their junior year. And this is usually a good start but there is always more work to be done, even if the students received an A on the essay and praise for their good work. Without stepping on any toes, English teachers are generally trained as teachers not as writers. And they generally have several classes full of students and a large workload outside of the essays – so even really good feedback can be limited.
I work with a limited number of students each season and they get my undivided, thorough attention.
But there’s more to it than my love of working with students. I’ve dedicated my life to writing. I have an English Writing BA and a Creative Writing MFA from George Mason University. As a professor of Composition and Literature at GMU, I helped students understand and unlock the power of their own writing. Early in my career, I was a professional writer for the Department of Treasury and a newsletter editor. I’ve been fortunate to have received awards, fellowships, and acknowledgements for my personal writing.

But I do more than just teach what I already know. As a student myself, I ‘mconstantly striving to learn more. I’ve attended some of the nation’s top writing workshops, including Yale, One Story, Kenyon, Tin House, the Robert and Richard Bausch Workshop, the Kevin McIlvoy 3x3x3 workshop, and many more.

My main goal is always to help students finish their essays. But I also work to make sure they become better writers in general. I’ve never worked with a student who hasn’t been surprised by the power of his own words after working with me.

Even for a professional writer, that blank page can be a scary thing. I’ll help you get that first draft down. However, great writing rarely emerges in the first draft. Great writing requires revision. So we will revise and redraft until you are love your essay.
The Story is already in you – let me help you bring it out.

What "should" the essay be about or "not" be about?

This is a really tricky question. Usually students have something they want to write about and sometimes that makes parents nervous. I always encourage students (especially those who will have some guidance in revision) to write whatever they feel compelled to write – at least as a draft. If parents are super nervous about this, I encourage the student to write two essays: the one they want to write and the one their parents want them to write. It’s rare that what the parents are nervous about actually shows up on the page because this is the student’s story – not the parents’. The essay the student wants to write is usually the (much) more compelling essay.

Students get a lot of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” when it comes to essays.

One big advice nugget is: “don’t write about role models or mentors.” This is hard for the student to hear because if someone has changed his life, why wouldn’t he write about that? The reason this guidance is so popular because these types of essays usually end up telling the reader more about the role model than the student. So, students do have to write carefully here. But it can be done well. Here is a great example. It’s strong partly because of the title “Grandma Schmoozing” which is funny and relatable but actually not at all what is going on. This young man loves his grandmother and their outings AND they helped shape him into the person he is. We also see that their relationship is changing and the impact that has and will continue to have on him.

“Don’t write about sports,” is another big advice nugget. I disagree with that. If a child has been involved in a sport for most of her life it would make sense that her essay would center on sports. The important thing is to make sure the essay focuses on the student (and not a bad coach for example) and a moment when the student began to see the world in a new way. This does not have to be a monumental shift in world view. Just a moment when the student said “hmmm” and then moved about in their world differently than before.

One of the examples I use is an essay by a pitcher who had to pitch against his best friend. And his best friend was losing playing time because he hadn’t been performing well. This was a powerful moment for this kid. He had to decide whether to walk his friend or do his best to strike him out. The whole essay only spans about five minutes in real time but there is tremendous energy in the plot of the story. And in the end, we see that the pitcher learned a lot about himself, his friend, and their relationship. There is also a shift – a break in the status quo.

This essay gave the reviewers all the critical elements they needed to engage in the story
• the student’s voice comes through loud and clear
• the is a plot that made the reader curious what would happen next
• there is a shift in the story – the status quo is broken
• something is a stake (not only a friendship but the friend’s potential playing time) which creates tension for the reader
• and a SO WHAT exists – the readers learns why this student shared this story – the time they invested in the essay is valuable

It’s important that the essay have a SO WHAT (usually at the end). Also, what your essay should be is specific. A lot of students say things like, “I learned a lot.” That is generic language that doesn’t help anyone. In the baseball essay example, the so what is” “I learned that we could be friends off the field and competitors on the field. That we both had to do our best even when it was a hard thing to do.”

There are some essays that need to percolate a bit before finding their way in the world. I am most cautious about an essay topic when it might give the admission panel the impression a student is not quite ready for the rigors of college. This may be to due ongoing health issues or lives that are temporarily chaotic. It’s actually very hard to write about something from the eye of the storm. So, especially if the student is currently “in deep” with a particular challenge, I will often recommend waiting a bit to write about it. Perspective often comes more into focus after some time has passed.

The bottom line is the essay should give insights into who students are – insights that are not captured through grades, scores, and lists of activities.

How many spaces should we put after a period?

It’s one. One space, please. Putting two spaces is actually a dead give away that parents hand their hands on the essay. 😊

Students should use big words in their essay, right - so they sound smart and academic.

This is such a common theme in student essays–inflated language that wants to impress but actually works to make the essay hard to read. The essay should be in the student’s voice. Period. If the student talks like Shakespeare wrote, then yes, his essay will have bigger words. But if not, than NO. Here is a fabulous article on why inflated language does not work. The term for it is Engfish (so coined by educator Ken Macrorie). The best way to test the language in a student’s essay is to have to student read her essay out loud to someone who knows her fairly well. If the listener believes the essay is written in the student’s voice – in other words, every sentence is written the way the student would say the same thing in a conversation-then yeah! If not, some revision is necessary.


But students should steer clear of contractions, right?

These essays are meant to be conversational and sound the the student is talking to the application committee. If they use contractions in every day speech, then they should absolutely use them in the essay.

How long does the process take?

As with so many questions in life, the answer is unfortunately: it depends. A lot of onerous is on the student to get a draft written and then to revise that draft. When the student is fully engaged the process flows pretty quickly. More often than not, two or three weeks is enough time to go from draft to finished product.

How far in advance do you need the draft essay(s)?

Generally speaking, I need a draft at least 5 days before I meet with a student. This gives me time to read/comment on the essay and write up suggestions. As you can imagine, there are deadlines that everyone is working toward. During those busy times my calendar fills up quickly and it’s a good idea to reserve appointment times well in advance of any looming deadlines.

How should students submit their essays?

Students should email their drafts to me at [email protected]. The drafts should be sent as a word file with a .doc or .docx file extension (not as a pdf or google doc). The draft should include the prompt they are answering, the word/character count requirements, and any concerns that they have about their draft. The file name should contain the student’s name.

Do you research college websites to find the prompts:

The Common App and Coalition App prompts are easy to find online and I can quickly share those with you. But it is the student’s responsibility to research the individual college websites to find the specific prompts they need to answer. I do offer research as a service but it’s not part of the essay package fees. Please email me at [email protected] to find out more.

Where do meetings take place?

Covid gave us the gift of Zoom and most sessions take place there. I can meet in person, if that is the preference. My office is in the outskirts of Harpers Ferry, WV. Because of the number of students I work with, I cannot travel to meet in person.

Can you recommend colleges for my child?

I offer essay tutoring services.
For help with college counseling, I highly recommend
Sally Roemer of Roemer Educational Consultants
[email protected]

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