One of the most daunting parts of the college application is the essay or personal statement. Here is a piece of writing that seemingly needs to encapsulate 18 years of life in only 650 words. It needs to highlight accomplishments while sounding humble and understated. It needs to reflect a student’s genuine self, without making a single error. This is all a tall order and, for many students, the most difficult part of applying to college.
Ethan Sawyer talks about college admissions essays.
Ethan Sawyer’s book, College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay, helps students with this challenging process. He walks students through the process of brainstorming, creating structure, reviewing samples, drafting and then the real work, revising and polishing the essay.
He asks students to examine their core values and focus on which are most important to them in their lives. To me, it seems the exact right place to start. College admissions officers are looking to find out who you are, not just read a clever anecdote about your life.
For many high school students the process of writing a personal essay can seem utterly mysterious. Most of their writing has focused on what they have learned in school. Maybe they have composed a few pieces of fiction. Writing about ourselves at any age can seem awkward, boastful and deeply uncomfortable. It is hard to wade through this without some guidance.
My own kids worked with their high school English teacher and he probed them with many of the important questions found in College Essay Essentials. Some students work with private advisors, and others take online courses or classes at their high schools. Still others find a book to consult or ask their parents for help.
All of these options work in terms of helping kids to get to the essence of what is important constructing a structure that will allow them to tell their story and finally composing an essay that is their best work, but truly their own work.
For students looking for a free online resource to help them with the essay, The College Essay Guy website has examples how to tell your story, brainstorming activities and the great college essay test.
How to Help Your Teen With Their College Admissions Essay
We were fortunate to have a chance to interview Ethan Sawyer and our Q and A follows below:
1.G&F: Who are the best people in a student’s life to help them with this essay?
Here’s the recipe: I’d say the best kind of essay coach is someone who…
- Has a basic understanding of story structure
- Understands how to create a safe space where a student feels free to open up about anything (yes, actually anything)
- Can coach with enough objectivity to understand that the goal is to write the best essay s/he can write—not the best essay that the mentor/coach can write
- Has read at least 200 college admissions essays
This person can be a counselor, teacher, mentor, parent, or even a sibling who went through the process and has done a bunch of research since.
2. G&F: What value do coaches such as yourself bring to the process?
Sometimes it can be tricky working with someone the student is really close to (parent or sibling) and there can be some conflicts of interest, some of which are hidden until you’re well into the process. Quick personal example: When I tried coaching my younger brother through the college application process I found (after weeks of swearing I wouldn’t be) that I wanted to give him “the awesome college experience I had” (and that meant attending Northwestern, specifically), which led to me pushing him, at times, harder than he deserved to be pushed.
Now, as a parent, I’ve decided there’s no way I’ll coach my daughter through this process—I’d be too attached to the outcome. I want to hire someone I can trust and whom I know will do a great job. Because I want to be able to root from the sidelines, not feel like I’m having to play task-master. I want to be there to support rather than to have to constantly remind/remind her about upcoming deadlines. And I think that’s the value of hiring a coach: parents can outsource the yucky parts, and just be there to make sure their daughter is remembering to eat, and to sleep.
Also, I have a really good sense of story structure, students feel safe opening up to me, I can be objective, and I have read over 10,000 essays.
3. G&F: In your book, College Essay Essentials, you admit that even with the manuscript of your book in hand you still didn’t think it was perfect. But like your book students need to push “send” on their essays at some point. How does a student know when their essay is ready to send?
Ooh, great question. I’m reminded of that quote that’s been attributed to Da Vinci: Art is never finished, only abandoned. That’s the way I see it. Students revise and revise until either a) the deadline arrives, or b) they get to a point that (and this is kinda touchy-feely, so stay with me) they can read the essay aloud to someone and say, calmly and simply, “Yeah… that’s me. It’s not the only me, but it’s a big part of me.” And then they abandon it.
It’s hard to explain, but there’s often (not always) a quiet confidence that comes over a student once they’ve settled on a topic they feel is connected to their deepest self, have found a clear structure, and have landed on an ending they really love. It’s awesome. I’m reminded of another quote (forgive me), this one from Flaubert, who said, “If I say the stones are blue it is because blue is the precise word; believe me.” I think it’s possible for a student to develop that sort of confidence… to know that “blue” is the precise word to describe the stone.
4. G&F: Can you tell us some common mistakes that students should avoid?
Some students think they can write the essay in 1-2 days. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a great essay written that fast; most of the sample essays on my site and in my book, for example, took more than ten drafts and were written over the course of several weeks or months. Because that’s how writing goes.
And sometimes students think their topic is unusual without knowing that it’s actually pretty common. Writing an essay about volunteering at a hospital, for example, or playing an instrument can be incredibly difficult to pull off, as the student is essentially putting him/herself in a category with thousands of other students who have done these things.
The key, then, is to brainstorm what the cliche version of their essay might sound like—what values, in other words, might the typical essay on this topic choose to focus on? To do that, I have my students look at this list of values and pick the cliche ones for their topic. Then I have them agree to not use those values in their essay and to instead focus on finding several uncommon values.
Quick example: the typical basketball essay might focus on the values of hard work, perseverance, and teamwork. (Zzzz) But a better basketball essay might focus on the values of privacy, kinesthetic listening, and developing healthy boundaries.
- Boring essay: common topic —> common connections —> common language
- Stand-out essay: uncommon topic —> uncommon connections —> uncommon language
5. G&F: Your book gives examples of successful essays for highly competitive schools. How will reading these help a student with their own essay?
I think understanding story structure is key to telling a great story. Some students understand story intuitively (because they’ve seen a thousand movies) and don’t need to read examples, but I think most students like to get under the hood and see how a story (in this case a personal statement) really works. And that’s something I love to do and think I’m really good at.
So all the essays in the book have a beat-by-beat analysis of what makes them work. And because I find I learn a lot more by analyzing great writing, the essays in the book are really stellar. I also think there’s often a moment when a student will read an essay and go, “Oh, I can write like that?!” (read: in that tone) or “Oh, I can write about that!?” (read: on that topic) and that can give them some confidence, or permission.
6. G&F: If you had to tell students to keep one thing uppermost in their minds as they craft their statement, what would that be?
Be patient. Great writing is re-writing (I’m quoting again, this time without attributing). But it’s true. This is going to take some time, primarily because you (I’m speaking to the student now) aren’t just reporting on the facts of your life; you’re actually in the process of becoming yourself.
This personal statement writing process is an active, tumbling forward “this is who I think I am in the process of becoming” thing, not a “this is who I’ve been let me tell you the facts” kind of thing… and that can take some time to articulate. Some students have an unusually high degree of self-awareness and have experience writing about themselves, but for many this is the first time they’re opening up in this way.
Either way, there is so much to be gained from digging deep in this process and seeing what we can discover together. This process can be affirming, therapeutic, and in some cases life-changing—and I wouldn’t have dedicated the last 10 years of my life to this practice if it weren’t so.
7. G&F: You have recently joined the panel of experts at G&F Parents: College Admissions and Affordability where parents of college-bound students can find you. What services do you offer to students directly?
I teach online courses, which are available live or on demand, and which are pay-what-you-can (you read that right). I also work with a small number of students one-on-one. I run one- or multiple-day workshops all over the country. My Matchlighters Scholarship offers free essay help to students who qualify, and I offer a ton of free resources on my “Free Stuff” page.
You can find all of those at the links I just shared, or here: www.collegeessayguy.com
About Ethan Sawyer
Ethan Sawyer is a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. Each year he helps thousands of students and counselors through his online courses, workshops, articles, products, and books, and works privately with a small number of students. A graduate of Northwestern University, Ethan holds an MFA from UC Irvine and two counseling certificates. He lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, Veronica, and their amazing daughter, Zola.