College essays

Calvin & Hobbes, Gary Clark Jr., and the Authentic Narrative of Your College Essay

It's that time of year... Sam Bigelow, Associate Director of College Counselor at Middlesex School, joins us today to talk college essays.

This is a piece about some things that are very important to me—music, Calvin and Hobbes and your college essays.

Taking my dog for a post-lunch, afternoon walk through Estabrook Woods behind the Middlesex School campus recently, I was listening to the new Gary Clark Jr. live album and appreciating the wonderful authenticity of this young Texas blues hero’s singing and guitar playing. He’s taken on the mantle of today's “it” blues guy, and I think I know why. When he sings, you believe every word and note he let’s leave his body. When he rips into a guitar solo midway through a song, there’s intensity, there’s insistence, and there’s soul. He is, as we like to say, “the real deal.” There are plenty of guitarists out there that can play faster, plenty of singers that have more impressive vocal range, but if you can’t sing or play with real feeling like he does, you likely won’t resonate with an audience in the same way. I always tried with my own music to dial back the fireworks and play piano and sing more simply and more authentically in my own voice. I am certainly not saying I was successful in that venture, but I always tried to do that.

Van Gogh's Shoes, Martin Heidegger and My Little Pony: Embracing the Essay

Mark Moody, Co-Director of College Counseling at Colorado Academy, joins us again today with some fantastic guidance on the college essay. There is so much good stuff here, we don't even know where to begin to describe how helpful this will be to rising seniors as they begin their essays -- hopefully this summer. Moody's vivid explanations of "Show, Don't Tell,"  the concept of framing and the essay's first words are worth their weight in Common App gold. All we can say is, "Enjoy..." 


Many thousands of young people take on the writing challenge of the college essay each year, making 500 to 650-word personal narrative one of the most popular forms of writing in America. Yet most of the authors of the form have never done it before, and most won’t do it again. 

Advice for Working on the Essay this Summer

Fall of senior year is a busy time. So we strongly urge you to have at least your Common Application essay in good shape before senior year begins because writing the essays while attending school is like adding a class to your schedule -- remember, in addition to the Common App's, there are those in the supplements. Summer provides the luxury of uninterrupted time to reflect and write. And you're fortunate that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same, so you don't have to wait until August 1st to start working on them.

So here's some advice to kick start your essays over the coming summer months -- from a suggested reading list that we hope will inspire to some excellent step-by-step guidance on those Common App essay prompts.

Finding Your Voice in the Essay:  A suggested reading list of first-person essays.

The Real Topic of your Essay is You: One strategy to help you find a topic.

What are colleges looking for in the essay?

What three things should rising seniors be doing over the summer?

As we head off into the summer, we asked our experts what rising seniors should be doing this summer. As usual, they've got some great advice about how to rest, recharge, and prepare for a couple of steps in the college application process so you'll hit the ground running -- and avoid feeling overwhelmed -- in the fall. And don't forget, two of the most important and best things you can do this summer are rest and read, read, read... Nothing will prepare you better for senior year. Enjoy all of it!


Mai Lien Nguyen
College and Career Center Coordinator
Mountain View High School
Mountain View, CA


“Having fun” and “preparing for college applications” aren’t phrases you normally hear in the same breath.  But the summer before senior year could be the golden opportunity to make this happen.  Let’s see how:


Tips for Parents on the College Essay

Psychologist and counselor Jeanette Spires joins us again this month with advice for parents on the college essay. It can be helpful to parents -- as well as students -- to understand what the colleges are looking for and how important it is for the student to own this step in the process. Read on for more guidance about how to be involved "just right" and why weathering a "white knuckle" experience may be just fine.


"She won't even talk about it!"

"We have a great idea for him!"


The essay for selective colleges is often a source of frustration and conflict within a family. Understanding the function of the essay can be a calming solution to endless kitchen table "get off my back" discussions.

A tired reader hopes to know your student in a way that the glowing recommendations do not cover. How can I know this person better?

What would he be like to have on our campus? How does her mind work?

Years ago I took notes at a national college conference from a dean at one of the nation's most selective colleges: 

          "Don't try to anticipate our politics,,,don't patronize us...don't be terrified of offending us...don't read books of college essays; we've read them all.  It does not have to be perfect. We are here to help you grow. No vague generalities, avoid the boring or overused topics such as the D Words: divorce, depression, drugs and dog death. Humor is always appreciated!"


Have a question about a gap year? Scholarships? Guidebooks for your college search? Undocumented students? Learning differences? Don't forget to take advantage of our extensive listing of Resources! You'll find books and websites for every step and aspect of the college application process under Resources when you click on the Book tab in the header of the website. Check back regularly! We always updating our listings!

The Essay that Starts with a Dialogue with the Police Or How a Parent can Make an Interesting Essay Ponderous

Psychologist and counselor Jeanette Spires joins us again this month to talk about the essay, why it's a good idea to avoid too much "help" from parents, and what it means to show a college what matters to you.

What feels most out of control in the college admission world?   The winner may be the essay process. There is plenty of research indicating that the rigor of high school classes and the grades earned by students are the best predictors of success. But essays do not lend themselves to statistical study. Years ago when I began as a college counselor, there was something of an honor code about essays for competitive colleges. Today, checking search engines leads you to sites offering to take care of that onerous task for you.  "Harvard writers!"  Now why would a high school student want an essay written by a college graduate?  Ding-dong! The admissions reader isn't stupid.

Seniors: Helpful Hints for the Essay and Putting You on Paper

Seniors, last week we offered you a writing exercise to help get you started on your essays -- though we hope that you already have made some headway! Here's what you need to remember as you continue: the real topic is you. Whatever the essay is about on the surface, colleges care what the essay says about you. If you're still looking for the words that put you onto paper, here are some helpful hints:

Put a microscope to your life. Take a look at the little things around you. Go to your room and look at what’s on the walls, what’s under the bed, the things you’ve kept since second grade, or what about the thing you threw away that you really miss now. Where in the house do you spend the most time? Look for inspiration right under your nose. Ask yourself some of these questions:

• How do I spend my time?

• What do I like to do?

• What do I think about most of the time?

• What are the things that truly matter to me?

• What is my family like? Do we have any interesting rituals about dinners or board games or TV shows?

• What would I say about myself if I had to omit any mention of my extracurricular activities?

• When I think about who I am or what I care about, is there a particular day, moment, or event that was important in shaping that?

• If I, like Tom Sawyer, had a chance to eavesdrop at my own funeral, what would people say about me?

Seniors: An Exercise to Help with Your Essays

Seniors, how go your essays? If you’re struggling a little, we have an exercise we’ve found to be particularly effective for students whether they’re just starting or working on that fourth or fifth supplement! It’s one of our favorite writing prompts and one we often use when working with students in essay workshops: making a list.


Just sit down at the computer, set a timer for 5 minutes and start writing a list beginning with the prompt:

    I'm really good at…


And to give you a better idea of how this works, we’re sharing our own lists with you.

Here is Robin Mamlet's:

    I'm really good at:

    Envisioning possibility

    Words with Friends

    Being a mom

    Making Panini

    Growing tomatoes


    Drawing out others

    Snuggling with my kids on the couch

            Learning new things