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Common App Essay: Can you stand some more advice?

5 Oct

Photo by Samantha Decker. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s that time of year for seniors, and if the summer was not spent writing and polishing essays for college applications, panic might be setting in right about now…. Below, I re-post a blog entry by Robert S. Schwartz called “The Last and Definitive Word on Writing the Common Application Essay”; in it, he suggests some things you’ve probably heard before about how to plan and draft a college essay… but on the off-chance it might help, it can’t hurt to take a look:

As you read this, your browser is exploding with the search results of Googling, “help with my college essay,” or “college application essay help.” or, “OMG! Help me with my college essay!” And after reading what everyone and their college application consultant brother have to say on the subject — you’re more confused than ever.

This time of year, my phone rings off the hook with distressed, frantic parents trying to figure out how to help their kid write these things. And the first thing I tell them to do is what I am telling you to do — sit back, take a deep breath, don’t over-think it, and always, always, always remember — a simple story, well told, will get an applicant further than a complicated one that a college or university admissions person has read a million times before.

So here are a few, no-nonsense, guaranteed steps to make the writing process easier for both overwhelmed applicant and anxious parent alike.

1) Let’s set aside the supplemental essay’s (“Why Harvard… ” or, “What do you bring to Stanford… “) and focus only on the Common Application essay, which offers 6 essay choices. The first 5 are fairly middle-of-the road queries, a one-size-fits-all, if you will. If they truly speak to you and your experiences, these topics — “Significant relationships,” “An issue of personal or social significance,” “Describe how you would bring diversity to your college or university” — will serve you well. The only problem is that an admissions officer has read all of these stories before a million and one times. It’s difficult to convince them your “bullying brother story” is any more interesting or unique than “the bullying brother story” they read before yours — or even the next “bullying brother story” they will read after yours.

So if one of those first 5 choices doesn’t get you excited, I often suggest to my students that they go with choice #6 — “topic of your choice.” Sure, it might be a scary proposition to fly without a net, but your odds of telling them a unique story is significantly greater. This is where you can shine.

2) If you don’t have access to a college application essay consultant, choose one smart, trusted friend (and not your parent) to be your editor. This is vital, because an interested and inquisitive outsider can get to the heart of you, the subject, faster and easier than someone who sees you simply as their child. Objectivity is tantamount! Once you have chosen someone — outline your story. Even though the common application essay may be as short as 250 words, I highly recommend using all 500. Break up your story into four paragraphs of 125 words (or 5 paragraphs of 100 words) using bullet points.

Write down what you wish to accomplish in each paragraph. It’s so much easier to build a house with blueprints than to start pouring a foundation, building walls, and putting up a roof without one. Once that’s done, go ahead and start writing a draft. Don’t worry about going over the word count, because you will have plenty of opportunities to edit with later drafts.

3) Once a first draft is complete, give it to that trusted friend and be open to their suggestions and comments. Take the comments you agree with, ignore the ones you do not. This is where your convictions take over. Before you start another draft, set your essay aside for a day or so and let it breathe. Better to come back to it with a clear head and a fresh set of eyes than to rush through a rewrite you might not be ready to tackle.

4) Once a second draft is complete, give it back to that trusted friend, then sit back and wait for the inevitable good news/bad news. As with the first draft, he or she will like some of what you wrote but might also have more notes or comments. Again, you might not agree with what they think, but you are now knee deep into the process and keeping an objective eye will get increasingly difficult.

5) Finally, take that last pass. This is perhaps your final chance to elevate it from very good to really incredible. When you think you have done the best job you can, hand it off to your friend and let them tell you how great it is, or where they think the problems still exist. Again, put the essay down for a day or so and give yourself some more distance from it. Once you’re ready to come back to it, now it’s time to do a line edit, correcting for punctuation, grammar and spelling.

The college application essay is really your last and best chance to show a college admissions officer who you really are. Some think of the essay as a “tie breaker,” something they use when they want to see beyond grades or test scores, which will push an applicant “over the top.” Tell a great story. Tell it very, very well. Enjoy the process of edifying the reader. Be smart, be interesting, be yourself. And in the words of Steve Martin –“be so good they can’t ignore you.”


Summer Poetry Program for Teens @ Newton Free Library

14 Jul


 AGES 12+

Mondays at 7:30 P.M.

July 25, 2011


August 15, 2011

Join us as we explore the world of poetry by reading some aloud and by writing some of your own.

Registration starts Friday, July 1, 2011. Please register in the Children’s Room at the desk, or call: (617) 796-1370. You may register for just one or both sessions. If you have further questions, please speak to Jean Holmblad.

* This program is best suited for teens

who love words and love writing! *

 Newton Free Library

330 Homer Street

Newton, MA 02459

Great advice about being a “beginner” at anything

24 May

Ira Glass of “This American Life” has some words of wisdom that come out of his own experience:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.


For Teens Who Love Words and Writing…

31 Mar



 AGES 12-18


Mondays at 7:30 P.M.


April 11, 25, 2011


May 2 & 9, 2011


Join us as we explore the world of poetry by reading some aloud and by writing some of your own.


Registration starts Monday, April 4, 2011. Please register in the Children’s Room at the desk, or call: (617) 796-1370.


* This program is best suited for teens

who love words and love writing! *




330 Homer Street

Newton, MA 02459

Contest! The 2011 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are now accepting Submissions!

24 Jan

Established in 1923, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is the nation’s largest, longest-running, most prestigious visual and literary arts program recognizing accomplishments of students in grades 7 – 12.  It is a symbol of excellence that can bolster resumes, college applications, and scholarship applications.  All National Award recipients earn a place on the National Recipient list.  Selected works will be featured in the National Catalog and The Best Teen Writing anthology.  Most importantly, winning a Scholastic Art & Writing Award offers the opportunity for scholarships.  At the regional level, award-winning seniors have access to more than $3.5 million in scholarships from local institutions.  At the national level, $10,000 scholarships are given to 15 graduating seniors who earn Portfolio Gold Medals, a select number of Portfolio Silver Medalists will earn $1,000 Notable Achievement Awards, and seniors who earn Portfolio Gold Medals or Portfolio Silver Medals can leverage partial to full-ride scholarships from a network of 60 arts universities and institutes, which annually earmark $3.9 million in financial aid.

To share your creative work with The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, you can go to and click “Register Now” to access the Scholastic Awards Online Registration System.  Here you’ll find out about the categories of art and writing, how to prepare your work, and your regional guidelines and deadlines.  You’ll have to know your school’s ZIP code to determine your regional program.

Generally, the answers to virtually all questions you might have about the entire process will be found in the site’s extensive FAQ page.

New Website for Teens with Literary Leanings

9 Dec

Figment is a free platform, where teens can both read and write fiction.  However, you’re not limited to uploading your prose from your computer– you can also write your novel on your cellphone!  Users of the site are invited to write novels, short stories, & poems, and to collaborate with other writers and give & receive feedback on the work posted on the site.  In addition, one of the site’s creators, Jacob Lewis, has said that he hopes Figment will serve as an opportunity for publishers to roam the Web site looking for fresh young talent, or promote their own authors by running book excerpts. Apparently several publishers have already signed on.  For example, Running Press Kids will provide an excerpt from “Purple Daze”, a historical novel for teens written by Sherry Shahan.  And Blake Nelson, bestselling author of GIRL (which was originally serialized in Sassy), is currently serializing his new book “Dream School” on the site.  On top of that, there are contests, forums, and a blog (which, among other things, posts author interviews and book reviews).  So check it out today!

Sign up for Poetry Writing!

12 Nov
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