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College Essay Help 2013 Movies

I’m always on the lookout for great writing guides—especially books on how to write narrative, slice-of-life essays (like mine).

Only recently did I discover this book, Concise Advice, by Robert N. Cronk.

What I loved was that his approach was different than mine, but arrived at the same goal—a compelling college application essay that reveals the writer’s unique personality, character, passions, talents, goals, etc.

This is what I wrote about our two different approaches in a review for Amazon on the latest (third) edition of his book:

I was surprised at how similar this book was to mine, although it offered a different approach–and our goals were very similar. My guide steps students through the process of finding their defining qualities, and then looking for slice-of-life “moments” or “incidents” that illustrate that quality in a compelling way. I encourage them to look for “times” when they encountered some type of “problem,” and use that to show how they handled it and what they learned. The result are highly readable “narrative” essays that do a beautiful job of revealing what makes a student tick.

Cronk’s approach has students use a movie script writing model, but it actually walks them through the same creative process. He encourages them to start with a “cold open,” where you begin with an exciting “moment” in a real-life story to grab the reader, and then go from there. He also encourages the reader to find some type of “conflict” that she or he can relate to show how they grew and changed.

See how similar they are? I actually love that there are different ways to find and tell our stories in these essays. 

Anyway, I asked Robert if he would let me interview him for my blog so he could share some more tips and ideas with students. (I’m going to run our little question and answer in two parts.) Here is part one:

Me: So, Bob, the first thing I wanted to ask is how important you think the application essay is.

Bob: It depends on the school, but for selective universities, I think it’s more important than ever before.

With the advent of the Common Application and the use of the Internet for college research and rankings, schools are getting record numbers of applications. And because students self-select for the most elite schools, the colleges are inundated with so many applications that all portray great students.

Everyone has great grades, wonderful EC’s, great recommendations, and so on.

I participated once in the selection process for one department of a top school and I thought you could throw the apps into the air and grab randomly as they fell and still get a great set of students.

So the essay is a chance for the school to start to really distinguish one student from another.

Me: What are your most helpful tips for writing these essays?

Bob: Writing an essay is unbelievably stressful for students. You stare at the prompts, you wonder how the school wants the prompts answered, and how to best put yourself in a good light.  No wonder students get brain-freeze when they think about the writing process.

And getting started is the hardest part of all.

I think you and I agree that once an essay is started, the rest of the job is a little easier.  So my top three tips (which will probably sound familiar to your readers) are: (1) Get started with an anecdote as you call it, or a “cold-open” as I call it; (2) Make your essay the telling of a story; and (3) Make the college want you.

Me: Can you sum up your approach that you share in your book?

Bob: You’ve always heard the phrase to “show” and not “tell” your story in an essay. But what is the most effective story-telling medium that shows the story and makes you fall in love with the main character?  A movie, of course. So I teach the reader the basic “recipe” for movie scripts and how to adapt that to essays.

My book gives specific ways to get started and to write in a focused way.  For example, once the initial paragraph is written, I think the next step is to write the ending!  This gives you a starting point and an ending point and helps keep the middle focused and the word count under control, essentially showing the transition from start to finish.

Me: Does your approach help students’ essays stand out from the crowd? If so, how?

Bob: We’ve all read essays where we’re bored by the end of the third paragraph, if not earlier.  I’ve tried to create an approach that does two things I think are of utmost importance:  First, write a story that keeps the reader’s interest, and second, leave the reader with a positive impression about the writer, one that makes a college say, “We want this person at our school.”

Me: What do you say to students who don’t think they have anything “special” or “unique” to write about?

Bob: For an essay to be memorable and powerful, the topic needs to be memorable and powerful to the writer.  For something in your life to be memorable, it must be significant to you, special to you, unique to you.

The topic for your essay has to found in your own memory.  If that memory changed you, made you stronger, wiser, opened your eyes to something bigger than you, tested you, or impacted who you were, that is “significant,” and a good topic choice.

My favorite essay of all time – by far – was from a student who met a great guy, and talked about their first few hours together.  It was not only brilliantly written, but it showed a subtle change in her realizing that she was not alone in feeling somewhat isolated from her “conformist” friends.

That essay is included in the third edition of my book. I am totally convinced that it led to her Ivy acceptances and a full-ride, non-needs-based scholarship to a prestigious California university.

Thanks, Robert! Stay tuned for Part Two, and more advice on how to write stand-out college application essays!

Ready to start your essay? Check out How to Write a College App Essay in 3 Steps.

Good luck! Leave me a comment if you have a minute. Love hearing from you all!!


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By iStock

You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.

While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.

“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”

The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:

1. Open with an anecdote.

Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.

“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”

Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.

2. Put yourself in the school’s position.

At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.

“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.

RELATED: Goucher College aims to level playing field with video application option

3. Stop trying so hard.

“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”

Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!

Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.

4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness

There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.

On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.

“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.

RELATED: 3 tips for getting your college application materials in on time 

5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them

Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.

“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.

6. Read the success stories.

“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”

Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.

Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”

7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.

“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”

The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.

RELATED: Who reads your college applications anyway? 

8. Follow the instructions.

While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.

“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”

9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.

Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”

Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.

At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”

 Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University. 

admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 


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