Getting In: The College Essay – It’s time to get to work!

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Photo by Silviac courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I know it is the middle of July, and most rising seniors are enjoying the lazy days of summer, time with friends, jumping in the swimming pool, and sleeping in, but they should not get too relaxed.  It is time to get the college essay written.  I haven’t called them all, but I think it’s fair to say that every college counselor in the country advises getting at least a solid draft completed before the return of the school year.  So, just as students were gearing down from junior year, chock full of SATs, ACTs, APs and Honors courses that we hope will increase their value on the college admissions block, it’s time for them to gear back up again.

Writing can be a challenge for the best of us, and many 17-year-olds are still honing their craft.  Naturally, there are a variety of resources available for kids to get a little help.  Schools and businesses offer seminars and workshops, private tutors provide one-on-one guidance, and there is a great deal of free information online for the more motivated, self-helper.

For those who prefer a traditional learning environment, Gilman School is offering an Essay Writing Workshop the weeks of August 13-17, and August 20-24.  The workshop runs for five days, two hours each evening (5-7 pm), and the charge is $250.  Similarly, Bryn Mawr School is sponsoring a three day workshop August 20-22, from 11 am to 2 pm (scheduled mid-day so students can work around that pre-season athletic schedule!).  It costs $50. (UPDATE: Open to BMS students only. Sorry.)

For the student who prefers the individual focus of a tutor, there are many writing coaches and instructors out there.  Try finding one on,,,, or call your high school for a recommendation for a private writing tutor.  Many instructors from all those English departments out there love this type of extra work.

Finally, for the kid who prefers self-study, he or she can find great tips online.  Websites like provide good, free advice on how to structure and execute an interesting, powerful essay using anecdotes as the introduction to illustrate the developing message.  (I also interviewed last fall BFB Senior Editor Betsy Boyd, who tutors students on the college essay, for her tips. Read Coaching College Essays.) Google “common application essay self-help,” and, well, you’ll see what I mean.  There is LOTS of free advice out there – but remember, it might only be worth what you paid for it.

Word to the wise: in 2011, the College Board reinstated the 500-word maximum (250 word minimum) for admissions essays.  While some high school seniors may be raising the roof over the limitation, thinking “Alleluia!  I don’t have to write a lot!” be warned.  It can be challenging to say what needs to be said in a limited essay.  Students will have to choose words carefully, and make them count.  After all, this is their chance to shine!

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  1. Five hundred words! Maybe some super-achievers have that much to say at age 15, but I would not have. Still, trying to encapsulate one’s life of achievement in something like two pages is a challenge.

    In circumstances like this, I’d think it wiser to keep in mind the comment Twain made to a friend in a letter: “I’m sorry to write you such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Maybe Matsua Basho could manage to put some pithy insight of universal wisdom into 17 syllables of haiku, but for us mortals it is enough of a challenge to make a coherent statement and string together three paragraphs in proper form.

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