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Smart advice from a college application essay expert

Elizabeth Benedict has smart advice for the college application essay.
Elizabeth Benedict has smart advice for the college application essay.
Dan Lake

I recently had the opportunity to chat with award-winning writer, Ivy League writing professor and college application essay expert Elizabeth Benedict. Below are Elizabeth's responses to some tough college application essay questions.

Q: College admissions officers are said to be tired of "community service" trip essays. What's your advice to students who want to write about their moving – though perhaps commonplace – experience?

A: It’s important to understand why admissions people feel this way about this topic, as well as the sports victory or the death of a grandparent themes. It’s not because they aren't meaningful, but as material for the essay, they are very predictable. Admissions folks say that once such an essay begins, it's pretty clear where it’s going to end. It might be better to save this topic for one of the shorter essays, as many colleges ask you to write briefly about a job or extracurricular event.

Q: Similarly, what if "the big football game" really is a student's most compelling topic? How can students write about a cliché experience in a refreshing, engaging way?

A: The problem is predictability. The Common Application prompts are so varied and so probing, I just bet that if a student goes carefully through these prompts, alone or with an adult, he or she will find another subject. If the “big football game” was the most compelling subject, look for the second most compelling subject, and use the football experience, if necessary, in one of the shorter essays.

Q: If a college essay coach doesn't write the student's essay, what does the coach actually do?

A: A swimming coach doesn’t swim for the swimmer. She offers structure for practicing, sets goals, provides a schedule, and then keeps the swimmer going, even at 5am. What I do as a coach is complex: I start by getting as full a picture of the student as I can (grades, score, extracurriculars, college goals, list of schools), so that I understand who she is and what she’s aiming for. Many schools require many more essays than the one Common App essay. I want to know how many essays she’ll have to write, what they are, and how we might be able to recycle some of them for similar questions. Some students will see that they need to write three essays, and some fifteen. I have the student create a chart, so she knows from the beginning what’s ahead and how much time we will need.

First, we tackle the Common App essay, or whatever the central essays are for that school if it doesn't use the Common App. We begin by going through the prompts, making a list of what comes up as possible material. Sometimes students will have a clear idea of what they want to write. Other times they won’t have a clue, but by the end of brainstorming, they’ll have said something that sounds like a good story or good essay material.

Often a student will have an idea for an essay but not be sure if it’s a “good” idea. This is where I’ll come in and encourage or discourage a particular idea. Once we settle on an idea, I’ll ask the student if he wants to go off and write a draft, or if he wants to work on the opening with me. I’ll respond to a draft as a writing teacher. I may point to a specific section that needs to be developed more to make his point. I’ll point out clichéd phrases and ask him to express the idea in his own words. We do a version of this for every essay in the list, but after the first few, it gets much easier!

I’ve taught writing for more than 20 years to college students, grad students and adults. Working with students on these essays takes three to five drafts. Students frequently ask, “How do I express this idea,” and I’ll say, “Say it exactly the way you just said it to me.” They are surprised that they are allowed to express themselves simply and directly, since so much of writing for school is about “trying to sound smart” which is actually the opposite of good personal essay writing.

Q: College admissions officers and counselors always advise students to just "be yourself." But how can that be enough when EVERYONE is himself or herself?

A: Stick with the prompts. The prompts ask very specific questions, and the more specific you can be in answering them, the more “yourself” you will be. Tell a story. Describe a moment. Paint a picture. You’re the only one with that particular story to tell – unless (sorry to bring this up again) you’re writing about the football victory.

Q: Does the 50-150 word supplementary essay about why the student wants to go to that university really matter? And if so, how can students stand out – especially if they have not yet visited the school?

A: The supplementary essays are extremely varied, and they are often far more demanding than just “why this school?” If a school has many supplementary essays and short answer questions, you better believe they are reading these essays. I think their purpose is two-fold: 1. To find out more about a student’s interests, outlook, intellectual maturity, and potential to thrive there. 2. To set up a barrier to frivolous applications.

To answer the “why this school” question if you haven’t visited the school – or even if you have: study the website, the course catalog, the school’s mission, and the biographies/research of some of the teachers whose work interests you. Be as specific as you can be about fields of study, particular departments and courses that look interesting or approaches to education that are unusual. If the school requires students to do internships for part of every year or has a special philosophy based on intensive three-week courses, mention that and why that appeals to you. If you’re applying early decision, it’s a great idea to visit the school as a show of interest, and perhaps mention an experience you had while visiting (attended a class, met students who conveyed X or Y about the school that made an impression on you).

Q: Tell us about a few of the most exciting, unique college application essays you've ever read.

A: A NYC student once wrote about working at a relative’s organic food stand in California for a week, and how that changed her views on food, eating, and nutrition, and when she came home, she got her family to eat differently, and became interested in the local food movement. Another student wrote about his deep love of opera – and about a specific, extremely demanding opera that he had seen three times. It was a great window into his intellectual maturity and curiosity. Another wrote about losing her cell phone and deciding not to get another one, and what it meant to be cut off and disconnected in our hyper-connected world. Another wrote about a summer job in a beach town, working in a busy local lunch place whose customers were construction workers and summer beach goers. The essay was funny and insightful and made me really feel what it was like to be in that place when it was insanely busy.

Q: Are there any risks to being too edgy or novel in your essay style or subject matter?

A: College essays are not creative writing exercises or places to experiment with telling a story backwards or upside down. Students sometimes feel that by being “extra creative” they can get the attention of the admissions people, but unless they are really gifted in this, it’s probably best to answer the questions in a straightforward way. The people reading your essays have thousands to read, and they want to get the gist of you quickly and directly.

Q: What are some specific tips for making a mundane story stand out? Conversely, what might doom an exciting idea or anecdote to mediocrity?

A: All writing is about doing battle with clichés and generalities. Tell a story. Be specific. Put the reader there with you in that moment. In probing essays, schools want to know what your experiences were and – just as important – how you understand them, and what they meant to you. Don’t write 90 percent of your essay about a life changing experience and ten percent about how it changed you. Think more of 50/50 ratios. Many students like to read sample essays, because it gives them ideas but I think it's better to read general good writing – essays by terrific writers, The New Yorker magazine, and a favorite, very hip grammar book called Sin and Syntax: Crafting Wicked Good Prose, by Constance Hale.

Q: Do you remember your own college application essay? If you could go back in time, what would you write about?

A: I don’t remember anything except that I wrote in pen on the application. I applied early decision to Barnard College and got in, so it was not a long, drawn-out process. As a fiction writer and essayist, I have written a lot about growing up in Manhattan when I did, and I suppose, if I had to do all over again – thank heavens I don’t! – I would write about what growing up in New York has meant to me.

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I recommend Elizabeth's smart, pithy columns on college admissions in the Huffington Post. You can learn more about her and her services at her website, Don't Sweat the College Essay.

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About the author: Karen Berlin Ishii, a graduate of Brown University, has 25+ years of experience as a teacher and test prep tutor. Karen teaches students in New York and internationally via Skype for the PSAT, SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, IELTS, TOEFL and GRE, and also offers tutoring in reading, writing and math. Learn more about Karen at karenberlinishii.com.