Pondering The Mysteries of College Essays
Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the Amazon bestseller College Essay Essentials, the #1 book on college essays. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine.
Raised as a missionary kid in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia, Ethan studied at seventeen different schools. He’s worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, grant writer, theater director, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver (true story). Ethan is also certified in Myers-Briggs® and hypnotherapy.
He is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, SACAC, OACAC, HECA and IECA (feel free to Google those) and lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.collegeessayguy.com.
1.) Can you tell us a little of how you came to be “The College Essay Guy”? Sure! I studied screenwriting in college at Northwestern and after graduating I got a job as a college essay coach and realized many of the principles of screenwriting applied to college essay writing. So I started teaching my students screenwriting principles and voila! Some of them wrote really amazing essays and were accepted into some great schools. I enjoyed counseling so much that I went out and got two counseling certificates, started working on a book, started posting content from that book online and after my friend read some of my content she said, “You could be like THE college essay guy.” So I saw that no one else already was and I thought, “Oh. I guess that’s me.” (Ethan can be found at www.collegeessayguy.com)
2.) Can you share any success stories? Yes – I had a student named Ahra who was really shy growing up until she joined her school’s Debate Club, which helped her come out of her shell. Eventually debate helped her not only develop personal confidence, but it also improved her personal relationships and she went on to win an international award. She used the narrative structure to tell her story, and, thanks to her awesome grades and SATs, she’s now at Stanford. Another student of mine, Julia, had no idea what she wanted to study, but knew she loved scrapbooking. So she used scrapbooking as a focusing lens to write an awesome essay that tells about lots of different aspects of her life. She just graduated from Amherst.
3) What is your philosophy for the essay writing process? I believe we’re all storytellers. Telling stories is how we make sense of our lives, how we give shape to the chaos. And what I particularly love about the college essay is that it requires students to take stock of their past, present and future–which is a lot–and to turn it all into a one-page statement. It takes time, but it’s totally possible and the experience can be fun, therapeutic, and in some cases life-changing.
4.) Can you give us a few quick tips? Sure. First, in the vast sea of college prep activities, some people overlook the college essay. It’s true, GPA and course load (tough classes) are what colleges tend to care about most. Then, generally speaking, standardized test scores. But if your GPA and test scores are close to someone else’s, the essay can make the difference. Parke Muth, former associate Dean at UVA, has written more about this here. Second, some students make the mistake of thinking a personal statement can be written in one night. I find it takes on average 15-25 hours to write a really fantastic personal statement.
5.) What is the best college essay story you’ve ever heard and why? The best college essays stories I’ve read are the “I Shot My Brother” essay, about a student who shot his brother, and the “Dead Bird” essay, about a student who tried to save a dying bird. Here are four qualities of these amazing essays (and notes on what students can steal from them).
I (Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy) love it when articles and conference presentations offer a few take-away gems. But why not just create a presentation with *only* the gems, I thought? So I reached out to some of my favorite counselors and asked for their best essay tips and—voila!—this document came into existence. I’m grateful to the following folks for making important contributions to this article: Evelyn Alexander, Casey Rowley, Piotr Dabrowski, Chris Reeves, Susan Dabbar, Noah Kagan, Devon Sawyer, Josh Stephens, Lisa Kateri Gilbode, Randolf Arguelles.
Problem 1: How can I build rapport with my students more quickly?
1-Minute Solution: On your intake form, ask students to name a band or musician they're listening to lately. Then, when they come in for their one-on-one session, have that artist playing on Pandora.
Pro-Tip: Get Pandora One for just $3.99/mo to avoid getting interrupted by annoying ads.
Another idea: Ask a more interesting question than “How are you?” when you’re first checking in with a student. For example, “What are you celebrating today?” or “What mixed emotions are you experiencing at this moment?”
For more ideas, check out this list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions.
Problem 2: How can I keep students engaged during a three-day essay boot camp (and even get kids to talk about my sessions long after the fact)?
1-Minute Solution: Invest in great snacks. “Chocolate is a must,” says Chris Reeves, “and a Costco or Sam's Club membership can be key. Last year,” he adds, “I found Hot Fries to be pretty epic with the guys.”
Pro Tip: Ask attendees if they have allergies. If so, research the best snacks that won't kill anyone.
Another idea: Myers-Briggs (MBTI) mini-session
During multi-day essay workshops, I (Ethan) like to break things up after lunch on the second day with a mini Myers-Briggs assessment. How? First, I’ll introduce MBTI—what it is, how it was developed. Then I’ll give students a brief Myers-Briggs assessment by going through the preferences and having them self-select as they look at this chart. (I do this with lots of jokes and personal examples.) Next I’ll have them go to www.16personalities.com, take a brief assessment, and see what resonates. We spend 10 minutes or so on this, as it’s a great energizer, then we dive back into the essay work.
Problem 3: What are some ways to beat writer’s block?
1-Minute Solution: 4 ways to break free:
1. Move: Put on your headphones, blast your favorite tunes and talk a walk. Rake some leaves. Shake it loose with movement. Remember physics? Momentum will create new energy.
2. Play: Toss a ball with a friend. Color in one of those cool adult coloring books, grab a hunk of clay and mold something. Get dirty and tactile.
3. Motivate: As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk, you’ve got to sit down at the keyboard and invite the muse to show up. In short, don’t wait for your moment of inspiration; create it. Or give your perfectionism a rest and give yourself permission to “get a B+”.
4. Freewrite: Don’t necessarily start at the beginning and try not to overthink things. Do think randomly. Begin with a raw, non-linear, brain-dump. Or try writing morning pages. If writing or typing slows you down, use a dictation app like Dragon.
Problem 4: I just want to record a quick video (for example, to show a student where to click on a particular website) but I don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a camera, etc.
1-Minute Solution: Use Jing to record a quick video of your screen, then share it via Screencast.com. Jing is here. Or record directly from your Mac using QuickTime (no download needed)! To record from Mac: Open your Applications folder to find QuickTime (or use Spotlight). Once it's open, go to File > New Screen Recording and then click the Record button. You can choose between recording a portion of your screen or the entire screen. QuickTime tutorial is here.
Problem 5: Sometimes I just want to explain something quickly but I'm afraid it will take me too long to type it out and I'd rather not schedule a whole session with a student to explain a small thing. What should I do?
1-Minute Solution: See above! Record notes via video and then share it via Google Drive.
Problem 6: I have a student who seems to forget everything we talk about in our sessions. What can I do?
1-Minute Solution: Refer that student to another counselor! (Kidding.) Try Skype Call Recorder. Record the session in dual screen and then drag the file into a Google Drive folder with that student’s name on it, so that student can go back and remember what you discussed. You can record sessions remotely or in person.
Heads-up: This will start to take up a lot of space, so you’ll want to be diligent about dragging those files onto a separate hard drive and deleting them from your computer.
Bonus tip: One back-up drive isn’t enough. You need a back-up drive for your back-up drive that doesn’t live in the same place as your first back-up (i.e. your home/office). Keep a second back-up of your files elsewhere—perhaps on the Cloud. I recommend getting two of these. They’re inexpensive and haven’t failed me. I also back everything up on Google Drive.
Problem 7: I’m worried about liability with my students. We get pretty personal and I’m not 100% certain what might happen, but I just want to cover myself.
1-Minute Solution: Record your sessions. How? As mentioned above, record remote sessions via Skype Call Recorder or in-person sessions with the Quicktime method.
Problem 8: Sending drafts back and forth via microsoft word seems to take too long. (OR) I’m tired of typing in all caps.
1-Minute Solution: Are you using Google docs (aka Google Drive) yet? Maybe. But are you really using it? Here are three things you may not be doing:
- Restoring an earlier version of a document.
- Changing your status from “Editing” to “Suggesting” in the upper right corner.
- Typing with your voice. (Really, Google docs does that? Yup.)
Click here for seven more Google docs hacks that teachers (and counselors!) should know, including How to Create and Organize a Table of Contents.
Problem 9: How can I help keep students from missing sessions or coming without homework finished?
1-Minute Solution: Set up text reminders with AppToto.
Problem 10: How can I help my students avoid cliché language?
Idea #1: When you re-reading an essay draft, highlight all the clichés. Take as long as you need to replace them with expressions of your own phrasing. Even if your phrasing doesn't seem as "clever" or "eloquent," the essay will instantly become stronger and more genuine.
Idea #2: Imagine that your nemesis—your worst enemy, your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, your grade-school bully—is reading your essay. Highlight the parts that they would pick up on as being unconvincing, confusing, not credible, melodramatic, or disingenuous. Then strengthen it accordingly by making it more honest, more clear, more realistic, and more grounded.
Problem 11: How do I let students know that they are driving this process and I am the navigator?
1-Minute Solution: Lisa Kateri Gilbode gives each student a set of pilot wings. “They become sort of like their superhero capes,” she says, “And when we meet they wear their wings and it reminds them that they are in the lead.” Get sets of 10 pilot wings on Amazon for $18.88.
Problem 12: How can I be sure I'm listening more than talking in my one-on-one sessions with students?
1-Minute Solution: Along with their pilot wings, Lisa’s Gilbode’s students get a cricket clicker and because they are in the lead they get to click it when I do more of the talking and less listening. Get 12 clickers on Amazon for $7.71.
Problem 13: How can I help parents feel they have contributed during the essay-writing process but still keep healthy boundaries?
1-Minute Solution: At the start of the process, have parents complete a set of parent homework questions, which offers them a chance to feel heard and, in some cases, dump all of their hopes and fears. Then ask: Anything else? Then say (to those parents who want to be CC'd on drafts): “Sorry, we don’t do that, as we worry about too many cooks in the kitchen” (OR) “we like to make sure the student is really in the driver’s seat.” Then say, “I’d love to give the student a chance to work on the essays for a while with me, and we’ll check back in for feedback once the essays are in a good place and the student is ready.” Note that this questionnaire can be just 10 good questions long.
Pro Tip: I (Ethan) give parents the Values Exercise and have them complete it, then say, “Once finished, please list the top three values that you’d like to impart to your son/daughter, with a brief explanation.” Why do this? It 1) can help parents feel more connected to the process, 2) offers parents a sense of what exercises their student will be doing, 3) sometimes sparks neat conversations within the family.
Problem 14: I’m an independent counselor and I want more people to know about me and the great work I do with my students!
1-Minute Solution: Check out Sujan Patel’s “100 Days of Growth” PDF. For the first 26 pages, click here. To purchase the rest for $27 (and it’s worth much, much more), click here.
Problem 15: I’m an independent counselor and I really have no idea if my marketing is working or not!
1-Minute Solution: Do you have as many clients as you want? Great, you’re done! If not, use Dorie Clark’s Recognized Expert Evaluation Toolkit, which has great ideas for creating content, establishing social proof, and building your network, plus it has a self-assessment to help you rate how you’re doing.
Problem 16: How do I get my students to show and not tell?
1-Minute Solution: Have your students write down a list of adjectives that they want the colleges to know about themselves. Then tell the students they are not allowed to use those adjectives in their personal statements. Instead, make them tell stories that will force the reader to conclude that the students have those qualities. This takes practice, but great writing is rewriting.
Problem 17: How do my students know if their personal statement is personal enough?
1-Minute Solution: (Speaking to a student) Get together with a group of friends after you've written your first drafts of personal statements. Don't put the authors' names on the drafts. Mix them up and pass them around. Your friends should be able to tell which draft you wrote. If they can’t, your personal statement may not be personal enough.
Problem 18: I want to show my students good examples of personal statements, but I don't want to show them college application personal statements because I’m concerned they might just copy the structure and content of the examples. Where can I tell them to look for good examples of non-college app personal statements?
1-Minute Solution: Check out NPR’s This I Believe.
Pro-Tip: Some teens like the piece by pro skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Problem 19: How can I get my procrastinating student(s) to focus for just 25 minutes on an essay draft?
1-Minute Solution: Have them download the Tomato One app, which is a simple timer that counts down from 25 minutes. It dings, then gives a five-minute break, then counts down another 25 minutes. Note that this has been responsible for all of my most productive days.
Problem 20: How can I liven up a boring/CLICHÉ essay topic?
1-Minute Solution: Play the UC (Uncommon Connections) Game. All will be explained on that page.
Problem 21: How can I improve an essay in just one minute?
1-Minute Solution: Look at this Values Exercise and ask these three questions:
- Which values are coming through really clearly in the essay?
- Which values are kind of coming through but could be coming through more clearly?
- Which values aren’t there yet but could be?
For more: Watch the Great College Essay Test.
Problem 22: How do I get students to come up with interesting topics for the “intellectual vitality” supplemental essay (for Stanford, and other schools)?
1-Minute Solution: Check out this Google spreadsheet with every TED talk ever. Have students search for topics that interest them (e.g. neuroscience, climate change) and then binge watch some TED talks.
Problem 23: Tired of pestering a student who won’t respond to deadlines and is constantly making excuses?
1-Minute Solution: Outsource the pestering by hiring a personal coach via Coach.me. For as little as $65/mo, the student gets unlimited emails and in-app communication. This has positively changed the game for a couple of my students—and either you can suggest it to parents and let them pay the cost or work it into your fee, as I do (it’s worth it!). I recommend Kendra.
Problem 24: The majority of my students are overseas and work with me online. How do I create a welcoming environment when we are not working in person?
1-Minute Solution: On the intake form, ask where their happy place is. Where does the student feel most empowered, comfortable and/or creative? Then use green-screen technology to create that space in my location. How? Use Zoom Meeting Pro which has built-in chromakey technology ($14.95/mo for a single host). You can also use WeVideo, which is a bit more finicky, but some students overseas don't have the power to support Zoom.
Here are some how-to videos:
Problem 25: What do I do when a student is incredibly anxious about essays/college admissions/testing, etc?
A. Check-in at the beginning of the meeting. Often we have a small window to meet with students and when they come in we’re not really sure where they are mentally before diving into a conversation about their future, which often involves heavy self-reflection/decision making. It can be incredibly helpful to “check-in” with a student for literally 30 seconds to see where they are mentally.
B. Stop Breathe Think is an app and website with short meditation and mindfulness resources. On their homepage you can complete a few questions and add your mood/feelings and it will give you suggestions on everything from gratitude, to short meditations, breathing and journaling. I’ll ask a student to do one of these exercises between now and the next time we meet and then I’ll follow up with their experience.
C. Listen to the most relaxing song ever. Or click here for a guided meditation I created using that song as background.
Problem 26: How can I improve every essay workshop I give… in just one minute?
1-Minute Solution: Spend one minute answering these three questions:
- What do I want them to know?
- What do I want them to feel?
- What do I want them to do?
And that’s just what I did for this article… I wanted you to know a wide range of tools, tips and tricks. I wanted you to feel informed, energized and inspired. I wanted you to return to your work with more ease, purpose and joy.
So go do that now.
Here are a few more contributions shared at the IECA Conference in May, 2017:
- Spread comfy pillows on the floor of your office!
- Ask students to pick three (and only three!) people to receive feedback from.
- Write three drafts and ALWAYS start fresh each time.
- Turn on the voice memo feature on your phone and just let the student talk. Then give them the audio and say, “Go write that down.”
- For students who feel they can’t write *anything*, have them write for one minute, then count the words they wrote and ask, “Could we do a few more in the next minute?” Build little wins.
- Have the student list their superhero characteristics. (Student is the superhero.)
- My favorite: Use the visual mind-mapping tool called coggle.it , which helps students create an outline in just a few minutes.