May 14, 2012
The College Admissions Essay: Finding a Topic
By ALAN GELB
Mr. Gelb is the author of "Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps." He has written advice for The Choice on how to whittle your admissions essay and how juniors should prepare their essays during the summer before senior year.
For your college admissions essay, you will be asked to write 500 flawless words on a subject that is deeply personal under circumstances in which the stakes are very high. Now how could that not feel like a daunting task? This Tip Sheet offers some advice about the hardest part of the job: finding a topic.
There are a lot of strange theories about what constitutes a good topic. Some students are convinced that the personal statement has to be a "peanut butter" essay. (Apparently, that's shorthand for any off-beat, attention-grabbing piece that focuses on why you love peanut butter … or smoked herring … or the Three Stooges.) I don't subscribe to that theory. Your topic does not need to be a singular invention never encountered before.
For those who say that you're not allowed to write about pets or grandparents or broken limbs (yes, I've heard such claims), I say bosh to that as well. As far as I'm concerned, the only taboo is shameless self-promotion. (As vice president of my class, I selflessly sought to install healthy foods in the cafeteria vending machines…)
Finding a good topic to write about can be a challenge, but let me try to help by offering these three suggestions:
1. Understand the parameters of the assignment. The point of your college admissions essay is to connect you to the person who is reading it. In order to make such a connection, you'll want to tell a compelling story that shows you as an authentic and caring human being, someone who merits a place in a college community. If you manage to do that, you'll be in good shape.
2. Acknowledge your constraints. You only have 500 words to work with — not a lot of space. You can't tell us all about your summer building houses for Habitat. You can only tell a small piece of it. So what story is lurking within that larger story? Learning from an elderly volunteer how to correctly wield a hammer? That might be a good topic, showing you as a person who is open to learning from others. Through that focusing-down process, potential topics should start to appear and take shape.
3. Ask yourself questions. Once you have a sense of the requirements and limitations connected to this assignment, you can start asking yourself exploratory questions that will help dredge up topics of some promise. What keeps me up at night? What in the world utterly fascinates me? Which of my relationships have I worked at the hardest? Make a list, answer them quickly, put them aside, come back to them, and see where you feel a magnetic pull. Those are the topics that are waiting to be written.
Remember: Everyone has a story to tell. It's just a matter of discovering that story.
November 1, 2011
Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay
By ALAN GELB
Matt Flegenheimer's interesting piece in The Times on Saturday on the legitimacy of exceeding 500 words on the college admissions essay got me thinking about how often such excess is actually warranted.
Most first drafts I see are several hundred words beyond that mark. That is to be expected, but by the second and third drafts, they are very close to the 500 word count. I almost never encounter essays that justify exceeding that limit. The extra verbiage usually reflects problematic writing choices, so I would like to offer a few tips on how to keep your essay concise with no sacrifice of meaning or impact:
Know where to start. This is the most important factor in keeping your essay within bounds. Your first decision is where to pick up the narrative. Keeping in mind that a 500-word essay is a limited piece of real estate, don't start your story about building houses in Haiti in your bedroom in Philadelphia, packing your bags. Skip the plane ride. Just plunge right into the action that matters most. That said, the work of telling a good story is understanding what matters most.
Try a trusty literary device. The one I am referring to is called in media res (Latin for "in the middle of things"). You might surprise the reader by opening your essay with a line of dialogue. "Watch out! We're falling!" Or The line went dead. Or The door slammed. Such openings grab a reader's attention and save precious time.
Avoid adjectives, adverbs, qualifiers. A lot of excess word count may be traced back to an overuse of word forms that often muck things up. We went hiking on a lovely spring day doesn't tell me much more than We went hiking on a spring day. (Unless it's raining, I'll assume the spring day is lovely). Adverbial excesses like He reacted emphatically can best be dealt with by dropping the adverb altogether or finding a good verb that says more in less words (flinched, grimaced—whatever makes sense in terms of that emphatic reaction you were trying to capture). And all those qualifiers like very, most, especially are usually expendable.
Pay close attention to sentence structure. Getting lost in your sentence structure will take up words (and exasperate readers). A good rule of thumb is to start your sentences with a subject and a verb. Here's a sentence that uses more words to say less: Brainstorming on what we could do, we came to the solution that we could sell our origami to neighbors that lived on the same block. (25 words) Now the alternative: We brainstormed and came up with a solution: to sell our origami to neighbors. (14 words—and you notice that the word "neighbors" didn't need that extra definition).
If you keep these tips in mind, you should be able to whittle your admissions essay to well within the limits.
July 27, 2011
The College Conqueror
By ALAN GELB
Let's get one thing straight: Alan Gelb is not my daughter Gracie's
college application-essay tutor. I'm not saying I'd be averse to the idea,
if I could cough up his standard $1,200 fee. It's mostly that we haven't
gotten there yet. Gracie isn't even sure where she wants to apply.
Not to worry. I have no doubt that come September, or at the latest
October, we'll be in a lather like everyone else, fretting over SAT, or in
Gracie's case ACT, scores, making her brag sheet sing and brow-beating her
into believing that her destiny hinges on raising her French grade to an
A- from a B+.
Also, I don't much believe in the sanctity of the college application
process. In the best of all possible worlds, every student would be judged
on his or her merits. Unfortunately, we don't live in the best of all
possible worlds. We live in Manhattan. And you're competing against
families with unlimited resources to throw at the challenge. They've
possibly hired their kids academic tutors, separate SAT tutors,
nutritionists, shrinks and private college admissions advisors, and even
brought their wealth-management advisors on board. (The latter to advise
the parents on whether they can afford to buy their child's first-choice
college a new hockey rink and thus go into the charmed "development case"
I'm sure the colleges are utterly well-intentioned (because I'm a
supplicant, take everything I'm saying with a grain of salt). But they
have to consider their all-important U.S. News ranking and thus can ill
afford to accept someone who got a C+ in ninth grade, unless the kid can
prove it was the result of some family calamity that he or she has
heroically managed to surmount (and may care to address in the
If I sound bitter, it's only because I've been covering this beat for
years and have an older child who survived the process, and couldn't be
happier where she went to college--a not uncommon outcome, much of the
anxiety and ego erosion suffered only by the parents.
I mention these factors to suggest that when Alan Gelb and I met at an
upstate café a couple of weeks ago‹a place that couldn't have seemed
further away from the academic fisticuffs of New York City--to discuss the
craft of application--essay writing, and coaching, my disinterest was
Mr. Gelb explained that he became an essay consultant‹a professional
writer, he's the author of "Conquering the College Admissions Essay In 10
Steps" almost by accident. He started offering his services pro bono to
teenagers at the local high school, in Chatham, N.Y., after he'd helped
his own son with an essay; he became intrigued with the question of how to
"differentiate" oneself on the application.
If this had been Manhattan, there might have been a stampede for Mr.
Gelb's free service. But the process is decidedly mellower upstate, where
everybody isn't competing to get into the same 20 or 30 selective
colleges. "There was no pattern to who I was helping," he recalled. "It
wasn't the smartest kids in the class. Whoever got wind of me. If I was
doing this at Horace Mann pro bono, every kid in the class would be
Mr. Gelb contends that his book, and his method of coaching the
approximately 10 fee-paying students he typically accepts a year--they're
no longer just in Chatham but also on the Upper West Side, the Midwest and
as far away as Singapore--is different from much else in the glutted
college admissions marketplace.
"How to psyche out the admissions people" is how he characterized other
books on the subject. "Do this. Don't do that. Never write about this."
He said he took his inspiration from Robert McKee's celebrated
screenwriting seminars, which he attended. "There were really some very
good lessons--issues of conflict. I thought it would be great to have a
book out there that approached the whole college admissions thing from the
point of writing.
"Everyone likes a good story," he went on. "The point of this assignment
is to make a human connection with the person who's going to be reading
it. Everybody applying to these selective schools have great boards, and
averages, and extracurriculars. The one place where they can differentiate
themselves is the essay."
One of his students wrote about avoiding the reality of her sister's brain
tumor, happily discovered benign, until she attended a summer drama camp
where the director pushed her to confront issues of life and death while
rehearsing "Our Town."
"She went to Brown," Mr. Gelb reported. "Early decision."
Another student, a Chinese American who lived in Iowa, was stumped about
what to write (Mr. Gelb's book tries to encourage the creative process by
posing questions such as: "Have you ever felt pure rage?" and "When have
your body and mind felt in perfect harmony?") until the kid shared a
seemingly insignificant memory: He'd visited Taiwan as a 9-year-old and
been spirited off to the countryside by his colorful grandfather, where in
the back room of a ramshackle barbershop, he feasted on ice cream.
"It's a quirky story about finding a connection to his grandfather, who he
portrays as a risk taker," Mr. Gelb explained. "He identifies with that.
He wants to emulate it in his own life. The kid got into Harvard."
I fret for Gracie. Our family, luckily, is healthy. If either of her
grandfathers ever took her for ice cream it was probably no further than
the corner Baskin-Robbins. What's the poor kid to do?
"Everybody has conflict," Mr. Gelb explained reassuringly. "It doesn't
have to be conflict with a capital 'C.' There's conflict in comedy."
Come September, we'll find a way to generate conflict, somehow.
-- by Ralph Gardner (The Urban Gardner)
May 20, 2011
Juniors: In the Quiet of Summer,
Start Your Essays
By ALAN GELB
In preparation for the senior year, most students try to plan their summers around some kind of résumé-building job, internship, coursework or community service, with the necessary stops along the way for beach and barbecue.
Summer is also an ideal time to get the jump on your college admissions essay.
These less hurried months before the onslaught of a highly pressured fall offer the chance for students to think, reflect and connect with a writing topic that can then be developed into 500 words of polished prose.
Here are half a dozen suggestions to keep in mind:
So how can you use the summer before senior year to your best advantage?
• Clear your head. Distractions like TV, texting, video games and Internet surfing can seriously inhibit inspiration. Once your school term is over, schedule some time away from those electronic diversions and find a park bench, rooftop, library carrel or some other quiet place where you can hear your thoughts bubbling up from deep down in your consciousness.
• Ask yourself exploratory questions. In looking for an essay topic, an excellent way to begin is by asking questions that can turn up some juicy conflict. Some examples: What has been the hardest thing I have ever had to face? If I had to quickly replay my life, which two or three moments would jump out ahead of all others? Which experiences have really pulled me out of my comfort zone? When have I ever felt pure rage? Write down your answers to these questions (trying to devise questions of your own as well) and, as time passes, note the answers you keep coming back to. There may be some fertile ground for an essay in those responses.
• Write it down. While we're on the subject of writing things down, let's make this the summer that you carry around a pad and pencil or some kind of wireless device to record your thoughts. Take it from this writer: if you don't write it down, you're bound to lose it.
• Familiarize yourself with the narrative form. Everyone loves a good story — particularly the overburdened college admissions counselor who has to read hundreds of student essays, too many of which view this assignment as an opening for self-promotion. It is far better to think of the college admissions essay as your chance to tell a good story. Stories are narratives, and narratives have formal elements, like a specific time frame, a point of view and a certain degree of conflict. Read some good stories this summer — not just sample essays — and be conscious of their narrative techniques. Where do they start? How do they end? What is the central conflict? How is it resolved?
• Enjoy yourself. These warm, feel-good months make it easier to relax, and approaching the college admissions essay with less anxiety is a good thing. In fact, it would be extremely beneficial to view this assignment not as an onerous task but as a creative act. In that vein, you'll want to commit yourself to the work, accept the idea that your essay will evolve through a series of drafts and allow yourself to take some pleasure in the process. Who knows? You may even discover the joy of rewriting.
• Own your essay. Make an ironclad commitment that this is going to beyour essay. No one should be permitted to write it for you — not a parent, not a sibling, not a hired gun. This essay needs to reflect your authentic voice, and perhaps making such a commitment is one of those things you'll actually want to affirm, in writing, this summer.
It's no mean feat to produce a powerful essay on a highly personal subject, but the good news is that we all have stories within us that deserve to be told. In the quieter, less pressured time of summer, those stories stand a better chance of coming into their own.