As a test prep tutor for the ACT and SAT, I get a lot of questions about college admissions essays, and since I am not an expert on writing them, I sat down with someone who is. David Allen is the founder of College Essay Solution. I have known him for years, and know many of his very satisfied clients.
David, how did you get into admissions essays? In your experience, what’s the secret to a winning college essay?
After spending six years as a college English professor, I began focusing on running study abroad and college-prep programs for teenagers in the US and Europe, something I’ve now been at it for more than two decades. One thing all of our students have in common is that they are college-bound and another–they dread the application process, in particular the essays. They struggle with understanding what colleges want from them, and have little idea what they should write about.
So as the resident English teacher on campus, I got in the habit of running college essay workshops. And the more experience I gained working with individual students to decipher the college essay prompts, the more I realized something crucial that often gets lost in the application process. Colleges are not asking for application ESSAYS. What they really want … are STORIES.
What do you think makes you different than others offering admissions essay help?
I’ve seen a lot of “college essay workshops” in high schools where the English teachers are enlisted to help students decode the prompts, come up with a good topic, and write an essay with a clear thesis statement, fluid transitions, free of grammar and spelling mistakes, and answers the question. I’ll admit, the first time I taught a course in the college application essay, I also prepared a pretty standard writing course. But on the first day of class, when we started brainstorming topics and I saw how the students struggled to find profound meanings in the details of their teenage lives, I literally through my notes out and started from scratch. I realized that I had it all wrong. This was not an essay writing class, because the prompts were not asking for essays. In some cases, they were literally pleading with applicants to tell them a personal story. They even call it a Personal Statement, so anxious are they to push students away from writing a paper for English class.
So I’d say that main thing that makes The College Essay Solution different, is that we understand what the colleges really want. They have all of your data–your grades and your test scores and your resume and a profile of your school. They know you “qualify by the numbers” to attend. Now they want to know you. Who’s the person behind the numbers? What drives you? Are you funny? Do you know anything about our school? Why did you choose us?
What is the biggest misunderstanding about writing admissions essays?
Starting too late and not understanding that essays are not an annoying chore but arguably the biggest opportunity they have to stand out from the crowd. People unfamiliar with college admissions almost universally underestimate how personal it is.
Is it fair or even honest to get help writing college application essays?
Is it dishonest to have someone else write your essay for you? Of course it is.
But is it dishonest for your math teacher to lecture in class, give you targeted homework to practice, and even give you extra tutoring outside of class to make sure your final grade is the result of your best efforts? No, of course not. That’s her job, she loves doing it, and she gets paid to do it. We hire professionals to help us perform better all the time, from soccer coaches to music teachers.
If your soccer coach plays the game for you, or if your math teacher slips you the answers to the test, that’s a problem.
We don’t write essays for people, but we do have a process that coaches students through every step of writing winning college essays. They know they’re really good, and they know they’re really authentic. Not safe, cliche essays, but a story only they could tell. I often get the simple and very gratifying message, “We love this essay!”
I hear you are working on a big project. Can you tell us something about it?
We are working to produce a series of videos and supplemental materials like sample essays and case studies based on real students working through the process. We’ll have those available on our website, on platforms like YouTube, and eventually brought together as a complete college application essay course that students can access from anywhere on computers or mobile devices.
Why are admissions essays underappreciated in the admissions process?
It’s such a long journey from that first day of Kindergarten to the senior year of high school and the enormous milestone and challenge that is the college application process. I think people have worked so hard to get that sparkling GPA, maximize their ACT or SAT scores, pull together all of the right extracurricular activities and awards … it’s natural that they just want to “fill out the applications” and shoot them off, let the chips fall where they may.
So what stands between them pulling all of the data together for the application and hitting ‘SUMBIT’? The essays. Students gaze up at them like a tall, forbidding wall to be scaled, college and their future on the other side. But the fact is, what they should see is opportunity. This is where most of their “competition,” all the other students applying for the same seat, are likely to phone it in, write a last-minute essay without much feedback from others, maybe even fail to proofread for spelling and grammar errors. There’s no doubt that many applicants send in cliche essays, fail to respond directly to the question, and don’t really provide much insight into their unique personality, character, and experience.
So this is where you can get an edge if you understand what colleges are looking for and are willing to put the time in, take some risks, tell a compelling story and … dare I say, get a little help.
What is your philosophy on helping students write great admissions essays?
It may sound crazy, but when the approach is right, writing college essays can be pretty enjoyable, even enlightening. It happens all the time, I’ll work with a student on her first draft of the Common App essay, and it’s a bit of drudgery moving the rough, rough first draft toward a draft full of dialogue and color and natural flow. But once she understands the process, gets caught up in telling her own personal story, understands how a story can ‘show’ colleges everything they want to know, instead of trying to ‘tell’ them what to think, it’s really satisfying.
So ‘Philosophy’ may be a grand word for this, but I’d say my ‘Approach’ has become a quiet one–less is more. The key moment is when the story comes out. I ask a lot of questions about the little details of family, friends, what a student does in his free time, etc. There’s always a great story to tell. Once we have that, then every draft is a better version of the story, more lively and meaningful. When it’s done, we both know it.