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Episode 195: How to choose creative college essay topics – and why you should!

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Choosing a good Common App essay topic is as easy as googling, right? Wrong! According to our expert college essay coach, you need to start with yourself, and what makes you unique. Choosing a creative college essay topic (and avoiding the cliché ones) can help you stand out!

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Common App essay topics

This week’s episode came at the perfect time for me. My daughter is a sophomore in high school, so she still has a couple of years until she needs to write her Common App essay. And while I have confidence in her ability to write, choosing college essay topics can be harder than actually writing. Think about it: the people reading these essays are looking at hundreds (thousands?) of them, so what should you do to stand out?

According to our guest expert, memorable college essays are not necessarily about pivotal, emotional, important moments in a student’s life. And she should know: since founding The Koppelman Group while she was still in college, Caroline Koppelman has helped lots of students get into top colleges.

“I think a lot of kids think that things have to be deeper than they are,” Caroline tells us on this week’s episode. A big part of what her company does is help students zero in on something that they can write about that will tell the reader something about them, and that thing usually isn’t an earth-shattering, profound experience.

For one student she told us about, the common app essay that worked was about making eggs. His mother hated the essay, but Caroline convinced her that it was right for both her son and the application. The student got into Tufts.

College essay consultants like Caroline charge for their services, of course, but The Koppelman Group’s blog is packed with useful, free information, and in our podcast episode she explains the process her clients go through, and how students who do not have the money to hire a college essay coach can pick great topics on their own.

Caroline Koppelman's headshot
Caroline Koppelman, founder of The Koppelman Group

About Caroline:

Caroline Koppelman is the founder and CEO of The Koppelman Group (TKG). She started TKG when she was 19 after discovering she had a passion and talent for the college application process. TKG has grown substantially since its inception. Over the past seven years, TKG has helped scores of bright students from across the world navigate the college process and achieve the best outcome possible. Caroline and the TKG team have a holistic approach to the college application process. With admission rates steadily decreasing every year, Caroline and her team have developed a unique and creative approach. As the CEO of TKG, Caroline is responsible for architecting each student’s unique strategy and approach.

As a global speaker, Caroline frequently speaks at high schools about the college admission process. Caroline has helped students gain admission to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, Washington University in St. Louis, NYU, UCLA, University of Michigan, UNC Chapel Hill, Georgetown, and more. Caroline studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at The University of Pennsylvania.

This Week’s Links

Intro (00:00:11)

Rebecca Levey, KidzVuz

Amy Oztan, Amy Ever After

Andrea Smith, technology guru extraordinaire

Parenting Bytes episodes about college

Caroline Koppelman of The Koppelman Group

Interview with Caroline Koppelman (00:01:42)

Common App

Koppelman Group blog

5 High Schoolers and Their College Application Essays About Work, Money and Social Class, by Ron Lieber — The New York Times

Bytes of the Week (00:38:04)

Garden View Assisted Living Facility “First Day” pictures Garden View Assisted Living Instagram account

What College Admissions Offices Really Want, by Paul Tough — The New York Times Magazine

I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part. By Anthony Abraham Jack — The New York Times Magazine

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Transcript

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Rebecca:
Welcome to Parenting Bytes, this is Rebecca Levey of KidzVuz, I’m here today with Amy Oztan of Amy Ever After.

Amy:
Hi.

Rebecca:
Hello. No Andrea today. She is-

Amy:
No.

Rebecca:
Out on assignment at Facebook. She’s all the way on the west coast.

Amy:
Exciting.

Rebecca:
Asking Facebook the tough questions. So today on the show, we thought we would continue in our college admissions series. If you haven’t listened to our previous podcasts on the college admission series, you can find them on Parenting Bytes dot com. This is a continuation. This week we are talking about the essay, which if you have a college se- oh, sorry, a high school senior, not a college senior, I’m leaping ahead of myself. If you have a high school senior they’re probably deep into thinking about their Common App essay, or maybe even writing a first draft, or at the very least freaking out about it. So we have a college admissions expert on today, Caroline Koppelman of the Koppelman Group, who is going to talk us through the process she uses for her clients in getting them to write their Common App essay, which she has just, I think, an incredibly creative, unique take on how to do it. So we’re going to ask her a ton of questions about that, including what parents should and shouldn’t do in this process. And then we will have our Bytes of the Week. So we’ll be right back with Caroline Koppelman.

Rebecca:
So we are here with Caroline Koppelman, college admissions expert and the founder of the Koppelman Group. Caroline, thank you so much for joining us.

Caroline:
Of course, happy to be here.

Rebecca:
You know, I was really excited, I should give people a little background, which is that I met you through one of my daughters’ school auctions, which sounds crazy, but you had generously donated an hour of your time through that auction, and I had purchased that. And when I spoke to you for that hour, I was very impressed. I’ve spoken to a lot of education people in my life. And I was very impressed with how levelheaded and clear you were about what you do and how you do it, which is why I reached out to you to be on the show today. In particular, I was talking to you sort of about the whole app, the Common App essay, sort of how kids begin. And one of the things that I was struck by when I spoke to you was that you had a very clear idea of what worked and what didn’t, but not something that was so formulaic that every kid fit into. So I was wondering if we could kind of start with, how you got into this, you know a little bit about your background and how you really developed this perspective and talent for what you do.

Caroline:
Yeah, absolutely. So I went to public school in New York City and I, I went to a performing arts school. I was very, very involved in all of the extracurricular activities that you’re supposed to be involved in to get into a top college. And when I went to apply to college, my mom had gone to a liberal arts school. So I just applied to like all of the liberal arts schools. And after I applied, I realized that I had kind of categorically applied to the wrong type of school. So Connecticut College gave my family a very generous financial aid package. So I went there. And while I was there, I had a professor who had gone to Penn. And he said to me, “You will not get an A in my class unless you apply to Penn.” [laughter] So that’s the only reason why I apply it to Penn and I ended up getting in and I went there. And when I got there, a girl from LaGuardia had her mom- from my high school- had her mom reach out to me. And her mom was like, hey, you figured out this whole world, can you help my kid get into college? So I said, yes.

Caroline:
And we just wrote highly creative essays. She was, you know, a white Jewish girl from the Upper East Side. And I was like, there are a million of you applying to college this year. So let’s just break every single mold. So this girl ends up getting into every college that she applied to. And I thought absolutely nothing of it because, you know, it was one of one. But her mom thought it was it was pretty impressive. So she kind of talked about it with her friends. The next year, more people asked me for help. And then two of them got into Harvard and Stanford. And that’s when I thought, like, maybe this isn’t a fluke? And maybe I am good at this. So I incorporated the company and it became an LLC. And now we’re in year seven of it. We’ve helped hundreds of kids and we’ve kind of kept the approach the same. Just completely breaking the mold every year and going the most creative route possible while also making sure that the kids feel comfortable with everything that we’re doing.

Amy:
That’s amazing because when I was doing research for this episode, I discovered that one of the most searched for things is essays about whether student athletes should be paid. So I feel like there are just there are people, they’re all writing the same essay. It’s crazy. Like, I don’t understand why someone would think that that would be the way to go.

Caroline:
Well, I think that people get really stressed out because there’s very little transparency in this process and they have no idea what to write, and so they they’re like, let me write something that is, you know, thought provoking and maybe slightly zeitgeist-y. And they don’t realize that the point of the college essay is to turn inward and to illuminate or exemplify a personality characteristic through a story.

Amy:
My son, who also went to LaGuardia, by the way, he wrote his essay about how he made friends in high school by walking around solving his Rubik’s Cube.

Caroline:
Yeah, that’s a really good essay.

Amy:
And I mean, I don’t know how much it mattered because he was auditioning for schools, too, but probably weren’t a lot of Rubik’s Cube essays that these jaded people were reading.

Caroline:
Yeah, yeah. And I don’t know how jaded they are necessarily, or just if I had to read thirty five thousand essays in six months, I would definitely want to be, you know, surprised by something because they get so many of the same essay. Right? There’s like a community service essay, there’s a sports essay. There’s a like- I think a lot of kids think that things have to be deeper than they are. So they’ll make things into a metaphor when like it can just be about ice cream. You know, it doesn’t have to be deeper than it is. And so I think some of these adults were reading these pieces by teenagers are like, this is- I don’t know anything about you right now.

Rebecca:
Right. There’s that old, like the thing that everyone repeats, that if someone dropped a thousand essays right on the floor of the high school and picked one up, they should know who it’s about without your name being on it. Right. Like, there’s that. But I think that’s really daunting to kids in so many ways because they read the Costco essay or they read these ones that are held up as the paradigm of like the ultimate essay, which I also always think is a little weird because they never say anything else about the kid. Like obviously wasn’t like the kid had a D average and you know, a very low S.A.T. score, but wrote this great essay. Like that was it. Like obviously, there was a whole package going in there, but I think kids feel very intimidated about where to even start if they don’t think they’ve had some earth shattering experience or major obstacle to overcome.

Caroline:
Yeah. So if they have had an earth shattering experience or an obstacle to overcome, they probably shouldn’t write about either of those things. So if they’ve had an earth shattering experience, whether it’s with their, you know, if if it’s a personal thing that’s gone on in their lives, there is a place for it. It’s called the additional information section. You’ll find it right underneath the essay. And that’s when you can put things about, you know, if a student has an A average and than one semester, they dropped to a C, you’d probably want to explain that in the additional information section. If something has gone on with people’s families, that’s also there. If they’ve had kind of like a I don’t know, a revelation or something through an extra curricular activity, that’s really good fodder for a supplement, not for the Common App essay. The Common App essay serves one purpose. It’s a chance to explain how you think and also show one, maybe two personality characteristics. So no matter who the student is, they have a personality and they think about the world in a certain way. So what we do with our kids is we just ask them to text a bunch of their friends and ask their friends like, how would you describe me? You know, what adjectives would you use to describe me? And inevitably, you get a lot of overlap with that. Right? And so we’ll take it kid’s adjectives and we’ll say, why did your friends describe you as ambitious and driven? Right? They didn’t just say that for fun. Can you think of any reason why they would say that? And through a series of conversations, that kid will start to tell us stories. That’s one thing that we do. But then we’ll also we’ll also just go through their routines. Right? Because everyone’s morning routine or nighttime routine, the way that kids think about how to organize their desk or their clothes. It tells us something about them. And that’s all we’re trying to do, right. We’re trying to establish some kind of common bonds between the kid and the admissions reader, because the admissions reader wakes up in the morning, they eat, right? They have morning routines. So it’s kind of a chance to remind the admissions reader that the kid’s human and to just establish what type of person they are, because at the end of the day, these admissions directors are putting together a well-rounded class of thinkers. Right? They’re not they’re not like, OK, who is the most impressive person in the world and how do we get 3000 of them in the same place? They want it to be well-balanced.

Rebecca:
So it’s really interesting you say that because I think people feel like your application itself tells a story, right, like they’ve been so focused on your kid, how to do X many extracurricular activities and now you have to do this and that. But the one thing that really doesn’t shine through on that app, right, is your personality, like what you’re saying. And most kids aren’t going to have an interview if they’re applying to these schools. You know, like if you’re applying to a Wisconsin or Michigan where they’re getting 70000 applications. This is it, right? This- your Common App essay is all you have.

Caroline:
And even if you do get an interview, it’s- the colleges say that it isn’t supposed to have any effect on your candidacy because they can’t possibly interview all of the people.

Rebecca:
So that’s it. So you’d mentioned like how kids can begin. Right. I love like texting their friends and they’re helping each other to kind of think of that. If you have a kid who is just totally averse to creative writing, like hates English, hates writing, never thought of themselves in that way. How would you get that kid to start?

Caroline:
Though I actually find that those kids are easier to work with than kids who consider themselves to be writers, because when kids self identify as writers, it’s very hard to get them to like kill their darlings in their essays [laughter] because they’re they’re so attached to it. There’s seven lines of alliteration and it’s just like, yikes. You have to take some of this out. So when kids are not into creative writing, it’s such a great opportunity to introduce them to expressing themselves through this medium. So we don’t go into it saying like, you have to write an amazing essay. We just go into it being like, OK, why do your friends call you? Right? Can you go through the past three phone calls that you’ve had with your friends? Are they calling you for homework help, are they calling you to help them through a problem, or are they calling you to make plans to do something fun? If so, what did you guys do? You know, just like really going through who the kid is, because one of our philosophies is that, like your grades are not who you are and your scores are not who you are. And the activities that that you do aren’t necessarily who you are. Right? They’re a reflection of you, but they’re not everything. So we’re just trying to look for that little nugget of what makes a kid who they are. So I can just like go through various students that we’ve had and tell you how we got there, because most kids don’t consider themselves writers and also they don’t know how to write because they’ve only really been taught the five paragraph essay. Right? And short non-fiction creative writing is pretty antithetical to the five paragraph essay model. So they feel really stifled and intimidated by even the thought of writing this college essay. So what we do with them is we just say like, your essay’s going to get done, don’t worry about it. We need to focus on the conversation we’re having right now, which is about your morning routine. Right? You’ve to really just break it down. And so we’ll go through a kid’s morning routine and most kids will say, I wake up, I have breakfast, I brush my teeth, I go to school, and then you’re like, great, let’s go slower. I don’t really suggest that parents do this with kids because it makes it dynamic that isn’t the best. But we had a student who was extroverted, but he was also like very specific in the way that he did everything. He he had a method for everything that he did. And I thought that was something that we should capitalize on, because there aren’t that many people who have opinions and preferences on literally everything in their life. Right? That’s something that’s that’s unique. So we had him go through his morning routine and it took like six times for him to tell me that he made himself eggs for breakfast. And so I I just asked him what type of eggs? And he said, “Well, it depends, because I’m going through all of the different ways that you can cook eggs and I’m perfecting each one. And right now I’m on a fried egg.” And so I was like, excellent, I have- What kind of pan do you use? What kind of fat do you- We like went through all of the different little things that you have to do in making an egg. Because there are so many sub decisions within, just like the idea of I’m going to make an egg. So after 30 minutes of him telling me how he cooks this fried egg, I had so many pages of notes and I was like, this is your essay. You know, it’s not a metaphor. It’s not deeper than it needs to be. It’s just how to cook an egg. And through that, we were able to show his personality. And he’s very, very funny. He’s he’s funny and he’s dynamic and he is so sure of himself in that, this is the, like, this is the fish spatula that you use to make the egg. [laughter] And in the original version of the essay, he had a link to it. And I was like, it’s perfect. You know, no one else is putting like an Amazon link in their application. [laughter]

Rebecca:
I hope he had an affiliate link.

Caroline:
Yeah, it was, it was just it was the best. And his mom read it and his mom was like, “Are you kidding me?”

Rebecca:
Right.

Caroline:
She was like, “I have never seen a college essay like this before. This is so unacceptable.” And I was like, “Well, that’s the point.” You know, we’re trying to write things that have never been written before. And I convinced her to trust me and to submit the essay. Obviously, he got in early decision to Tufts. And on his acceptance rate, on his his acceptance letter, there was a handwritten note from the dean of admissions saying that this was one of the best essays that they’d ever read.

Amy:
Wow.

Caroline:
So that’s- that’s kind of what we do. And he’s not the only person who’s gotten, you know, a handwritten letter based off of his essay. But it’s just those little things because this kid was impressive, like objectively, he was very impressive. And he had had all of these experiences that I think kids would normally go to write about. You know, he he he did all the community service. He played the sport. He he had all of those traditional essay topic type experiences. And what we said was, they’re going to know about that through your activity section, right. There are six sections of the Common App. The fifth is the activity section. It’s kind of it’s like a long form resumé. And if something is there, you can talk about it and mentioned it in the supplements for the school. But it’s not necessarily something that needs to be repeated for a Common App essay because you can just introduce it, like, there- Nowhere in his application did the admissions person know that he ate eggs for breakfast every morning. So that was like something that that we thought was important to talk about.

Rebecca:
So let’s talk a little bit about- you talked to before about the kids who, you know, have their seven lines of alliteration. They can’t give them up. You know, I think kids sort of hear this “show don’t tell” and they don’t really know what it means. What they think it means is just stuff in as many metaphors as you can. And, you know, I don’t think they quite understand that. How do you get, you know, how do you get kids to understand that not everything has to be- Or you have kids who are trying to shove in as many S.A.T. words as we used to call them. How do you break that down for kids that they don’t need to have this sort of overstuffed essay?

Caroline:
We do it slowly and with compassion. [laughter] In terms of show, don’t tell, we give them examples. So I can tell you that I am very organized or I can explain to you where everything is in my house. Right? So that’s actually what we do. We go through these things with ourselves. So every client of ours is assigned one writer and they form a pretty intense and special bond with these writers. And we’ve just learned how to tell our own personal story so that kids can, they can understand it. So an example of show don’t tell would be I can tell you that I’m very organized or I can take you to my spice drawer and I can tell you that I buy spices in bulk and that I have these jars and they’re all the same and they all have labels on them. And they’re organized in this one drawer from like the place that is closest to me to the back in terms of how I use them and what I use the most. Right? So from that example alone, you’re like, OK, this person has a very specific way of categorizing things and thinking about things. And when you give people enough examples, micro examples, they start to understand. And then what we’ll also do is we’ll allow the kid the freedom to write whatever they want in a first draft and then we’ll go through it line by line. And all of our feedback is very encouraging. But we’ll also have them read real writers because in high school you’re not really assigned short essays. Right? These essays are 650 words and you’re usually assigned novels. And we’re not writing a novel. We’re writing a 650 word essay. So sometimes it’s helpful for kids to read other authors who have written, you know, short stories, just so they can see how to structure their work. And then in terms of alliteration will just be like, have you ever read anything that has this much alliteration in it, you know? [Rebecca laughing] And also, I think another thing that kids do is they have a tendency to just use a lot of adjectives. And, you know, instead of just saying what something is, they’ll describe it. And like, we all know what a plant looks like. You know, you don’t you don’t have to describe it as like, luscious. I think kids will just they’ll throw out as many adjectives as possible. And then with the S.A.T. words, the question that we ask kids is, how would you say this in real life? And then they’ll write it and we’ll say we are just trying to get your voice down. You don’t need to throw in every word that you know, because we’re trying to get your personality in the way that you think. And if you use all of these words that you don’t actually use in real life, you’re not going to accomplish the goal of getting us to understand how you think.

Amy:
Right. Because the transcript will show that they’re smart. You know?

Caroline:
Right. I mean, the essay isn’t a place to prove that you’re- if you’re smart, you’re smart. And I think that the smartest people, the smartest kids are able to have humility when it comes to their essays. And I also think that it’s a lot harder to write humor than it is to be serious and to be like overly academic. And a lot of kids want to name drop what they’ve read or what they read for fun. And it doesn’t help in the goal of establishing these bonds of commonality with the person who is reading the application, because we always try to bring our kids into the room of the readers. Right? So the person who is reading the application has been reading applications for three months or, you know, three weeks, whatever it is by the time they get to our kid’s essay and they are tired, they have read so many overblown essays about building a school in wherever. [Rebecca laughing] They’ve read so many essays about scoring the winning goal. And we want to give them a moment of levity in their day when they’re reading our kids’ essays. And that’s the goal. It’s to not be overly serious, not- You know, a lot of kids will be like, but I am the best soccer player. And it’s like, great. But soccer is soccer is soccer. It doesn’t matter what happened in this specific game that was so novel. These people have read so many essays that no matter what, they’re just going to compartmentalize you into the soccer category. So you need to give them something new.

Rebecca:
All right, I guess that’s the best advice, is give them something new. We went to one open house where the admissions person told us they actually had two essays about cheese last year. And one, they learned a lot about cheese and one they learned a lot about the kid.

Amy:
Huh.

Rebecca:
And I thought that was really interesting because I can see and I can even hear in my daughter’s conversations with friends, these kids trying to find like a hook.

Caroline:
Mmm hmm.

Rebecca:
Or a gimmick.

Caroline:
Mmm hmm.

Rebecca:
And you just want to say, like-

Caroline:
Don’t do that.

Rebecca:
Don’t do that. Exactly. Like-

Caroline:
But kids don’t really know where to start because they’re scared, because it’s so, you know, you have this marathon process of getting into college that starts freshman year. And kids don’t really get clued into it until junior year. And then by the time it’s all caught up with them, they’re writing their essay, and it’s the only thing that is within their control. So they’re very scared. There’s so much pressure that’s put on this 650 word piece of writing. And the pressure is, it- It’s not unwarranted. It is the only time that you get to speak to the person making the decision and your grades are, you know, your grades. And that’s what your scores are, too. They’re just numbers. And your extracurricular activities tell you something. But the essay is where you really get to establish something, right? You get, you get to establish kind of like a rapport with the person. And so kids get so freaked out and they don’t know what to do. And so they think- we find that they go in one of two directions, which is to try to sound just so smart, you know, to overly intellectualize every single thing that they can, or to go a sob story route. And if you’re thinking about the adult who is reading this essay, you’re like, probably neither of those is the best. You don’t want to make the person feel bad. Right? Because the person who reads the essay is going to not necessarily remember the details of the essay, but they’re going to remember how they felt after they read it. So it really comes down to like, what type of feeling are you trying to make that person experience when reading your piece of writing? And that’s why I think making someone laugh is usually not a bad way to go.

Rebecca:
Right. And so I’m gonna pivot a little bit just for as a parent point of view, because I have heard already from my friends the ones whose kids will not show them their essay.

Amy:
Oh, that was my son.

Rebecca:
And it’s making them crazy because of course, as a parent, you assume then it’s about you. Like how, it’s like when you find out your adult child go to therapy I guess. You have fear. Or they have a kid who will not stop badgering them to sort of read and help them with their essay. Like, there seems to be two extremes. And then a parent who inevitably will then give feedback. And of course, it was the wrong feedback. And like made their kid a thousand times more upset. So how how should a parent approach this? And, you know, how do you deal with both those types of kids?

Caroline:
So our kids all have private consultants. That’s what this job is, so we encourage parents to not read anything. And that’s for a few reasons. The first is that very few parents, almost no parents are college essay experts. So they don’t really know what they’re looking for. And parents will come back and they’ll say, but I know good writing and that’s fine. But they don’t know what makes a good college essay. So they might they might read a piece of writing that one of their kids does, and they’ll be like, “I don’t understand how this is going to help them get into college.” To which we respond, “That is correct. You are not a college admissions essay expert.” [laughter] So we don’t love to have parents read essays. It usually causes more harm than good. If a parent reads the essay and they’re like, “This is great!” That’s awesome. But that doesn’t usually happen. Usually they have a problem with it. And I mean, as as you know, by being moms, if you have any, I don’t know, like seed of doubt and your kid picks up on it, they’re just not going to trust themselves. And they’re either going to go to you with every draft and be like, is it okay now, because they’re kind of seeking your approval, or they’re going to rebel against you. So I I don’t, I don’t think, like, it’s great. We have our clients read the final version of every essay and we come like ready for battle with that because they’ll just be like like with the, I guess, they’ll be like, “I’ve never read anything like this before. What did I get myself into? This is awful.” And then we’ll just have to go back and be like, these are the fundamental principles of how we write essays and this is how we wound up here, you know? But I think if a kid doesn’t want to show you their essay, that’s fine. Just, you know, point them in the direction of the right resources. And that’s I think that like my company’s blog is a pretty good free resource. We’re like trying to create the best free resource on the Internet. So when kids and parents e-mail us with questions, we say we’re going to respond in long form on the blog. So we have dozens, if not hundreds of hours of blog posts about how to write college essays at every step of the process. And I think that that can be more helpful than a parent reading an essay because because we know what we’re talking about and a lot of parents don’t. So, yeah. In general, I think parents don’t need to be reading college essays.

Amy:
And what’s the URL of your site?

Caroline:
It’s Koppelman Group dot com, K-O-P-P-E-L-M-A-N group dot com.

Rebecca:
Great. We’ll put a link to that for for parents to just send that link to their child, like-

Caroline:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
It is such a hard process, right, because there’s- everyone has this anxiety that they’re bringing to the table and the schools themselves do nothing to mitigate that. They just add to it. And I think that it’s such- the essay in particular, I think has become such a thing, you know, they- like The New York Times publishes 10 of the best stuff. I mean, it’s-

Caroline:
Well, right. Because they can’t publish transcripts. They can’t-

Rebecca:
Right.

Caroline:
Publish resumés. Like it’s the only tangible part of the college process. And it’s also the last thing.

Rebecca:
Right. Right. You’ve done all the work. Now you have to do this.

Caroline:
And I think that when the Times publishes essays, it’s it’s helpful and it’s not helpful because I think a lot of kids will, they’ll read an essay from the Times or they’ll read, you know, one of our sample admissions essays on the website, and then they’ll try to replicate it. And that’s not what any of the good essays do. We’re not, you know, we’re not taking an essay from three years ago and saying, like, let’s do a riff on this essay. You know, we don’t have- we don’t have like templates for these essays. We just, they’re new every year, which is part of the challenge.

Amy:
Yeah, because it sounds like the most important hook for a good essay is to be unique and be yourself, and you can’t copy that.

Caroline:
I don’t love the idea of a hook because kids will never start with the foundational principles of who, who am I? Like, what makes me who I am and how do I express that with a story? They’ll go immediately to, what is my hook. And I think that can be just a really damaging way to think about writing in general, because they just get so overwhelmed before they’ve even started.

Rebecca:
Right. They’re not advertising copywriters, like it’s not, it’s not what they’re doing.

Caroline:
No, they’re just trying to say who they are.

Rebecca:
Right. And I think that’s a big distinction, like saying who you are is different then like your brand, which I think is a lot of advice that’s out there too is people saying, like, “Think of yourself as a brand!” which is already for kids growing up with like their Instagram, their Snapchat. Their like-

Caroline:
I mean, it’s crazy.

Rebecca:
It’s crazy. They already have this very self-conscious way of how they’re presenting themselves in the world. To bring that to essay writing has just got to be really damaging.

Caroline:
Right. And I think you do you do have to think about yourself as a brand or a persona when it comes to kind of like your extracurriculars or ex- or classes. Right? If you’re saying that you want to be an engineer but you’ve never taken physics, that might be a problem. But when it comes to your essay, you’re adding another dimension so it doesn’t have to necessarily fit cohesively with your extracurriculars. You know, if you are, if you’re an actor who is also an- like a mechanical engineer and wants to build things, your essay doesn’t have to be related to acting or building things. It can, it can just be like a window into a Thursday night in your home.

Amy:
That is so important. That wouldn’t occur to most people.

Rebecca:
Yeah.

Caroline:
Yeah. So I like to think about the essay kind of like a Thanksgiving table, which if you read the blog, you’ll see this, this metaphor just exhausted. So you don’t have three turkeys on your table, right? You only have one. And you’ve all of these side dishes that are only there one time usually. And that’s how you have to think about your whole application. Your grades tell a specific story. And so do your extracurricular activities. But you need an extra thing with the essay. And so what, what is that new component that you’re adding?

Rebecca:
Well, it’s the surprise dish at the Thanksgiving table.

Caroline:
Right. Right.

Rebecca:
It’s the weird thing no one ever made before.

Caroline:
Right. Usually it’s the best part.

Rebecca:
Right, of course. It’s not the turkey, because the turkey is never the best part.

Caroline:
No. And, you know, the turkey’s the grades.

Rebecca:
Right. The turkey’s your transcript, like it’s baked.

Caroline:
It’s already- it’s done and also no side dish is going to make the turkey better.

Rebecca:
Right.

Caroline:
So-

Rebecca:
No matter how much gravy you pour on it. [Amy laughing]

Caroline:
Correct. And so I think that that’s also where a lot of kids get tripped up. They’ll have a B plus GPA and they’ll think, you know, if I write the best essay, I’ll get into Yale. And that’s not true.

Rebecca:
Right. And probably the inverse. That’s probably not true the other way to right? Like you- Because you know that a huge amount of kids applying to whatever school you’re applying to, let’s say if you’re if you’re ac- if you’re kind of building a list that’s really reflective of what you hope, you know, places that are realistic, then you have your reaches. But most kids are also going to have that similar GPA and similar scores that you have because you’re looking, right- If you’re looking at that middle 50, if you’re looking at those stats online, you already know that. So-

Caroline:
And you probably shouldn’t look at the middle 50, you should look at the- If you’re just a normal kid, you should probably looking at the upper portion of the scores.

Rebecca:
Right, to kind of give you a cushion. Right?

Caroline:
Yeah. So if you if you look at, you know, the Ivy League scores, they will say that it’s, you know, on average thirty one to thirty five on the ACT. And if you’re just a normal kid with a thirty one, probably you’re not getting in. So that’s that’s something to definitely consider.

Rebecca:
I think that really trips up parents.

Caroline:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
Because that’s, I mean, I’ve had friends whose kids have gotten in literally nowhere, but they’ll say, “But when we made our list…”

Caroline:
Right. Well…

Rebecca:
“They were in the middle fifty!” like they have- But it was always the bottom of that range.

Caroline:
Yeah. You kind of have to parse out who each kid is who gets in and think like, is this a recruit athlete, is this a, an active legacy? Is this an international student? And when you take those people out of the pie, it’s like, OK. Then you have about 65 to 70 percent of the kids left and that’s who you’re going to be among.

Rebecca:
Oh, my God, these poor kids, I can’t even, like, let me just tell you that in my day, I- first of all, I hand wrote my essay because I didn’t have a computer.

Caroline:
Right.

Rebecca:
And I think my mom ended up typing it on the typewriter at some point like with carbon paper and whatever. But it is such a different thing. I mean, I know they call it a personal statement, but it’s really not. It’s what you said. It’s a creative nonfiction piece. I mean, years ago, it truly was just a personal statement. It was it was kind of just a regurgitation of who you were and what you’d done. And now it’s something, it’s something very different. And do you think that’s more true with obviously, is more selective schools, or do you think that this has become more and more true across the board that the essay really needs to stand out?

Caroline:
I think it’s become more true across the board just because of how human beings make decisions. So, I think if you talk to any number of admissions officers from schools that have 5 percent acceptance rate, to schools have 60 percent acceptance rates, they’ll still say, like our favorite part of the whole process is reading the essay. It’s just the most personal part.

Rebecca:
Right. So I guess that’s a good thing to do as a kid maybe is give it to some of your peers, like

Caroline:
Well-

Rebecca:
Would you have-

Caroline:
No-

Rebecca:
Kids, share them with-

Caroline:
No.

Rebecca:
Each other?

Rebecca:
No. Oh! OK.

Caroline:
Because children don’t know. I mean, teenagers-

Rebecca:
They don’t know anything.

Caroline:
Don’t know how to write college essays. I would honestly, like, I would just follow vetted guides online.

Rebecca:
Ok. But what about feedback?

Caroline:
I… I would ask an English teacher for feedback.

Rebecca:
Mmm hmm.

Caroline:
You just, you know, if you give people an essay, they’re going to assume that you want constructive or negative feedback and so they’ll give that to you.

Rebecca:
Right.

Caroline:
And I think it’s very important to know who your editor is. I wouldn’t necessarily want a 17 year old critiquing my college essay because I don’t know if they’re the best person to do that. Likewise, I don’t, I don’t know if I would want a random person or voice critiquing my college essay. So you you have to really know who is giving you feedback.

Rebecca:
Right. No, that’s really helpful. I mean, I think that’s part of the problem with teenagers, is even even the ones who don’t, who kind of don’t want their parents to read it, but they are eager for some kind of validation. It’s so hard.

Caroline:
Right. And I’m not suggesting that you don’t have anyone look at your essay. I think they’ll be crazy. I just think your source has to be vetted in some way. You know, you can’t just show it to your friends because your friends might not be the best audience for you. I think a lot of kids get really competitive during this process. So that’s kind of a hard thing to manage.

Rebecca:
Well, that’s all incredibly helpful and insightful. And thank you so much for joining us today. I think parents will find this way helpful. Maybe they’ll just send it to their kids without comment.

Caroline:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
Just listen to it! But we’ll have links to your website and your blog. I think it’s an invaluable resource for parents around the country. And obviously, if parents are also interested in your services and that’s a whole other piece. And thank you. Just thanks so much for joining us. And good luck with your with your admission season.

Caroline:
Thank you. Good luck with your kids.

Rebecca:
Oh, boy.

Caroline:
Yeah, it’s gonna be fine.

Amy:
Thank you.

Rebecca:
I know, it will. I know that they don’t.

Caroline:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
But I know.

Caroline:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
Thanks so much.

Caroline:
You’re welcome. Bye.

Amy:
Bye!

Rebecca:
We will be right back with our Bytes of the Week.

Rebecca:
We are back with our Bytes of the Week. It’s just you and I Amy, what do you have?

Amy:
All right. So for the past month, really, maybe even six weeks, my feed has been filled with back to school pictures ranging from, you know, parents who can only get a glimpse of their kids and take a quick picture as they run out the door, to the parents who have like, you know, chalkboard and the letter board pictures out in front of their house. I don’t know how they do it because if I tried to do that it would be like a mad scramble to find the thing that I put away the last year and I’d be yelling at my kids and… Yeah. So we don’t even attempt that. But I saw something that was absolutely adorable. There was a nursing home in Iowa. It’s the Garden View Assisted Living facility in Carroll, Iowa. And they had their senior citizens do first day pictures. And each one of them held up a whiteboard with their name and their age and the year that they graduated from school. And then a piece of advice that they had for students today.

Rebecca:
Oh, wow.

Amy:
Yeah, it was it was so sweet. I was like crying, reading that. I mean, you’re not- I cry at everything. But it was just really sweet. So I’ll link to those and I hope you get as much of a kick out of them as I did.

Rebecca:
That sounds awesome. You know, it’s funny, we moved my grandmother last year, one of the things we found was her high school yearbook and it was incredible. Like it was just crazy to see this whole yearbook. One page was in color. She must have graduated- she was born in 1917. So she must have graduated in 20… She graduated at 16. So she graduated in ’33. In the middle of the Depression. And they had a- one of the highlights of the school year was they had a fascist leader come speak to the school.

Amy:
Oh, my God.

Rebecca:
Yeah. They had a picture of it- This was a school full of Jews. I’m like, what is going on?

Amy:
Oh, my God.

Rebecca:
Yeah, it was crazy. But anyway, as you know, when you look back, it’s funny how much high school doesn’t change, especially now. There are probably people having plenty of fascist leaders talk to their schools.

Amy:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
But yes, I can’t imagine what my grandmother’s advice would be if she had a first day advice for my my girls, I should ask her because she’s still alive.

Amy:
Oh, you totally should, you should do one of these pictures.

Rebecca:
I totally should, maybe I’ll I’ll talk to my cousin about it. Because my cousin is the one who lives near her, But anyway, my Bytes of the Week is also school related. This weekend’s issue of The New York Times Magazine is their education issue, and they seem to be focusing on higher education, which they don’t always do. So there’s an article, the big one, the cover story, obviously is like what college admissions offices really want. And it’s talking about the battle between wanting to diversify but needing big fat tuition dollars, which is interesting. But there’s a more interesting story inside, which is called, “I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part.” By Anthony Abraham Jack. And he writes an incredible article about how you need so much more than financial aid to succeed when you’re coming from poverty. And I think it’s something schools are struggling with now that many of, many schools are 100 percent they’ll match need. So now need hasn’t become as big of a problem, especially the elite schools. But it’s like the tip of the iceberg, right? When kids get there and they’re not, you know, having tuition and room and board debt, but they’re having like, how do you afford a cell phone? How do you afford to go home for the holidays? Kids who come from warm weather, places to go to cold weather schools don’t have winter coats, winter boots.

Amy:
Oh my God.

Rebecca:
Like, all these kinds of things. So- and then not to mention like just resources and knowing how to navigate things and all that. So it’s a really, really, really good article because I think we’re very wrapped up in just the dollar signs of tuition and room and board and not so much on like the actual support that goes in to students and just what a culture shock it can be for people and everything. So I highly recommend this week’s issue. It’s already up online, so I don’t know if more of it will get filled in by Sunday, but it seems like they’ve already been launched, most of it online. The New York Times dot com slash section slash magazine. But we’ll have a link to it. And that is it. That is our show for today. Thanks, Amy.

Amy:
You’re very welcome. That was, that was a fantastic episode, I feel like I got this one in time because Fiona’s a sophomore. A lot of the times we do stuff I’m like, ugggghhh, I wish I had known this 10 years ago.

Rebecca:
I know.

Amy:
But this one, I’m like, all right, now I’m ready.

Rebecca:
Got it, I don’t know how I’m going to, like, slyly send this to my children, so they will-

Amy:
You have to have somebody else send it to them because if you send it, they’ll ignore it.

Rebecca:
I know, right? Maybe I should send it to their college counselors and be like, hey, you should share this!

Amy:
Yeah.

Rebecca:
Don’t say it’s for me… But we will have links to everything we talked about on the show at Facebook dot com such Parenting Bytes and Parenting Bytes dot com. Wherever you listen to us, please rate, review, subscribe, and share. It helps us reach more and more people. We’re so excited to see our audience growing. And one last call out. We are planning our return show with Dr. G. She’s taking your super difficult parenting, discipline, any kind of questions. She’s super smart and super fabulous. If you haven’t listened to her episode on chores, you need to go back and listen to it because it’s mind blowing. But Amy, what’s that phone number?

Amy:
925 PARENTS.

Rebecca:
925 PARENTS. Let us know your questions, you can be anonymous if you want, you can have us mentioned you if you have some blog or something you’d like us to link to to mention you, that’s fine. Or you can comment on our Facebook page with your questions or you can always private message us on Facebook as well if you want to stay anonymous, it’s not a problem. But we’d love to hear from you and she would love to hear from you. So don’t be shy. Until next week, happy parenting.

Amy:
Bye.

Rebecca:
Hey, this is our Parenting Bytes disclaimer. Everything we talk about on the show is our own opinion. Any products we recommend? It’s our own personal recommendation for entertainment purposes only. If you buy something through our affiliate links or you just happen to buy or see or read or watch something that we recommended, it’s at your own risk.

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Choosing a good college essay topic is as easy as googling, right? Wrong! According to our guest expert on the latest Parenting Bytes podcast, great college essays are personal. She tells us how to brainstorm ideas, whether to be funny, and how to come up with a topic that tells the reader something about yourself.#CollegeEssay #CollegePrep #CollegeAdmissions #admissions #podcasts