Small objects, big stories

A small red silk bag caught my eye. I unsnapped it and found these pendants—ones I had acquired from age eighteen through my mid-forties.

jewelryboxThe other day, I sorted through my jewelry box. Found lots of costume jewelry I rarely wear anymore. Time to donate to my church’s weekly rummage sale.

Then, a small red silk bag caught my eye. I unsnapped it and found these pendants—ones I had acquired from age eighteen through my mid-forties.

I spread them out on the floor, not sure what I would do with them. But being a writer, I knew there was meaning to explore. This morning, as I ran 5.4 miles (!) home after leaving my car at the repair shop,  I thought about the pendants again. Soon, memories, connections, and stories flooded in. Each piece was an entry point into one of the chapters of my life.

The birthday when I was an exchange student in Knutsford, England. The silly nicknames my sister Beth and I had given our parents, inscribed on the back.

The bent nail from the Habitat for Humanity blitz build during Super Bowl XXXVIII, Houston, Texas, 2004. That crazy morning when my spouse and I had to be at the build site, and one son had a wrestling match and the other had an admissions test at the same time. To top it off, we had just moved ourselves, and that morning I couldn’t find a single darned #2 pencil in the entire house.

As I made the turn for home today, I knew what I wanted to do. I’d write a short essay about each pendant—they would be my prompts, like the ones students use as jumping-off points for their college admissions essays. I’d cradle each pendant in my palm and see where it took me. And like the students I work with, I’d do it in 650 words or less.

This is going to be fun!



Is this within your control?

whyworryI recently spent a week at one of my happy places—Rancho La Puerta, a wellness resort in Baja, California, Mexico.

Early morning mountain hikes, healthy smoothies by the pool, challenging yoga practices, and talks on nurturing your emotional health.

We become stressed when we focus on situations where we have no control, like the weather. Or the number of students from your high school who are applying to the same colleges you are.

We manage our stress better when we focus on the things we can control or we have influence over. Like deciding to apply to a broader range of schools than your classmates. Like choosing to get to bed earlier, exercise smarter, or eat healthier.

Next time you find yourself getting stressed, ask yourself whether the situation is within your control or influence. If the answer is yes, then take action. If the answer is no, do your best to let it go.

As Śāntideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist monk, wrote: “If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”

Show the Real You

realyou“Sheila” bounded into our first meeting with a wide smile across her face, but that smile soon disappeared when I asked her about her essay. She’d been trying to write it for weeks but had gotten nowhere. “I don’t know what to write about!” she sighed.

We started to talk. About the subjects she enjoyed. About how she spent her time outside of school. She mentioned a summer job as a waitress, which had turned into a year-round gig. She’d been at it for four years. The restaurant had a funny name and the story of how she got the job was also funny. She mentioned once overhearing a customer talk about writing a Yelp review, and then how she started regularly reading Yelp and Trip Advisor, trying to guess which customers had written which reviews.

In that moment, I knew she had a topic for her essay. I didn’t know right away how she would structure the essay, but I knew this subject matter would show the real Sheila— go-getter, people person, hard worker, someone with a sense of humor.

“Can I really write about that?” she asked

I smiled. “Yes!”

Is that enough?

Yes, it would be enough. Rising seniors, you don’t have to cure cancer or develop a life-changing iPhone app. You just have to find a story that shows the real you in action, a story that demonstrates your strengths, your best qualities.

The real you is enough!

You can’t hide who you are

true character“Samantha” was one of my favorite clients last year. A hard worker with parents who had endured multiple layoffs, she wanted to write about what she had learned from her family’s experience.

There was great material here—she had stepped up to help take care of her younger brothers; her parents’ struggles had motivated her to work even harder; and she had written about a tender moment with her dad at the dining room when he was surrounded by job applications.

But the essay didn’t work—at least not at first.

It was a dull read. Too negative, too much about her family, not enough about her.

We worked together through multiple drafts and eventually came up with a creative way to present her story.  Great admissions results: Samantha was admitted to nearly every school she applied to.

But what stuck with me the most was Samantha’s attitude. The kind and thoughtful girl who showed up in her essays was the same girl in real life.

Her emails responding to my feedback were filled with gratitude for my help. She shared her acceptances with me as they arrived. She wrote me a thank you note when the process was over. This girl, so lovely on the page, was also so lovely as a person.

I’m guessing the college admissions officers felt the same way.

The Bad Essay

accept or deny designIn last week’s post, I discussed whether an essay can make or break an admissions decision. The answer: it depends. If you don’t have “the goods”—the grades and test scores—a good or even great essay will rarely push you from the “Deny” to the “Accept” pile. But if you land in the “Maybe” pile, a strong essay can make a difference.

How about if you write a “bad” essay?  Can it push you from “Accept” or “Maybe” to “Deny”?


Bad essays come in many forms:

  • Poorly written:
    • Careless grammar, misspellings, incorrect vocabulary usage, convoluted.
    • Solution: Do a careful self-edit and ask a teacher or essay professional to review your draft.
  • No point or no story:
    • Wanders, recounts a history rather than telling a story, leaves reader at end wondering what was the point.
    • Solution: Be very clear on the point you are trying to make. Can you say it in one sentence? If not, keep working until you can. Then edit your essay to ensure that every sentence is helping you make this point.
  • Clichéd:
    • Tired topics that make admissions officers’ eyes glaze over, such as:
      • “I tried out for the team and didn’t make it, and then I tried out again and I made it. I am really determined and work really hard.”
      • “I went on this community service trip and discovered that everyone is really the same. And I got more out of the experience than the people I was helping.”
    • Using clichés in your essay, such as:
      • cutting edge, I learned my lesson, I always learn from my mistakes, I know my dreams will come true, I can make a difference, _________ is my passion, I no longer take my loved ones for granted, these lessons are useful both on and off the field, I realize the value of hard work and perseverance, was the greatest lesson of all, I know what it is to triumph over adversity, xx opened my eyes to a whole new world.
    • Solution: If you write something you’ve heard said the same way before, it’s probably a cliché. Circle those phrases and try to make the same point in an original way. Ask a teacher or essay professional to review your essay for clichés.
  • Unflattering self-portrait:
    • Tells a story that shows you in a poor light and makes you unlikeable, such as:
      • “I used to be a mean girl. (75% of the essay is spent on all the “bad” things the student used to do). Then I changed and I became a compassionate leader.” (25% of essay devoted to the “good,” to the change.)
      • “I used to be a selfish player on the soccer team, only thinking of myself. (75% of essay.) Then I saw the light and I became a selfless leader and was elected captain.” (25% of essay.)
    • Solution: Choose a story that focuses on your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you choose a story that shows how you have changed, make sure the vast majority of the essay is dedicated to the “new” you, the “changed” you, the “positive” you.

The “Bad Essay” is to be avoided at all costs. Even if you are qualified academically, if you come off as unlikeable, arrogant, careless or lazy, your admissions file can easily be tossed into the Deny pile.

Don’t self-sabotage and give colleges a reason to deny your application! Take advantage of  Montauk Writer‘s free tips for writing effective essays.

Contact Montauk Writer today for more information on fees and services for the Class of 2018.

Early bird discounts end June 30!



Can an essay make or break your college admissions decision?

The short answer: it depends.

The longer answer: If you don’t have the grades and the test scores a college expects from its applicants—in other words, if you aren’t academically prepared—it is extremely unlikely for your essay to push you over into the Accept pile. Even the most interesting, unique, or creative essay.

Penn’s dean of admissions said he guessed that the essay played a role in admissions decisions for one out of every seven applicants for the Class of 2016. Admissions officers at smaller schools often spend more time reading essays, particularly when SAT or ACT scores are not required. At larger universities, particularly state schools, admissions teams simply don’t have the time to give each essay a careful read.

So do essays make a difference at all? While a GREAT essay won’t make up for poor grades or test scores, if you have the goods, a GREAT essay can distinguish you from the pack of other qualified applicants.

And what about the BAD essay?  Can it move you from the Accept to the Deny pile?

Stay tuned to find out.

Jenny’s Story, Part 3

 Part 1 and Part 2 of Jenny’s Story, in case you missed them.

Jenny had lots of funny ideas to write about—Teletubbies, quesadillas made-to-order in Math class, Ashton Kutcher, among them.

But could any of these funny ideas be transformed into a story? A story worth sharing with college admissions officers?

As a next step, I asked Jenny to outline each idea as follows:

  1. Where and when does this story take place? List the specific location(s) and time(s).
  2. Is there a main character in the story? Is it you?
  3. Do you start in one place and end up in another by the end of the story?
  4. What HAPPENS to cause you to move or change? Write that down.

She looked first at her Ashton Kutcher idea (she had told her little sister that “Ashton Kutcher” was a swear word).

  1. Where and when does this story take place? List the specific location(s) and time(s). In the family car and in the living room in front of the TV. At various times in the past six months, but a definite moment in last scene in front of the TV.
  2. Is there a main character in the story? Is it you? There are two main characters, Jenny and her sister, but this story is told from Jenny’s point of view, so she is the protagonist.
  3. Do you start in one place and end up in another by the end of the story? Yes, Jenny starts by thinking it would be fun to play a practical joke on her sister, and at the end, the joke is exposed and Jenny reflects on the meaning of the experience.
  4. What HAPPENS to cause you to move or change? Write that down. A TV show starring Ashton K comes on and Jenny’s sister realizes Ashton is an actor, not a swear word.

Stay tuned for Part 4 to see whether this story can work as a topic for Jenny’s college admissions essay.