As a Stanford graduate, I understand the expectations of competitive schools and what admission committees seek.
At Stanford I earned a BA in English and an MA in Education, was an Andrew W. Mellon Educational Fellow, and started the first campus organization for Teach for America.
As an MFA in Writing graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts (2022), I’ve recently walked in the shoes of high school students applying to college. I had to write a number of essays to show schools my accomplishments, personality, and character; my skill sets; and why I thought I and the schools were a good match.
Was I nervous? Absolutely! Did I revise a lot? Certainly! I’ve got the experience and empathy to help students if they feel stress, and explain what it takes to prepare your essay properly.
As an experienced English teacher who taught in competitive schools, I understand what skills students need for the admission essay.
Having taught students academic and creative writing throughout my career, I understand the substrata of skills students need for a college essay. Admissions essays are a hybrid of all of these modes of discourse: description, exposition, narrative, and persuasion. It’s creative nonfiction with a purpose to persuade a school you’re a good fit; it’s memoir with a message.
During my teaching career, I not only designed skill-builder exercises to get students thinking like storytellers and persuaders, but I also wrote many, many recommendations for colleges. I was English department chair and received the William C. Friday Fellowship Grant to design a writing curriculum (Cary Academy, North Carolina). I was awarded the honor of USA Today All-Teacher Team, 3rd Team, and won an Earthwatch Fellowship to travel to Ghana (Cary Academy). In Orange County Schools, North Carolina, I was honored with the Mentor Teacher award and was also a Teacher of the Year nominee. While teaching in the Mountain View-Los Altos School, California district, was a Mentor Teacher, was honored as a Distinguished Teacher in the Presidential Scholar Program. I built a service learning program with colleagues, and then won a Hewlett-Packard Foundation grant to start new student programs, including the first AVIDbridge program, based on the Breakthrough Collaborative model.
As a long-time teacher of gifted youth, I know how to provide differentiated instruction.
The best practices of gifted education apply to all students: differentiate by readiness (skill strengths and gaps), interest (student passions and talents), and engagement preference (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and more). I assess students’ writing strengths and gaps and then tailor my coaching and exercises so students can progress rapidly in what is known as the “zone of proximal development”–where students experience a healthy level of stretch to get their skills to the next level with healthy doses of encouragement and support.
Besides serving as a secondary English teaching, I also served as a gifted resource teacher. During my 15 years at the Duke Talent Identification Program as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Online Learning, I developed rigorous distance learning programs for academically gifted youth and edited a teacher resource blog for educators of the gifted, Teachers Workshop.
I’ve led creative writing workshops for both students and adults, and have spent much of my career at Duke University Talent Identification Program designing lessons as well as professional development for teachers to ensure students master skills in academic writing, creative writing, principles of academic honesty, and research. See some of my creative writing lessons.
I also have interviewed hundreds of teachers, curriculum developers, and other staff to run various programs. I understand how a résumé, a cover letter, and other elements of self-representation make a difference in the application process. I’ve been featured on podcasts like the Good Grow Great podcast (heard in 60+ countries) about how to overcome writing obstacles; how to highlight qualities in your writing that can get you a YES; how to use Objects of Importance and get breakthroughs in your writing; and why colleges need you to differentiate between the scene and summary.
I have written books for the National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press on differentiated instruction in Shakespeare as well as social-emotional learning. I am currently writing two more books for NCTE: Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach and Teaching Hamlet: A Differentiated Approach. See my education books.
As an award-winning young adult fiction author, I know what good storytelling is and how to help students write their stories well.
Students have fascinating elements of their personality to share, which is characterization. Students have interesting moments to share, which includes stakes and suspense. Images and sensory detail are essential–making mini-movies, I call it–to any kind of writing. Revision is always tough, and novelists like me who grapple with hundreds of pages understand what it takes to transform a story so an agent will represent it and an editor at a publishing house will buy it. There are many angles to characterization, stakes, suspense, images, sensory detail, and revision so I have designed exercises to help students see what’s needed, while providing them models of excellent essays.
As an author of three works of fiction, I’ve won several awards, including an Elizabeth George Foundation grant, runner-up in the James Jones First Novel contest, and the Orlando prize from A Room of Her Own Foundation. See my fiction.
I also understand the fine art of persuasion such that you can market yourself in a way that doesn’t brag, having made pitches in person to agents, via query letters, and via book proposals to editors.
Query letters, a beast to write because you’re summing up well over 200 pages of work, need to be well under 500 words. 650 is the maximum a student can write for their Common App essays. I’m expert at the art of cutting pages to get to the essence of a story or point.
These succinct queries must have what insiders call a hook, a book, and a cook: start with a powerful idea or image, pitch the details of your book synopsis (the back-of-the-book blurb), and share your biography details that are relevant to this industry. Great college admissions essays likewise have hooks, books, and cooks: students writing stellar and engaging first paragraphs, giving substantive evidence of their interests and accomplishments, and offering relevant biographical details that interest the audience: the desired school.
I am also a personal essayist and know how to write creative nonfiction (memoir), which is what students are being asked to do, but rarely get time to do in regular school programming. This is not your typical five-paragraph English essay; this is an exploration, an elaboration, a deep-dive meditation that shows your audience your personality, your values, and your intellect. View my essay in Stanford Magazine.
As a coach of college counselors and coaches, I understand student misunderstandings and find what’s working.
For all my colleagues facing the Everest of mythologies about the college essay, and for all my colleagues wondering how to motivate stuck students, I’ve got you! I teach webinars and courses for College Essay Guy, including the Practical Coaching Strategies course. I’m endlessly problem solving the differentiation puzzle, seeking new strategies, prompts, and inspiration to help my students discover more confidence while leaning into their storytelling superpowers.
There is not only always something to celebrate in students’ existing skills; there’s always room for folks to find joy in the writing process despite the high stakes and fears every applicant feels.