March 18th, 2017: Why Good Writing Matters


This was a very happy day because Caroline came home for Spring Break together with her friend Eilish. We picked them up with our two doxies and the moment we hit the pavement, Teddy decided to crap in the middle of the sidewalk, with lots of passengers watching. (Last time he peed inside the airport!): What is wrong with my dogs….

Speaking of which, Frankie still hasn’t fully recovered. We don’t quite have the diabetes under control and there may be something else lingering in the background, so believe it or not, I see the vet almost every day. Pretty soon we’ll be Nursing Home Wiener.

Aside from Teddy’s airport turd, the day was a glorious one with warm weather. However, it became even better when I received an email from one of my students whom I’ve been helping with her essays. As some of you know, I started working as a college essay coach last year. Because I’m starting out and don’t have much time, I’ve only had a small clientele so far. This particular student was a junior who was applying for a very competitive Notre Dame Leadership program (5% admissions rate) for which she had to write three essays.

She had nothing on paper yet when we met but we met several times, perfecting every sentence, opening and closing strong, and working on stories that had a narrative arc as well as a degree of originality and authenticity.

Many kids tend to brag in these essays as if the essay were a job interview and well, I think that’s the biggest mistake to make. It’s all about being real, having an authentic voice, showing versus telling, and presenting an angle that these admissions folks haven’t seen before.

Before the writing, we have a therapy type session to elicit stories from the students that show me who they really are. Students are shy in the beginning, but usually after an hour of some prodding and poking, they suddenly start gushing about a story or a memory and that’s where the gold is at: when their reserve falls away, their eyes light up and their voice goes into a crescendo, we have found our topic, or are close to a topic that will reveal to the reader who they really are.

The essays go through several drafts (this is where some of the real coaching comes in as most kids write a first and final draft or their first draft is their final draft) and careful tinkering to get it just right. And remember, these essays are short (300 words on average), so that’s limiting but it also forces students not to ramble and sets the bar high for what they should put in and leave out. This is a puzzle and can be challenging at times, but students will say to me that they feel they’re really learning to write, and write well.

Good writing is taken for granted. We know good writing when we see it, but we often don’t realize how much effort and frustration it requires. And we don’t want to pay for it, right? Yes, because everything should be free. That’s the down side of the internet economy. We’ve got it all backward in this country: Health care and college should be free, but services, the teaching of real skills should come with a price tag.

And it’s worth a little money because when you learn to write well, it’s a skill that you’ll use for the rest of your life, in college and in your career. A good writer is like a good salesman. The power of persuasion is everything because readers will have to “buy” your shit for them to read on, and if they don’t read on you may not get into that school, get that job or earn a raise.

As a college coach, I’m very protective of the kids. Parents know their kids best, but they’re also too invested in the college admissions process. Some parents may read the work that I’m doing with their kids and they may have feedback. I listen to the feedback but many times that feedback gets rejected because they want their kids to shine and impress but that’s not what it’s about: it’s about being able to show authenticity, integrity and originality.

Hate to trash Trump again (but not really) but I guarantee you that if Trump were to write his own college essay and use his trademark Trumpian hyperbole to get into a prestigious school, he wouldn’t get in. Admissions counselors have developed a sizable bullshit detector over the years, and they would not be swayed by the fakery of his obnoxious grandiloquence and narcissism.

My student, on the other hand, showed a side of herself in those essays that was both humble and brilliant. When we were done, I remember driving away from her house with a good feeling, but at a 5% admissions rate, it’s kind of an essay lottery, so I wasn’t expecting much.

Today she wrote me that she got in. She was dreading the essays when we got started on them and she and her mother told me writing wasn’t her forte per se, but today she said to me “Thank you so much for all your help on the essays! I really loved working with you and actually had fun writing them.”

When the writing becomes fun, the writing is bound to be good.

Mission accomplished.


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