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Dear Mitch,

I'm a high school teacher in Maine, and I have proofread the essays for college applications for eleven years now. I think I've done a decent job of it, and, for whatever value there is in the opinions of students, I certainly am the teacher in our district who gets the highest number of requests for the final proofing and critiquing of these all-important essays.

This coming season, however, there is a student whose essay I will not feel comfortable managing. The student is my daughter.

I know that I cannot be objective, but given that, I do still believe that she is a remarkably gifted girl, and I would like someone who doesn't know her to take a look at her essay before it goes out. My ethical standards are high, and I wouldn't change them for her just because she is dear to me. But if I had unlimited resources (and I do not) I would want the best person in the country to approve it or tell her that he (or she) thinks it needs more work. Or, be it the case, I would want this person to be comfortable telling her that it is not a satisfying read, and that she should try again.

To cut to the chase, as the kids say, a colleague of mine attended a lecture you gave a few years ago on this very topic. I believe it was called "The essay of your life and how to do it in less than two hours". Or something like that. In any case, she said it was something no parent should miss. I laughed because, like I said, I think I've been doing an O.K. job and it hadn't occurred to me to take any courses on what to do and what not to do.

But now I'd like to take off my teaching hat and adorn my parent one. So my wife and I were wondering if you still lecture on the subject and/or, now that you have this website, is it the kind of thing you can communicate to a readership?

Looking for advice,

Larry H.


Dear Larry,

Yes, yes and yes.

I know what it is like to be a parent and feel that you will do anything humanly possible, plus more, for your child. If I were in your place, I also would wonder whether the family would be better served by getting someone who doesn't know the child to give a frank opinion.

So, yes and yes.

And YES, I do believe that about half of the information I would impart can be done for a 'readership' and does not require looking at each child's work. Unfortunately, the other half does, and for that I can recommend colleagues who are excellent. I will give you their names in a private email. At this very moment, though, I have to say that I cannot take on more than one or two more students than I am currently coaching, and months ago I committed to families who I coached in the past. So, if I do open my schedule up to one or two more, they would be first on the list. I have to be fair, because I am fair. If I do find the room for them, though, and for some reason they've opted to try it on their own or employ someone else to be sure that they would land someone to inspire their child, then I will contact you. However, in this field the bond that quickly forms between 'coach' and student/family tend to be inexplicably powerful,and intensifies as soon as the fruits of the combined labor materialize; thus, I haven't yet offered sessions to a 'repeat' family and had them decide to try something different.

The good news is this: you already have a major step up on most parents, regardless of the impressive level of their own education and career success. Why? Because they rarely know which way to guide a child the way someone with specific knowledge of the field would.

The other piece of news you might like is this: Beginning now, I will be giving one or two tips each week for a while.


If your daughter has to write an essay that gives the student freedom to choose one of the defining moments of her life, she should not select what I call a "loud moment" or an "ego-boosting moment", regardless of the authenticity of the experience as a moment of impressive triumph.

Much more interesting is to select a moment of 'failure'. Personal failures can be impressive, and even more so when they are written by the 'faille'.

It doesn't feel natural to most students to focus on a moment that was not one of their 'best' , and most feel that they would rather describe the day they got their horse to jump over the highest obstacle in the most prestigious exhibition they had ever been invited to enter.

Failure, and focusing attention on it in such an important forum, surprises the reader and demonstrates that the writer is a person with a maturing mind. It shows that the student stretches himself and takes risks, and, when properly executed, it can show that the student is not ashamed of the role failure plays in learning, and that he understands and appreciates its purpose in a successful life. Think about it: Do you know anyone who is proud that he has never failed at anything he has ever attempted in his entire life? If so, I'd have to bet that we're talking about a person with limited imagination, and, perhaps, an individual who is not getting as much out of life as one could.

BUT, after all is said and done, the essay needs to have a positive tone to it, even if it sort of twists upward to get there at the end. And the 'twist', miraculously, relates to today's tip for your daughter:

Think of the (temporary) failure, and reflect:






Don't lose sight of the goal of a college applicant – to show her enthusiasm for learning. Not 'winning', but learning.

And here's the best gold nugget I can produce today: It's been said that the most important changes in life are 'quiet ones'. And on a college essay, a quiet and important change that enriches a person (a.k.a. growth) evidences an essay and author who is more interesting and more courageous than the thousands who write about their own giant triumphs!

Hope this helps,

And stay tuned, as essay tips for college applications have been requested a lot recently, and I'm planning to devote substantial energy to this immediate area of problem-solving.

-- Mitch