IAMA private college counselor and former English teacher who has written a book about the college application essay. AMA!

Have you started your college essay yet? My name is Cassie Nichols, founder and director of College Specific LLC. This weekend my company is launching a downloadable multimedia "crash course" on the college application essay, called The College Essay Toolkit.

Last year I released a book on the college essay, The College Essay Trap, that tells students how to avoid common pitfalls when writing their essay.

I work with students and their families throughout the the college admissions process, and occasionally conduct essay workshops at high schools and in private settings.

I will be here from 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time until about 1 p.m. answering questions about the college essay.

TL;DR - I know a fair amount about the college essay and would love to help any seniors who are nervous or confused about writing theirs.

Proof | More proof | Yet more proof

Edit: So many great questions here! I'm able to stay a bit longer than anticipated, so keep them coming. I will work on the most upvoted questions first.

Edit #2: I've really enjoyed this AMA! Sorry I couldn't get to every question, but I hope I've been able to answer enough of them to give everyone a better understanding of the process. I will try to come back for another AMA before apps are due. Have a great weekend, everyone!

Edit #3: I'm getting a lot of private messages asking about evaluating individual essays and applications. I'm very sorry but I've already got a full load for this season. No Labor Day off for me! But I wish you the best of luck, and again, thank you to Reddit for such an eventful and rewarding Saturday!

Comments: 538 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

Vnator176 karma

Sadly for me, you're one year too late. But thanks for doing the AMA!

College_Specific97 karma

Sorry, I got here as soon as I could! Hope your first year is going well!

rickydelap145 karma

What is a must do in the essay, and what is a 'fuck that, you're out' response?

College_Specific368 karma

You must:

  1. Write well
  2. Write about yourself
  3. Tell a story
  4. Show personal growth

You're out if:

  1. You clearly wrote it the night before the deadline
  2. Your essay is riddled with errors and typos
  3. Your essay is overtly offensive
  4. You accidentally tell Duke how much you want to go to UNC

For_The_Fail79 karma

I don't understand the last point. Could you elaborate?

edit: Thanks guys. I'm Canadian and have never heard of Duke or UNC.

youreonfire186 karma

Don't use the wrong college's name in your application.

Eg. "Why do you want to go to UChicago?" "Well, its always been my dream to attend Princeton..."

College_Specific106 karma

Exactly. That's a deal-killer. :)

gbtimmon-5 karma

So honesty is a deal-killer. Nice colleges, Way to foster good morals.

College_Specific24 karma

There are limits. : )

bellamyback95 karma

Can you convince me that the college essay isn't bullshit? Meaning, how does the use of the college essay as a screening/selection tool improve the quality of the student body, and in what ways?

College_Specific142 karma

Without the college essay, all admissions officers really have to go on is the raw information from the rest of your application (grades, course selection, test scores, etc). This works for many of the large universities, which have enough beds to house anyone who meets a minimum GPA, SAT score, etc.

However, in the case of most colleges and universities, space is limited. The essay provides them with a way to gauge qualities about their prospective student body that are not necessarily evident from the rest of the application.

If you put out an ad for a new roommate, you would probably want to see their credit score, employment situation, etc. to make sure they can pay their rent on time. But you'd also want to meet them to make sure they're compatible. That's what the essay is for admissions officers: a way to get to know the person behind the application.

It might make you feel better to know that an essay rarely offsets bad grades or a weak course selection, at least in the absence of mitigating circumstances... unless that essay comes with a $10 million check for a new wing on the campus library.

bellamyback22 karma

What do you think about getting rid of the essay for large universities?

College_Specific28 karma

As you might have gathered, I'm partial to the essay. I think it provides students with a valuable opportunity to convey something important about themselves that might not fit anywhere else on the application.

That said, I do understand how difficult it is for universities with tens of thousands of applications--UCLA had over 90K last year--to properly evaluate every essay and give it the weight it deserves. In their situation, it's obvious why numbers have to take precedence. To be honest, this is a complicated matter to which I don't have a solution.

notdaba79 karma

Any advice for a junior starting the whole college process?

College_Specific106 karma

Yes. Spend the year focusing on your grades, challenging yourself in your classes, and building your college list. If you succeed academically and find a collection of colleges that fit, the rest will fall into place.

No need to start your essay now; save that for next summer.

jtk192146 karma

Out of cooking, rowing, or becoming an outdoor guide in the state of maine, what would be the most interesting to write about/ appealing to admission officers?

College_Specific64 karma

Normally, if a student asked me this, I'd want to see the rest of their application. I don't have that luxury here, so I'll give you some general advice. First, be careful writing about your sport. If your application is packed with references to rowing, don't belabor the point. They get it. Becoming an outdoor guide is interesting, but if it's just something you did so you'd have something to put on your resume, it will be a tough essay to write. However, if you're passionate about it and it fits with your personality, go for it. Likewise with cooking. Your essay will be best if it's about something that you find meaningful.

Mo-Munny39 karma

Aside from the standard wake the admissions officer up, show them you know how to write, and somehow reveal something about yourself through means of showing and not telling...what else?

And how does one show all of the awesome things they have done without coming across in a negative way?

College_Specific59 karma

Aside from the standard wake the admissions officer up, show them you know how to write, and somehow reveal something about yourself through means of showing and not telling...what else?

Show personal growth. They're not only trying to determine what kind of person you are, they're trying to figure out what sort of person you will be when you're on their campus.

Also--and this relates to the "show don't tell" thing--tell a story. Sometimes students think they're "showing" by merely rattling off a list of examples. But what will really help you connect with your reader is to illustrate your point through storytelling. A former dean of admissions I happen to know said: "I long ago figured out that some of the best essays I've ever read were simply stories well-told."

And how does one show all of the awesome things they have done without coming across in a negative way?

The trick here is: don't try to show them "everything". Show them one thing that is meaningful to you, and reveal it through a well-articulated story.

claptrapismyhero29 karma

What are the most important things that I should know before I even begin writing?

College_Specific79 karma

  1. Know what the college essay is. It's not an English paper.
  2. Don't regurgitate your resume. They have access to all that information. Tell them something they don't know, preferably something you care deeply about.
  3. Be specific. Don't write a saga. You have 650 words (for the Common App, at least). Use it wisely.
  4. Write about yourself. Not your grandma or your favorite coach or Dobby the Elf. This essay is about you, from start to finish.

So many more things! But that's a start.

eatenbread56 karma

I don't know, I could write some excellent stuff about Dobby the Elf.

College_Specific25 karma

I'm sure that's true. But Dobby's not the one applying to college. If you simply must include Dobby in your essay, just make sure that you are front-and-center.

jtk192124 karma

What is your opinion on writing a college essay on a topic that is not actually involved in your life/ a false essay?

College_Specific37 karma

This rarely works out. College admissions officers read thousands of essays per year, and many have developed the ability to see through this sort of thing.

Also, in my experience, it's pretty rare for a student to write a passionate essay that is about something that isn't meaningful to them.

The good news is, the topic doesn't have to be something dramatic. It could be about something simple, like taking the subway to school every morning. It's how you write it that matters.

bluewolftwilight21 karma

How important is the essay in relation to the rest of the application? For example, if you have very good grades, good ACT score, and took challenging classes in high school, would they still reject you for a hastily-written essay?

College_Specific23 karma

That really depends on the school to which you're applying.

If your grades and scores are significantly higher than the school's averages, your essay won't play as great a role. However, it should still be thoughtful and illuminating... and checked for grammatical errors. A sloppy essay can give them the impression that you don't care about their school, and that can turn them off.

If your grades and scores fall within that college's averages, however, the essay can make all the difference.

That said, your grades and courses matter most of all--more than your test scores, your essay, or anything else.

globetheater19 karma


College_Specific23 karma

Everyone has something that distinguishes them. The trick is to figure out what it is and convey that in your essay. The myth here is that it has to be something dramatic; that's not the case. You don't have to have hitched a ride on the space shuttle; you can write about your lifelong fascination with NASA.

You can choose a moment in your life that illuminates you and focus on that. One of the most famous poems in the English language is about something as simple as a fork in the road.. There's nothing overtly dramatic about a fork in the road... the drama comes from the choice of which road to take.

One of my favorite lines is from the Dean of Admissions at Pitzer: "The best essays take something ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary." This is incredibly sound advice.

sbxpress2219 karma

I'm a high school senior and I am currently in the process of writing my college essays. For most of my applications, I am using the Common App. The common app essay prompts are here. Which one would you recommend using? I took a look at all of them and I'm still not sure which one I should do.

College_Specific30 karma

There is no "right" prompt. The trick is to find one that fits something important you want to say about yourself. The new prompts are pretty broad, so you can write about almost anything.

I always ask my students: "If there's one thing you want them to know about you, what would that be?". I then ask: "How can you tell that through a story?"

Don't get hung up on which prompt is better. It's about the story you tell, and most stories can be tailored to at least one of the prompts.

sbxpress224 karma

Ok, thanks for the advice! I guess I'm going to have to do some self-meditation haha

College_Specific9 karma

You have it easy. I make my students answer lots of brainstorming questions, and they also have to sit and talk with me for hours in a dark room.

Just take your time--that's important. It's good that you're starting now. Good luck!

Fapingit14 karma

Thank You for you very insightful AMA. One question, would you say their is a difference when writing a essay as a transfer student ? Or what are some very helpful tips for transfers essays ?

College_Specific25 karma

Yes, there is a difference. You're further along, so you'll be expected to have a fairly strong idea of what you'd like to major in. Incoming freshmen get to be "undecided", but transfer students do not.

Also, when a college asks why you're transferring to their school, they want you to be specific. Don't dodge the question. If you were a subpar student in high school and you needed a few extra years to grow up, give them a sense of your journey, and of how much you've grown in the last few years. Also, don't be afraid to address the fact that community college was necessary for financial reasons, if that is the case. The important thing is that you've taken advantage of your current environment and everything it has to offer.

If you started out in a four-year institution, you'll need to address the reasons your first college turned out not to be a good fit. There's no need to degrade your current school. Just explain why it isn't right for you, and emphasize the reasons the college to which you're transferring is a better fit.

raoul_llamas_duke13 karma

How did you get into being a private college counselor? I'm curious as to what steps were required to start that journey and get clients, etc.

College_Specific12 karma

It's been a long journey. I started out as an English teacher at a boarding school in Connecticut, where I taught a unit on the college essay to my seniors every year. Then, I got a Masters of Ed and taught teachers how to teach writing, studied curriculum development, and spent time working for a college guidance company before venturing out on my own with College Specific. This is a fairly standard trajectory, except that mine has focused a lot more on the teaching of writing.

iRecycleWomen11 karma

I have one that has not been able to be explained to me fully yet.

I'm looking to go to a local community college and transfer to the University of Texas in a couple of years. This community college has a very tight relationship with UT.

My question is this, if I do my basics at the community college and then transfer to UT to do everything else, how does it change the legitimacy of my degree once I get it? And will employers see this?

Anyone can answer! It'd be great!

asmeul12 karma

I'm doing the same thing but in Ohio. Over here, it does not reduce the legitimacy of the degree and the degree will read only of the university that you graduated from.

College_Specific12 karma

This. Your final college transcript is what will matter. Good luck to you both.

caramelfrappe10 karma

What are the differences between college entrance essays and grad school entrance essays? If you are also an expert on grad school entrance essay then what are the important things I should focus on writing?

College_Specific19 karma

The grad school essay differs greatly from the college essay. It's typically much more formal, and what you should write depends on the graduate program to which you're applying. Sorry I can't be more specific on that one. Best of luck!

Frajer8 karma

Do you feel like writing a college application essay has any real world applications?

College_Specific23 karma

Absolutely. The ability to talk about yourself--to convey a special or unique quality in an informal and convincing manner--has a lot of real-world applications. Job interviews, public speaking etc.

I wish it was taught more in high school, but don't get me started on that.

fa537 karma

How important is honesty?

College_Specific18 karma

Authenticity is very important in that it tends to have a profound effect on the quality of your writing. The more you "truly" care about something, the more you tend to know about it, and the more specific and textured your essay can be.

Honesty is a little different. It can mean a lot of different things in this context. The best advice I can give is to make sure that your essay is written by you, and that it is reflective of your voice--not your parents, etc. Admissions officers are very shrewd when it comes to this. They have your complete application in front of them, and they have a knack for knowing when something doesn't ring true. If they even remotely suspect a lack of honesty or authenticity on your part, it will cloud their decision. Why risk that?

fa539 karma

How do universities fact check?

How do they know that the student wasn't in a school play? Didn't spend free time to help at homeless shelter? Whose aunt bravely fought (but lost) a battle with cancer?

Fact checking those things seems like they would be time consuming (if not impossible). It seems like it gives advantages to people who are willing to take the risk (which could have a huge reward).

College_Specific13 karma

One way they fact-check--besides the Internet--is through counselor and teacher recommendation letters. If you were in a school play, for instance, it's highly likely your counselor would mention your love for theater. If you submit a Pulitzer-level essay, and your English teacher's rec letter talks about how she admired your energy as you struggled through her class, they're going to know something's fishy. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but it will color their assessment of your application as a whole.

Stuff that takes place outside of school, like working in a homeless shelter, is more difficult to verify, but the same thing applies.

In any case, as I said somewhere else in this thread, there's really no need to make something up. They see so many applications, and so many students do things like "help the homeless", that it really won't matter what you did so much as how you articulate how it shaped you. It's much harder to convey that clearly and forcefully if it never took place.

gettothechoppaaaaaa7 karma

Do bigger schools actually read the essays? Many bigs schools have tens of thousands, if not hundred of thousands of people applying every year. Sometimes I doubt if its even logistically possible for qualified admission officers to be able to read through each and every single one (okay not every single one, but still many thousands).

College_Specific18 karma

Yes, the big schools often hire outside readers whose job is to read as many applications as possible per day. I've known many of these readers over the years, and I don't envy their job. At the big schools, you're lucky if your application gets more than eight minutes of their time. They read the essays--or they claim to--but there's no way they have the time to give them serious attention. All the more reason to write something that stands out from the first sentence.

grumpasaurusrex5 karma


College_Specific9 karma

Without knowing the particulars, my general advice to athletes is to be careful when writing about their sport. I was a recruited water polo player, so I understand how intrinsic sports can be to your life. The top schools will want to see that you have other layers as well. That doesn't mean you should write about academics either (unless you have a great story to tell)... and you should certainly not settle on a "less personal" or "less interesting" essay.

Search for a story that illuminates the person you are. The same traits that athletes often possess--leadership, teamwork, dedication--can usually be found elsewhere in their lives.

abcactus4 karma

Is it OK to talk about a popular movie (let's say, a Disney classic) in the application essay?

College_Specific2 karma

Is it OK to talk about a popular movie (let's say, a Disney classic) in the application essay?

It depends on the significance the movie has for you. Ask yourself what that topic would reveal about you before settling on this as your topic.

felix_leong2 karma


College_Specific8 karma

I agree that the Common App has its limitations. However, there is a section in the application called "additional information". This is where you can elaborate on anything you feel isn't represented in the main section.

JamesRenner-3 karma

If a train leaves station A at 6 pm, traveling 50 miles per hour and a second train leaves station B at 6:30 traveling 65 miles per hour, when do we eat sandwiches?

College_Specific8 karma

Ideally, before the collision.