Help with College Essays
Don’t go it alone. Hire Devon O’Brien, Writing Tutor.
Of all the components of an application to college—grades and test scores, recommendations, interviews and portfolios—the Personal Statement on the Common Application is unique and crucial. It is the applicant’s singular opportunity to present himself/herself to a powerful committee composed of strangers. Like a screenplay or a sonnet, the Personal Statement is a form: its particulars must be met as perfectly as possible. The punctuation must be flawless. The grammar must be impeccable. Yet the essay cannot seem stilted; use of the natural cadences of the author make an essay lively.
The language cannot be commonplace; word usage particular to the author makes it individual and vivid. The selection of topic is all-important: it must convey to a reader what it is like to walk in his/her shoes or see the world through his/her eyes. A successful essay will reverberate with the author’s feelings, or show the mechanics of the author’s thinking, or reveal character in a moment of moral conundrum or via action. In short, the Personal Statement is a self-portrait in words, a snapshot of selfhood.
The task is daunting and the stakes are high.
For the students I work with, writing the Personal Statement is a creative, empowering experience. Every writer will struggle: spending hours, days and nights, wrestling with ideas, seeking to fit them into words and sentences so they are engaging and convey the intended meaning.
As a writer and as a parent, I have a passion to help others understand and withstand this process, and share in the thrills of writing. I work with students in person or electronically, via FaceTime or Skype. In Los Angeles, I have worked with students from Archer, Campbell Hall, Crossroads, The Episcopal School-LA, Hamilton, Harvard-Westlake, Immaculate Heart, Loyola, Marlborough, Oakwood, Pilgrim and Westridge. Indeed, I have worked with students at schools all over the country—from nearby Cate, to Deerfield Academy, Miss Porter’s and St. George’s, among others.
More importantly, my students have been accepted at Amherst, Bard, Barnard, Berkeley, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, DePaul, Emerson, Johns Hopkins, Goucher, Hampshire, Lewis & Clark, Loyola, MIT, New York University, Oberlin, Oregon, Redlands, Reed, University of St. Andrews, University of the South, Smith, Syracuse, Wesleyan, UCLA and USC, and many more.
Last year, every student I worked with was accepted at their top-choice school.
Here is a blueprint of my method and our procedure.
It takes approximately six to nine hour-long sessions to conceive of and compose, revise and complete the Personal Statement.
The initial two or three meetings are about Exploration. You and I are prospecting for the best possible essay topic. We talk. I take notes. You write. I read everything. We happen upon a rich and promising vein: the topic or cause, individual, event, failure or achievement that you are passionate about and that is inherently expressive of your personality. This is the Eureka Moment.
The middle meetings are about Writing. We study the subject. We allow it to suggest the structure of your essay—a point of view, a hook, an arc, particular points or details. You write and discover the real nature and value of the material that caught your eye, and forge it into its ideal shape. We make darn sure this is the strongest, most compelling and thoroughly sound response to the prompt as possible. If so, you proceed with confidence. If there’s doubt, you scrap it and return to another idea that had sparkle. Either way, at the end of these middle sessions, you have a pretty good draft.
The final meetings are about Re-writing. We evaluate every word, sentence and paragraph. Does the essay begin well, develop well and end well? Is it revealing and quintessentially you? Are you having the effect you intended? You polish the prose so it’s smooth and shines—until the essay is something you are very, very proud of.
Writing is an organic, unpredictable process. There will be surprises: setbacks, shortcuts, roadblocks and breakthroughs. Your Personal Statement may come together in a few sessions, particularly if you begin with certainty about your topic. Or it may not come together quickly. Creative writing is not formulaic. How long it takes is not important. Our goal is to make sure you compose a stand-out essay: a true expression of you as your best self—and one that puts your application in the Yes pile.
My job is also to help the student discern and value his/her own ideas, and impart an understanding of and practice in the process of writing.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with aspiring students on the very brink of their adult lives. Free of the natural complications of parent–child dynamics, I find students to be pro-active and imaginative, diligent and inspired. They know how important this piece of their application is, and very much want to get it right. A by-product of our hours together is this: students know themselves better. They gain confidence in presenting themselves to the world. I hope to instill skills in the craft of writing—and maybe even spark a passion for it.