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Turn college essays from stressful assignments into creative opportunities – My College Corner Podcast

Nov 14, 2018

Preparing for college admissions essays is a great opportunity to put the student’s best foot forward, and may even help boost the odds for scholarship funding in certain applications.  In this episode of the My College Corner Podcast, Kathleen Carey, founder of Find Your Story shares expert advice on how to move college essays from ordinary to extraordinary.

Listen to the full podcast on our Soundcloud station.


Interview Transcript:

John Hupalo: Thanks for joining us today. My College corner, as you know, is on a mission to help families understand how they can best pay for college, and there are many different ways to think about that. Today, I have an absolutely terrific guest, whose gonna help us parents think about how we can help our students write or create a great college essay. You may be wondering: What does a great college essay have to do with paying for college? But that’s exactly what we’re gonna talk about. And today, I’m joined by Kathleen Carey, who started a wonderful service around writing essays at FindYourStoryVT.com. FindYourStoryVT.com. Kathleen, welcome to My College Corner.

Kathleen Carey: Oh, hi John. Thank you so much.

John Hupalo: Well thank you. You know what? Let’s start with your story. How did you wind up getting into this?

Kathleen Carey: It really, like many things, it kind of happened out of need or necessity. I have three children, and when my oldest daughter was applying to college, she decided to go early decision, which meant that she was going to need six essays ready by November 1st, which is the deadline for early decision. And although she had been great about starting the process early, and getting into the common app and sorting through all of the supplemental essays that would be required, she had started that in the middle of the summer, we were down to about two months left when she was really gonna start digging in to getting these essays done. And like most of our listeners out there who have been through this process or about to, it is very daunting.

Kathleen Carey: There’s a lot going on in a senior high school student’s life. They’re taking AP classes and retaking ACTs and SATs and they are holding down part time jobs and taking AP exams and having extracurricular activities and then you’re adding all this application stress, and the essays on top of it. So we decided to hire someone, and give her a little bit of help. It was my first go around, so I really didn’t know what to expect. And it started off okay, but what I quickly saw happening was that when she would bring edits home, they were sounding less and less like her.

John Hupalo: Yeah.

Kathleen Carey: They were using language and vocabulary that she would never use as a 17 year old.

John Hupalo: So you felt like she was getting put into maybe a mold that might work for somebody else, but wasn’t working for her to get her personality drawn out.

Kathleen Carey: Correct. And this was a lovely woman who came highly recommended.

John Hupalo: Sure.

Kathleen Carey: A lot of people really liked working with her, but knowing my daughter, she’s kind of this light hearted, sparkly personality, there was none of that being shown in the writing, and I thought she could be just any one of hundred of applicants, and what makes her special really wasn’t showing. So we decided to start over. And now at that point we were down to six weeks.

John Hupalo:  Wow.

Kathleen Carey: And I thought, “Well, let’s see if we can come up with just some topics first.” And another interesting example of things that she was bringing home originally is she had to write one particular essay about some personality traits, and she was gonna write about her sense of humor. And I noticed the minute I read it, I thought, “Wow. This just isn’t funny.” And that’s when I realized that it’s really important to show who you are, not just tell who you are.

John Hupalo: Well that’s a really interesting point, ’cause I think you’re eluding to something we all felt. I’ve had two daughters through the process and I remember the essays and the whole thing, but that’s kind of the way it almost comes. It’s of the essays, and it’s like a struggle and it’s not fun and sort of midway through the process and you know it has to be done. But on your point about not just saying something, but telling a story is a really interesting approach. I’ve talked to a ton of people who are experts in this, but none have really ever sort of framed it that way. That’s a very interesting observation.

Kathleen Carey: Yeah. It’s interesting. When one of my daughters did some writing for the school paper out of the University of Michigan, and she sent it to me and I read through the whole paper, and there was an article in there written by a woman, I have the book right here, named Eileen Pollack. And the book is called ‘Creative Nonfiction’, and she actually, I believe she’s the person that coined that term. And she teaches a class in creative nonfiction out there, and I read an article that was in their paper about the class, and I just found it fascinating. And so I apply a lot of this to my work with students to really help them find their story, and to enjoy writing, because when you’ve found the story that you wanna tell, it writes itself. And I always tell my students that when they enjoy writing, the reader will enjoy reading, for sure.

John Hupalo: And unfortunately often times, not always, but often times there’s a fixed question, and then there’s some answer that I think a lot of us think the school is looking for. Is that your experience that the school is looking for something? Or is it really up to the student to be creative and more thoughtful about how they wanna approach what seems to be maybe of some kind of formulated question?

Kathleen Carey: Right. That’s a great question. So one of the things that I would encourage parents to do when they’re attempting to help their children with this very stressful process is to … The personal essay is actually referred to as a personal statement in the common application, and even for schools that are not on the common app that have their own application, students will still be required to write a “personal statement”. It’s the longest essay, typically, and the first to be reviewed by colleges.

Kathleen Carey: What I encourage my students to do, and we do this immediately, is to change the word statement to “perspective”. It should be a personal perspective piece, whether you’re writing about a time that you failed, which is one of the prompts. It’s commonly one of the common essay prompts. And what did you do about it, or how did you resolve it? They’re not necessarily looking for you to explain the time, the actual moment in time when they failed, but I think what they’re more looking for is, “What is your perspective on failure? Where does failure fit into your life?” Certainly you can tell me a story about that time you failed, but that’s not nearly as interesting as what you took from it and how you use failure in your life.

John Hupalo: Well that’s a really interesting point, Kathleen. Sorry to interrupt you. But when you read a question like that, often and in job interviews same thing, it’s not like you want to point out your failures to people, so often times you hear folks trying to sort of dodge that question. But your point is if you take it on, head on, and be creative about your perspective, I think just changing that little nuance changes the entire way you think about that essay to really a different approach.

Kathleen Carey: Yeah, and it can be very powerful. I have a student who, for Boston College two years ago, one of their supplements asked the question, “Which is more important to you: To have a successful career or a meaningful life?” And that was one of three choices. And she was, at first, very frustrated by the prompt. And she said, “Well, how can you have one without the other? For me?” And I said, “Well, brilliant answer, of course.” You know, there are some people who might say, “Oh I want to be successful,” and other people just want to volunteer their time and create more meaning in their life or in other peoples lives. And so she ended up writing this really fascinating essay, starting out with a story about being in an apple orchard up in Vermont. And she was looking at a picture of herself when she was a little girl, and she kind of described that it must’ve been cool out, ’cause they were wearing light sweaters, and you can immediately see yourself-

John Hupalo: Right.

Kathleen Carey: Standing in an apple orchard, looking at the Adirondack Mountains, and it was a little brisk in the air. And she was telling this story about how she had a map in one hand and a bag in the other, ’cause she’s always been so focused on getting from point A to point B. And that’s just what has driven her life, and one of the reasons why she’d been such a successful, really passionate, interesting young woman.

Kathleen Carey: So we were thinking about how to play with just that idea, and I said, “Okay, so what do you use maps for?” And so she kind of played with the whole idea that you use maps to get from point A to point B, but you also use maps to get yourself out of trouble when you’re lost, or to take a little side trip to see what you can discover. And so she worked on this, and by then we had already gotten through the common app personal perspective piece, and so she had gotten storytelling kind of vibe, and she knew how to get those ideas out. And she trusted herself to be creative by then, which was really the key.

Kathleen Carey: And she just wrote this beautiful essay about how she didn’t wanna be that person who needed to get from point A to point B, because she’d miss out on so many opportunities, things that she might not even know are there. And she wove in the whole idea about meaningful life is what would make her successful. And she got a written note back from the admissions counselor there, just really commending her on her ability to be reflective in her writing about her life, and she changes that she wanted to make. So it was a really, really, really fun essay.

John Hupalo: And hopefully that note telling her great essay was attached to an acceptance, so-

Kathleen Carey: Yes, it was. For sure.

John Hupalo: We always know what the end game is. But I think that’s a terrific story, because honestly you read a lot in the press about how the essays, they wrote those nonsense essays because few people now read them, and they have to go through scanners first, and then only the top ones get read, and so they were sort of gaming this system with these nonsense essays. It’s a little bit of a diversion but it just came to my mind. So what’s your perspective on that, or these essays and people taking so much time. Are they read, or in big schools are they scanned first? Or how does that really work?

Kathleen Carey: That’s a great question, and I wish I knew. I think it probably depends on the school, the size of the school. I do think that they are read. I know that here at the University of Vermont, they have volunteer readers for the first round. They go through a lot of training to do it. It’s a school of 11,000 students, so it’s not small.

Kathleen Carey: So I do believe they’re read, and I really believe strongly that the essay is a really critical part of the application. The rest of the application shows your GPA, your strength of course load, your extracurriculars. You’ll have your letters of recommendation in there, all of your test scores, but it doesn’t say anything about how you think about yourself, how you relate to the world around you. It can show what’s important to you, in some ways.

Kathleen Carey: But I think the essay is really the glue that holds the whole puzzle together, and it’s where the reader can really understand and see who you are in your writing, as opposed to just trying to tweeze out which student is going to be successful academically. They’re looking for students who are gonna contribute to the community as a whole, by bringing their perspective to campus, and their willingness to learn.

John Hupalo: Yeah. We talk to parents and students all the time, and part of what we try to impart on them is that this is a chance for your personality, as you’re saying, to come out. Along with the interview, that might be the two opportunities, maybe a chance encounter with an admissions counselor at a fair or something like that. But other than that, you really are just sort of a set of numbers and maybe, like you said, my interest might come through because I ran track or I was on this particular club, or I sang in the chorus. So they have some idea, but they really don’t know who you are, and the depth of what’s important to you to round out that class you’re talking abou.t Students look at this and say there’s an academic, a social and a financial fit from their perspective, but on the other side the school has this very large set of buckets that they’re trying to fill to have a great class of interesting people.

Kathleen Carey: Sure.

John Hupalo: And what you’re saying about the essay rings true to me certainly. May I ask you this, Kathleen? Do you have some absolutely “Do Not’s”? Parents are helping their students and they may think their helping. Do you have any experience with parents who come in and say, “I’ve told my child this is the way to write that essay,” but you sort of have to back the parent off the ledge a little bit?

Kathleen Carey: Oh absolutely. Yes. I’ve had some experience with that as well. And I even had to back myself off the ledge a few times in my first go around, because it’s overwhelming, and you really … Your child has put so much into getting to this next step, and you can’t help but be fraught with stress. And so if you’re attempting to help your student get through this essay writing process, the first thing I say is to really keep reframing the approach from statement to perspective so that they’re constantly reminded that their personal perspective is what will come through in the essay. That’s what the admissions counselors really want to understand about them.

Kathleen Carey: Another word I would change, or quite frankly banish is the word unique. One of the reasons that college essays are so overwhelming for students is because there’s this sense that the student needs to present themselves as a unique individual, and very different from everybody else in order to set themselves apart. But in my opinion, the word unique is thrown around too much in this writing world, and it’s intimidating. You know, the simplest of stories tell the most about an applicant, and most often when the stress over being unique is eliminated, the students actually do end up telling quite a unique story.

Kathleen Carey: I was thinking about this a little bit last night, and I started to chuckle because I thought, you know, think about a 17 year old. They have spent, for most, I’m not gonna say every student, but most students have spent their short 17 years on this earth, very few of them have had anything unique or significant happen to them. And they have spent their whole life actually trying not to be different or unique, right?

John Hupalo: Right.

Kathleen Carey: They kind of everyone wants to be the same. And now they’re thrust into this position where they’re saying, “Okay. Come up with a unique story.”

John Hupalo: Right.

Kathleen Carey: And they’re 17. They don’t really like talking about themselves for the most part. They don’t think that there’s anything special about them. If they do come up with an interesting habit, which I’ll tell you my daughter’s book story in a bit, but they don’t think it’s interesting. And so it can take a while to encourage students of 17 year olds to learn to talk about themselves, and learn to reflect on where they’ve been in their short 17 years, and think about maybe where they want to go and how do they see themselves in a relationship to the world. If they can start to talk to their parents, or even friends, about that and learn to speak those words, then they can get them down on paper.

John Hupalo: Yeah, the verbalization is really important. Actually, my daughter’s been interviewing for jobs. She’s about to graduate from college, and I’ve been trying to encourage her to actually give the answers out loud, and there’s some reticence to do that. But I think your point is your voice, it really does come through verbalized, and then you have a chance to write it and see how it reads. I’m not big on cliff hangers, so tell us about your daughters book, ’cause that sounds too good to pass up.

Kathleen Carey:  Yeah, so after we had tried the stint with someone helping outside of the family to support her writing of her personal perspective piece, we came home and we were feeling a bit under the gun to get this started. And had scratched everything that she had written up to that point, and we were sitting up in her room one evening with all of the prompts, looking at as it is back this year, there wasn’t open prompt, so you didn’t necessarily have to respond to a particular statement or question. You could write anything you wanted. And so we were sitting on the bed tossing around lots of different ideas, and she suddenly said, “Oh, wait a minute.” And she got up and walked across the room and she picked up, I think it was, the book “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” and moved it from a lower left shelf of her enormous book case to the upper right hand shelf, and she tucked it in next to “Flowers for Algernon” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day”. And she stood back and looked at her book case again, and said, “Okay.” And she came and sat down and she’s like, “What were we talking about?” And I said, “Wait a minute. What did you just do?”

John Hupalo: Right.

Kathleen Carey: And she said, “Oh.” She said, “Nothing. It’s just … ” And I said, “No. What did you just do?” And she said, “Well, they never would’ve gotten along.” And I said, “Well what do you mean they wouldn’t have gotten along.” And she said, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” needed to be up here with “Flowers for Algernon” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day”, because all of the characters in the stories had things to struggle with, and I wanted to give them what the writer of their stories didn’t, which was a friend.”

John Hupalo: Wow.

Kathleen Carey: And I just was like, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “Oh yeah. I’ve been doing it my whole life.” And you known it was the first time I’d ever looked at her book case that way, and it was so true.

John Hupalo: Wow.

Kathleen Carey: You know, Chronicle of Narnia were sitting next to all the Harry Potter series books, and she went on to explain Voldemort and the White Witch would hang out all the time, and I just said, “Oh, are you kidding me? That’s your essay.” And she, like most of my students will do at the very beginning, said, “Oh, no. That’s silly. That’s not an important enough essay.” And I said, “Are you kidding me?” I said, “Look at your book case.” You’ve got Winnie the Pooh next to A Prayer for Owen Meany. You know? It shows that your passionate about reading, that you are just a wiz at character development and understanding the essence of each story and what the author was trying to portray.”

Kathleen Carey: And it was funny because she had moved Chime and Punishment like, to a corner all by himself because he’s such a creepy guy. He shouldn’t belong next to anybody. And so she was able to write this very poignant, interesting, true story that was seemingly about nothing at all, but it was about a habit, and it was about the way she looks at her books, and it was funny and just phenomenal. A phenomenal essay.

John Hupalo: That’s a remarkable story on a lot of levels, not the least of which, hats off to you and congratulations, because I think if I were in a similar situation, I would’ve become instantly angry that she wasn’t paying any attention to what we were talking about and was day dreaming in her book shelf. But you’re a good listener and you picked up on that really important key, which was that she was really intellectualizing something you probably, up to that moment, had no idea was going on in her life and it was so important to her. But you’re able to capture that for her.

John Hupalo: And I imagine with your students, and I’m trying to understand how it can let our listeners know just how special that kind of moment is, and they are like me, probably unable to find it, but how you tease that out with your students and the stories you’ve been telling I think is just remarkable and really separates you from plenty of others who, you know, walk in, “I have 35 student and here’s the template for the answer and let’s look at the questions and go do your draft and I’ll tell your mom that you’re doing fine.”

John Hupalo: So I’d love to know from your perspective as a parent who just kind of happened into this of helping students and establishing FindYourStoryVT.com, and … How do you see this playing out over time? Where do you find your students? How do they find you? And very importantly, reality check here, November One recently passed, so all those early decisions, all those early actions are in, but there are a whole group of folks who are now looking at the college essay with dread. Thanksgiving’s coming. Christmas is coming. The applications are gonna be due. Is it too late for you to help those folks?

Kathleen Carey: Oh, no. Not at all. Not at all. I had a student last year, whose actually a graduate student up at Miguel, who had five days.

John Hupalo: Wow.

Kathleen Carey: To finish. He was trying to get it done and he was just struggling, and had a lot of writer’s block. I think, no. It’s not too late at all. And I think what’s really important is really talking enough with the student to really find when something turns on. When a light turns on in their eyes when they’re talking about something.

Kathleen Carey: I had a student talk about collecting sea glass with her grandmother. She loved, it was such an important part of her summer routine. She would go and do this with her grandmother once a summer. And it would seem like it would be nothing to write about, right? But she was able to find a way to tell that story and show her perspective on it as changing the way she looked at the world, and how important it was to actually stand still. ‘Cause she came up with a strategy as to how to find the best sea glass, and it was to stand a few feet out in the water and let the waves push the sand up and back over your feet, and it would unearth new pieces, whereas she saw other people just kind of moving by quickly on the beach and grabbing bucket fulls of shells and different things. But she was really focused on this process that she had come up with, and how important it is to slow down and stop. Because everyone in their generation is just moving so forward, so fast with their head down in their phone, or just not really paying attention to the world going by.

Kathleen Carey: And so it’s finding really anything. You can write about a rock if you wanna write about a rock, or a piece of sea glass. It’s what does it mean? How does it bring out your personality? What does it make you think about? When my second daughter wrote what is commonly referred to as an “Anti-Essay”, which can be very risky to write because you have to be sure you stay very respectful to the process, but the reason that worked for her is that she was frustrated by the prompts, by one in particular. I’m trying to remember the word that was used in it that drover her crazy. Oh, let’s see. We …

John Hupalo:  You say “Anti-Essay”. That’s very interesting.

Kathleen Carey: Yeah. It’s-

John Hupalo: Really turned on it’s head.

Kathleen Carey: Yeah. I think the word was … Oh, it was, “Remark on a profound moment in your life, and what did you learn?” And she just stormed out of the room and she was like, “Profound? Nothing profound has happened to me. That’s why I’m going to college.” And so she wrote the essay that says, “Hey. I’m just a normal 17 year old kid. Nothing much has happened. I’ve done this. I’ve hammered nails for Habitat, but to me, none of these things I’m listing for you in my essay are extraordinary. None of it is profound. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Kathleen Carey: And she kind of turned it around and said, “I’m looking for those profound opportunities. When I look at myself every day in the mirror, nothing much has changed, but now I know, because I know what I want. I’m searching for this. Can you offer me those profound opportunities?” But that’s what she wanted to write, and the essay came out very, very quickly, because it was something that she was very passionate about and you could tell and you could see it in her writing. So really allowing the student to write about something they really wanna write about is very important.

John Hupalo: Yeah. It’s all about passion. We’ve talked about this. You’ve talked about it so beautifully in the beginning about trying to help your daughter, having a passion to help her now has morphed into a passion to help students more generally. I started the beginning, you talked about time passing quickly. Our time here has passed really quickly. We probably could talk for another two hours about this. But I did wanna circle back on this notion that an essay helps a student with the application, but obviously we want to get accepted. How can parents think about having students understand that taking time to write a great essay could actually help the college become more affordable for them, help them pay for school a little bit better?

Kathleen Carey: Sure. Well, you know, writing a powerful essay that really grabs the attention of the reader, which is your goal, and to leave the reader changed in some way … I wanted to get that in there, because I think if you read an essay and you walk away from it thinking about that subject differently, like I’ll never look at books the same way again-

John Hupalo: Right.

Kathleen Carey: After reading the book essay. If it changes the way you think about something, then you’ve done your job as a writer. You’ve impacted that reader that way. You’re obviously … It’s gonna impact the number of schools that you’re applied to. And also, it can affect merit scholarships, because they look at this person as having this quality skill, and therefore there’ll be much greater opportunity to be getting some of those merit scholarships. I know some of the more prestigious schools that my students have been admitted to have offered less merit money than some of the other still very competitive and excellent schools will tend to offer more. That’s just been my experience. I don’t know how cut and dry that is. But yes. Writing an essay that really does go from a story telling standpoint that really allows the student to really show the admissions counselor who they are. They know who they’re admitting. You want them to know who they’re admitting when they read your essay. Could definitely have an impact on affordability.

John Hupalo: I mean, we are almost out of time. Is there anything else that I should’ve asked you about, or another piece of advice that you could give parents with regard to how best to help their student during this really stressful part of the student’s life.

Kathleen Carey: Of course. Well, including the Do’s, which we’ve already spoken about, which are to use perspective to eliminate the pressure to be unique and to practice talking about themselves verbally, I do have a few things that students can be drawn to that I would want parents to just be cautious around. And those are writing topics that often include family loss, service trips, travel and sports injuries.

Kathleen Carey: But students need to keep in mind that the admissions counselors want to admit them and not the elephant they saved, the coach who never gave up on them, or the family member who inspired their interest in medicine. These all are topics that make perfect sense to write about, because those are the moments in their lives where something significant has happened to them, but it can be really easy to get caught up in the trap of writing about an inspirational person or moment. But it often does little to show how the student views the world, and how he or she thinks.

Kathleen Carey: That doesn’t mean that the essay can’t be about a service trip to India, or such, but it does mean that the writer of that story needs to stay focused on an aspect of the trip or the experience that helped them define themselves. You know, what did they overcome? How are they gonna use that experience to take them forward? So although those topics are really exciting and common things to write about, because those are the experiences they’ve had in their lives, just be sure it’s more about them than somebody or something else.

Kathleen Carey: And one last thing would be, and this is an absolute Don’t, do not ever edit for word count. An essay may allow up to a thousand words, or only a thousand characters with spaces, and that’s a very short essay. But if you edit while you’re writing, the student will absolutely lose their best work. And editing at the end of the process is where you get to boil your story down and make it much richer, and more of what you really wanted to say. So I would say that’s my biggest piece of Don’t advice.

John Hupalo: Yeah, no. I think that’s a great way to wrap it up. As you’ve been talking, and I wish you were around when my daughters were writing their essays, because your voice has calmed me and I know it would calm them and give everybody and opportunity to breath and really reflect, and I think that’s part of the magic of what you’re doing.

Kathleen Carey: Sure.

John Hupalo: So I want to thank you for coming to My College Corner today and telling your story, telling the story of how parents can help their students, and importantly tell them maybe what to be careful of, which is always helpful. But we really do appreciate your time today, and I’m so happy that we met.

Kathleen Carey: Oh, well thank you very much. And you know, you had asked if parents need more information, I know you mentioned my website. But if they go to FindYourStoryVT.com there are pages upon pages of information in there and tips, and things to do, things to avoid, and what college admissions counselors are looking for. And the back page there’s a Reach Out section where you can contact me if you have any questions. I’m certainly always available to help people through this process.

John Hupalo: Well thank you so much.

Kathleen Carey: Thank you. Thanks, John.