Pondering The Mysteries of College Essays
Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the Amazon bestseller College Essay Essentials, the #1 book on college essays. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine.
Raised as a missionary kid in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia, Ethan studied at seventeen different schools. He’s worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, grant writer, theater director, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver (true story). Ethan is also certified in Myers-Briggs® and hypnotherapy.
He is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, SACAC, OACAC, HECA and IECA (feel free to Google those) and lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.collegeessayguy.com.
1.) Can you tell us a little of how you came to be “The College Essay Guy”? Sure! I studied screenwriting in college at Northwestern and after graduating I got a job as a college essay coach and realized many of the principles of screenwriting applied to college essay writing. So I started teaching my students screenwriting principles and voila! Some of them wrote really amazing essays and were accepted into some great schools. I enjoyed counseling so much that I went out and got two counseling certificates, started working on a book, started posting content from that book online and after my friend read some of my content she said, “You could be like THE college essay guy.” So I saw that no one else already was and I thought, “Oh. I guess that’s me.” (Ethan can be found at www.collegeessayguy.com)
2.) Can you share any success stories? Yes – I had a student named Ahra who was really shy growing up until she joined her school’s Debate Club, which helped her come out of her shell. Eventually debate helped her not only develop personal confidence, but it also improved her personal relationships and she went on to win an international award. She used the narrative structure to tell her story, and, thanks to her awesome grades and SATs, she’s now at Stanford. Another student of mine, Julia, had no idea what she wanted to study, but knew she loved scrapbooking. So she used scrapbooking as a focusing lens to write an awesome essay that tells about lots of different aspects of her life. She just graduated from Amherst.
3) What is your philosophy for the essay writing process? I believe we’re all storytellers. Telling stories is how we make sense of our lives, how we give shape to the chaos. And what I particularly love about the college essay is that it requires students to take stock of their past, present and future–which is a lot–and to turn it all into a one-page statement. It takes time, but it’s totally possible and the experience can be fun, therapeutic, and in some cases life-changing.
4.) Can you give us a few quick tips? Sure. First, in the vast sea of college prep activities, some people overlook the college essay. It’s true, GPA and course load (tough classes) are what colleges tend to care about most. Then, generally speaking, standardized test scores. But if your GPA and test scores are close to someone else’s, the essay can make the difference. Parke Muth, former associate Dean at UVA, has written more about this here. Second, some students make the mistake of thinking a personal statement can be written in one night. I find it takes on average 15-25 hours to write a really fantastic personal statement.
5.) What is the best college essay story you’ve ever heard and why? The best college essays stories I’ve read are the “I Shot My Brother” essay, about a student who shot his brother, and the “Dead Bird” essay, about a student who tried to save a dying bird. Here are four qualities of these amazing essays (and notes on what students can steal from them).