Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020

Jan Rideout is a college application consultant and co-founder of College Basics – a website offering college admissions tips and advice on everything from planning for college to settling into campus life.

Jan has a wealth of knowledge about the college admissions process and shares her ideas regularly on the College Basics blog. In addition, she wrote an e-book titled “The Basics for Writing: College Application Essays” to help guide students through the essay writing process.

Here are 5 questions we asked Jan:

1. What information does College Basics provide that will help students get the extra edge on the competition and get into the school they want?

College Basics is a very comprehensive site that covers all of the following: planning for college, applying to colleges, paying for college, and succeeding college. For example, there is information for high school students about course work, testing, extracurricular activities, and ways of standing out from others. Planning ahead, even in the freshman year, helps students compete in the highly competitive world of college admissions.

Our site also has step-by-step information for preparing a college list and offers guidelines for visiting college campuses as well as tips and advice for the whole application process with concrete examples from an actual high school résumé to examples of application essay introductions to explanations about how essays are edited and why. Both financial aid and financial planning are discussed in detail, and our retired Dean of Students gives important advice about navigating a college campus from talking to professors to understanding the conduct code to getting the right student health plan.

We do not assume students, or their parents, who may be embarking on this important application process for the first time know what they are doing so we try to walk them through it in a slow and clear way.

2. You were a high school English teacher for 25 years before becoming a college admissions consultant. How has the experience affected your approach to helping students with college application essays?

Teaching students about essay writing is concrete and forward. One can define what a persuasive essay needs to cover in its content, and one can offer formulas for organizing writing and clarifying one’s purpose in writing with thesis statements, transitions, and conclusions. That is wonderful basic information about writing. But, and this is a big BUT, English teachers are not focused on writing the personal essay beyond basic narrative. Yes, they may have students write a story or journal anecdotes, but they do not show how a story can become a metaphor for a larger theme or be molded into an expression demonstrating a life philosophy or personal values. In fact, there are not many places to visit in classrooms today where a student can even read older or contemporary personal essays.

Once my focus shifted from teaching clarity and critical thinking in prose in the classroom to writing personal essays of self- expression for college applications, I saw clearly the difference in approach and purpose. Now, I can marry the basics of prose writing and the art of writing a personal expression while guiding students in the college essay.

3. What is the most common issue you find in college application essays?

There are two prominent issues for college applicants writing the college essay. The first is understanding they are not writing for a teacher. They are writing for people interested in them as personalities and how they might fit with a college campus. For most high school seniors applying for college admission, admissions office readers seem like their teachers, looking for correct answers and big stories of accomplishments written in correct format. Applicants writing the college essay should know these readers are regular people, bored from having read way too many essays–mostly about the same big win on a high school football team or recounting similar experiences helping people in poor countries or monotonously describing the influence of heroic people in their lives. Admissions readers want to read something that catches their attentions and is different from the run-of-the-mill.

Another problem is students used to writing in the third person for high school essay assignments have to realize the personal statement for the college application requires voice. Voice is a hard concept for high schoolers. They have even been told by some teachers not to use the pronoun I. In the college essay the I-statement is the most imperative statement. Rather than being the disembodied writer, now the college applicant must show him/herself as a real somebody with humor, excitement, sensitivity. This is writing the high school college applicant has rarely practiced. Suddenly they have to approach writing in an entirely new way.

4. On your e-book’s website you state, “English teachers don’t teach you to write to sell yourself.” Do you have any recommendations for what prospective college students can do to help develop these writing skills?

High School seniors are ready to go out into the world. That is why they are proceeding on to college. They tend to think they know what is expected and what to expect. I would say they need to get out of their heads and think about expanding their sense of the world and themselves. To sell yourself, you have to know who you are and what you want, or, at least, have begun to explore these two possibilities.

I strongly advise students on the college path to begin to talk to others about themselves. Ask friends, parents, teachers, and coaches to articulate what they see as strengths and weaknesses in you. Probe these answers. Why do you think I’m strong? What do you mean by smart? Come on, I can’t be perfect; what do you think I need some more work on? It is important to get a perspective of yourself from beyond your head. It’s a terrific learning experience, and you will discover things about yourself, maybe very good things, you never thought about before.

The next thing is you have to talk about yourself…aloud. What others may articulate about you and help crystallize for you, you now need to be able to say out loud. You may think you can say it clearly, but until you speak it you can not know that for sure. Also talking aloud about yourself, even if it’s just to a mirror, will make you feel comfortable expressing information and interior details about yourself. The more familiar you are with saying these things aloud, the more able you will be to quell bragging, to speak clearly, and to be able to describe further, if someone should ask, what you mean to say.

If you can speak it, you can write it, too.

5. What advice do you have for educators seeking to help students?

First, teachers should fully acquaint themselves with the college application process. For most teachers the application process was less rigorous when they applied than it is today, but they think they have been through it and the process is the same ole. However, competition is much more intense, and today’s application more sophisticated as a result. I would strongly advise teachers to talk with a college application consultant to begin to understand what application packaging means, what admissions people are looking for in college application essays, and some of the ins and outs of showing interest in colleges. Most teachers feel correct and complete is good enough. Things have changed!

Second, teachers who work with students on their writing and thus on their college applications essays, mostly English teachers, perhaps, need to consider adding a unit that practices writing the personal essay. Students read novels and non-fiction, but they rarely read personal essays by the likes of Montaigne, for example. Students should become acquainted with this type of essay. Certainly such a unit with reading and writing practice would be beneficial beyond applying to colleges. This kind of writing can be applied to job search writing and marketing.

Last, teachers should no longer help students on the fly. All teachers want to help when asked, but they are busy enough with their teaching loads and correcting. There is not appropriate time to review college application essays from 30 or more students with enough attention to detail. It may, in the end, be more helpful for teachers to be honest and let students know they need more personal attention, perhaps from a college consultant or from friends and family, from other adults in their lives, even from employers who have the time to consider what their application is really saying about them as individuals.

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