The College Essay: A Bigger Opportunity Than Ever

An outstanding college essay may take 10 minutes for an admissions officer to read, but the time a student spends stressing and procrastinating, and eventually outlining, drafting and revising it can add up to weeks, if not months.

The essay can be daunting, especially because it has become more important.

Michele Turk, who founded A Bloc of Writers in Greenwich in 2014 with a focus on essay tutoring, has expanded to a staff of four that now includes two college consultants. She explained why the personal essay is more important than ever.

Daisy Florin and Michele Turk of A Bloc of Writers. June 22, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

In the past few years competitive colleges have become even more selective, with the most competitive schools’ admission rates narrowing to the single digits.

“That adds to stress on kids because there are a lot of high achievers in Greenwich and other Fairfield County towns, who work very, very hard all through high school,” she said.

Turk said students struggle in part because most high schools don’t teach the kind of writing necessary for a strong, authentic college essay.

“It’s just not part of the curriculum any more,” Turk explained. “It’s intimidating, and they don’t know where to start.”

Turk said if a student doesn’t get direction early on, they often spend a lot of time going in circles.

“It’s like a student’s been given the keys to a car and told to drive to Boston. And then they come to us, and they’re all the way up in Albany,” she said. “We try to act like a GPS.”

Turk said with a little direction, students can save a lot of time and angst.

Even better, students can get excited and embrace the opportunity to differentiate themselves, especially given that standardized tests are optional at many schools and they may not even meet an admissions officer in person.

Turk said the pandemic was a game changer for the college process. During two years of disruptions to traditional in-person learning, and college admissions staff working remotely themselves, students were applying to schools they had never visited in person.

“If you’re a kid in Kansas, or Connecticut, you wouldn’t necessarily think about applying to a school in California, but then you’d go on an online tour at, for example, Claremont McKenna. You don’t have to visit in person or send SAT scores, so why not apply? The result was that a lot of students applied to schools they wouldn’t otherwise have applied to.”

Without standardized tests and in-person interviews, admissions officers had to rely on other factors, including the essay, to assess an application.

Not only is the essay important, Turk said. “By helping students become better writers now it prepares them for college writing, and there is a lot of writing expected no matter what your major.”

Turk said that over the summer rising seniors can and should be finalizing their college list with reaches, targets and likely schools. They should be doing tours online and hopefully visiting some schools in person. And if they haven’t yet, they should be familiarizing themselves with the Common Application and starting their college essays.

“We are here to help with all of that,” Turk said. “I do think that we are all about helping students become better writers, but the biggest thing we do is take away stress for parents and children.”

This summer, Turk’s colleague Daisy Florin is offering a six-week remote creative writing workshop for teens that begins on June 28 and runs through July 14.

In the workshop, which is open to students entering grades 10 through 12, Florin uses the Gateless Writing Method which relies on brain science to help writers access their innate creativity.

“Unlike most writing workshops in which writers are told what isn’t working, in a Gateless workshop, students are told what is working. With this kind of feedback, students are more likely to keep writing and take creative risks,” she said.

“The college application process is stressful enough, so I hope that introducing young writers to this sort of method encourages them to keep writing and to find joy in the process.”

Florin said the workshop is nearly full but there are a couple of spots reserved for scholarship students in the class, and to reach out if you are interested. 

With the theme of getting a jump on college essays, Turk said it is also a good idea to create a Common App account early.

“It demystifies the process and makes it real,” she said.

Starting earlier is also ideal because it helps students become familiar with the essay prompts and the application, and it gives them more time to think about the larger decisions, such as the type of school that would be the right fit.

“The other thing that happens when you wait, and is common, is parents hijack the application for their children,” Turk said. “When that happens it can backfire. College admission officers reads hundreds of essays and they can see right through that.”

Turk said A Bloc of Writers is planning to launch an online class in July via Google Presentations, that includes links to practice prompts and examples of successful essays.

A Bloc of Writers website breaks down their services. The first step is to make contact. For those seeking guidance on the entire process, Turk said they typically start with an hour long session including at least one parent for an hour either in person or via Zoom. She or one of her colleagues will go through the student’s transcript, standardized test scores – if there are any – parent brag sheet, and resumé or list of activities. They’ll also help create a tentative list of schools where the student wants to apply.

“From there, if they want to, we come up with an application strategy,” she said. “After that we usually jump in and brainstorm essay ideas.”

“Usually by the end of that first 60 minute or 90 minute meeting, a student will have several ideas for topics. We try to choose one for them to write for their Common App personal statement and save the leftover ideas for the supplemental essays, which we tackle later on.”

Turk said if a student wants to continue to meet, they will, but many students prefer to share an essay draft for revisions and receive revisions back via Google Docs.

Especially for rising seniors, Turk emphasizes making use of the summer months.

“A good goal is to try to get at least the Common App personal statement wrapped up by the time schools starts at end of August or beginning of September. And get some of the supplemental essays done too,” Turk said. “That takes away a lot of stress.”

“You don’t want to be wondering what you’re going to write about in September,” she said.

A Bloc of Writers website has more information on all their services including Florin’s summer writing workshop that starts on June 28.