"Stress-Free" College Essay: Best Books

Pretty much every teen dreads writing the college essay. In fact, stressing out over the application essay is the "normal" response. Writing about ourselves can be challenging because we feel that not only our writing but our personality will be judged by college admissions.

Most students (and parents) need resources to better understand the purpose of the application essay: what we should say about ourselves, how the essay will be read by admission officers, common writing mistakes and "bad" topics, and more. 

Below are my favorite book recommendations for writing the personal statement, some are "old" favorites, tried and true, others are more recently published. All of them are good investments.

"Must Haves"

If you buy only one book, I strongly recommend Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Easy Steps by Alan Gelb, a highly respected college essay coach. The books leads students through the process of writing the personal statement: understanding the assignment, topic selection, narrative devices, and editing the final version. 

Harry Bauld's On Writing the College Application Essay is a classic in the field of college admissions, and deservedly so. For years, I have been using this book with students, because it not only gives excellent writing tips but also helps students understand the purpose of the college essay in the admissions process. My favorite chapter gives topics that students should never write about (and almost inevitable these topics are what they are drawn toward).

Essay Tip #1: When working with students on the college essay, I spend a lot of time brainstorming on topics, ideally over several weeks. Many students jump too quickly into the writing of the essay without really having a sense of what they are trying to say and the best way to "bring it to life". Good topics usually write themselves; So-so topics (ones students are even bored with) can be like pulling teeth!

Another Great Book

What I appreciate about Sheila Bender's Perfect Phrases for the College Application is that it not only gives you a good introduction to the process of writing the application essays but also gives students phrasing templates for writing the essay with subcategories for essays focusing on extracurriculars, character traits, future goals, diversity and leadership. Students are very good at describing the What (the activity) but not the Why (the lesson learned) and this book helps students craft these important elements. Great book for a college counselor too!

College Essay Samples

Students can really benefit from reading sample essays written by "real" students not adults. What I like about Janine Robinson's Heavenly Essays is its focus on "narrative" essays and storytelling, which colleges, especially Ivy League and selective colleges, love to read. The essays cover many topics, and some may seem a bit "risky", but it gives students a sense of what is possible.

What I like about 2015 Elite College Application Essays is the timeliness of the essays. Some books tend to recycle sample essays from earlier years, but I like this book because all essays were written by recently graduated seniors. Remember the purpose of this book is to offer sample essays, not coach a student into writing the college essay. 

Essay Tip #2: I typically refrain from giving students too many sample essays at the beginning of the process, saving samples for later, once a student has selected a topic and brainstormed ideas. Often too many sample essays, too early in the process, can either overwhelm or stunt creativity. But this book, but save it for later in the writing process.

College Admission - General

Dr. Deborah Bedor's Getting In By Standing Out is an excellent book for getting an overview for admission into selective colleges. When you write the college application essay, you don't want to lose sight of the BIG picture: how much value is given to the application essay, what else should I include in my application, the importance of test scores, and more. The college essay gives the application "personality" but there are other important tips in this book as well.

News & Updates

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