Panning for Gold: How to Find the Essay-Nugget

“I know what I want to write about, but I can’t put it into words.”

A student with stellar stats and an extracurricular line-up exhibiting both depth and breadth was struggling. Via FaceTime, I could hear it in her voice and see it on her face. She wasn’t panicked; she was mystified. How could she, a hard-working student who usually saw quantifiable results from that hard work, be stumped by a measly 650-word essay? For years, she’d been writing essays that spanned pages and pages so what was her problem?

“You don’t have a problem,” I said. “You just have to go panning.”

What I meant by this is: the essay doesn’t always come to a student in a vision or in an assignment by an English teacher or college/guidance counselor. The Common App Essay comes from actively engaging in the hunt.

Here are a few more take-aways from recent student interactions:

Idea vs Essay

Although some students have a specific topic for their college essay, many more don’t. Through brainstorming, topics emerge that provide the student with enough emotional heft to fuel an essay. Students then use that subject matter as a springboard for a longer narrative. Recently, a student realized that “how free he felt on a skateboard” was actually a “good idea” but didn’t have the muscle mass to sustain the Common App Essay. We brainstormed again and he’s now busy drafting his essay on the impact the virtual comedy shows he writes, directs and produces is having on middle schoolers.

Details vs Plot

In first-person narratives, details are often more memorable than the story. The job of the Common App Essay is to convey to admissions teams who the student is through their tone of voice, point of view and the topic they choose. When a student enters a room, do they notice the wilting pink geranium in a broken ceramic pot or the noise of a football game blaring through the open window? Both are unique details that will wake up tired admissions’ readers.

Fantasy vs Reality

To embellish or not to embellish, that is the question. Should a student invent a scenario or premise for their essay? Should they “borrow” an experience that happened to someone else? No. But is it ok to enhance a moment? To make up dialogue or add flourishes to a scene? Of course. Artistic license in creative personal essays is common practice.

I’m here to coach your student and family during what is sure to be an unprecedented application cycle!

For more information about College Counseling/Essay Coaching, please drop me a line at or give me a holler at 917-863-2424. Also, for “news you can use,” please check out my blog, videos, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.