Writing College-Admissions Essays

The Wall Street Journal

By Sue Shellenbarger
January 20, 2009

Q: I saw your column on college admissions. I’m applying to several U.S. universities to study actuarial science. For an essay question about important life experiences, what topic is most suitable?

-M.Z., Dalian, ChinaA: There isn’t any one suitable topic that you can find by looking outside yourself for ideas from a book, Web site or adviser. Some of the worst essays, admissions officials say, are those modeled on formulaic ideas. Essays with “a high level of sophistication” and packaging often fail to set forth a student’s authentic personality, says Doug Christiansen, dean of admission at Vanderbilt University. Instead, a good essay requires reflection — reaching inside yourself for a story or experience that you feel deeply about, and that taught you something or changed you. The best essays introduce the living, breathing, feeling human being behind the basic information, scores and activities lists that fill the rest of the application.

Seemingly mundane topics — the challenges of growing up as the only boy among eight children, or dealing with quirky customers on a fast-food job — can yield insight-filled stories. Try brainstorming with family or friends on such questions as: What makes you happy? When were you saddest or most disappointed? What are your fears, or your hopes? What are your best traits? Your worst ones? When have you struggled? What was the funniest thing you have ever done? A book by Katherine Cohen, “The Truth About Getting In,” may be helpful; also, for essay advice, go to CollegeBoard.com and click on “For Students.”

Q: My husband, 58, has two master’s degrees and more than 30 years’ experience in semiconductors. Industry trends have led him to change jobs and take pay cuts, and he’s now facing another pay cut. A start-up he tried failed. Now, he seems stalled; he keeps saying he’ll explore new careers, but all he does is read books. I’m getting frustrated. What should I do?

-C.J., San Jose, Calif.A: As difficult as this is for both of you, it’s important to appreciate the fact that your husband has worked hard for many years and still has a job, says Lisa Thomas, a Greenwood Village, Colo., marriage therapist. Being angry or resentful or shutting down emotionally won’t help either of you. As a first step, encourage him to get a medical checkup, to rule out such problems as clinical depression, she says. Beyond that, seeing a career counselor could help him figure out his options and get moving again. This would have the added advantage of allowing a third party to serve as a motivator, Ms. Thomas says. For a directory of career coaches, see coachfederation.org;iacmp.org or ncda.org. Also, check with the colleges your husband attended to see whether they offer career coaching.

Other ideas that might help: Try making a household budget together; figuring out financial solutions “can be a motivating experience,” Ms. Thomas says. To keep your husband from feeling he’s the only one under pressure, “create a timeline as a couple,” with each of you setting personal, career or financial goals for one, three, six, nine and 12 months in the future, Ms. Thomas suggests. “Then, create action items to be completed by these dates and post them” at home.