The Art of the College Essay: Getting Expert Guidance

I am not a painter. Frankly, I am in no way visually creative. But I still managed to crank out this amazing work of art in about two hours, with no previous painting experience:


Pretty good, right? I mean, it actually looks like a red bird sitting on a tree in the snow! Too bad I was trying to paint a pumpkin in a red wagon… Kidding, I’m not that inept.

But context is everything. I didn’t simply set out paint supplies and start crafting this breathtaking masterpiece from the raw ideas in my brain. I went to a paint night at a local restaurant. You know, those events where someone who actually can paint in real life (in this case, Tina Young) helps you discover that you can paint, too! And then—bam!—two hours later you are in shock over what your hands managed to create with the guidance of an expert.

This is what I do with college-bound high school seniors. College application essays are, to them, what painting that red bird was to me: totally foreign. I know what a bird on a snowy tree looks like, and students know their own personal stories. But how to translate that picture or story from our brains to the canvas or Google Doc is a mystery. This is where expert guidance comes in.

Tina taught our group painting techniques, yes, but I could also tell from the way she was instructing us that she knew how to keep us paced to finish on time, where we might struggle in the process, and ways we might individualize our works to make them unique. An expert in college admissions essays brings the same knowledge to students: elements of successful college essays, how long the process takes, where the tricky parts will be, how to help students convey their unique stories.

Even in this painting setting where everyone was working from the same template, the results were quite varied:


Likewise, all college admissions essays will have similar elements. But each essay should stand out distinctly from the others. If Tina had taken all of our paintings and jumbled them up in a pile, I still would have been able to find mine. With college essays, that principle should always be tested: if my writing were tossed into a sea of essays (which, by the way, it is), is there anything to distinguish my essay from those of all the others? The answer should be “Yes!”

I’d also like to point out that none of us “painters” were required to follow Tina’s instructions. Yet we all did! We paid our $30 and acknowledged that she knew more than we did about this subject. I’ll let the reader draw his own connections to the metaphor with college essay help… Moving on!

When I got home from the paint night, I said to my actually-artistic husband, “Look! There are like shadows and stuff! And look how this really looks like a tree!” He wasn’t particularly impressed, but he appreciated my enthusiasm. I couldn’t believe I had created this thing. It was all my work…a work guided by someone who knows way more about painting than I ever will.

Will my painting be hanging in an art gallery any time soon? Absolutely not. But it is an effort I’m quite proud of. A student should feel the same way about his college application essay: it may not be the Great American Short Story, but it’s his and it’s a work he can take pride in, knowing that he is submitting his best work to colleges.