High School

College Application Essay Tips

The college application essay may be the single most important piece of writing you will ever do. While grades and test scores are more heavily weighted, the essay can make or break your college application, and its importance is growing year by year. Today, College Essay Coach Kenton de Kirby shares his tips with UniversityParent Founder, Sarah Schupp.

Kenton de Kirby is a college essay coach. He has a PhD in Education and has been a professional writer and educator for over 15 years. For more information, you can visit his website at https://essayyourway.com/ or contact him directly ([email protected]).


Here are just a few tips we learned from the interview:

Q: When you first meet with students, how do you help them get started? What does that process look like?

A: It depends what kind of help they want but for the prototypical student who’s really just starting the process and needs help with step one, brainstorming, that I think is one of the most important but probably least talked about aspect of college essay writing process. I spend a lot of time really getting to know them because the personal essay is personal. It’s deeply personal. The point is to communicate to a stranger really what makes you get out of bed in the morning, what you value, who you are. In service of that, I take students through a number of brainstorming activities. First of which is to get a sense of what some good candidate topics might be and some different angles to take on those topics. There’s a lot of work that goes into the process before even begins.

Q: Can you give us an example of one of the questions you might ask a student to help them say something about themselves that might be unexpected or just different from what they would typically write?

A: Questions like, “What was a moment that changed your life? What is the hardest thing you’ve ever gone through?” These are pretty deep, personal questions. Some of them are just like, “Hey, what do you like to do? If you have free time, how do you spend it?” A lot of them are really personal because they have to be. Another activity that I really love was developed by Ethan Sawyer, the self proclaimed college essay guy who’s done a lot of amazing work. He has what he refers to as the values exercise. It’s a big list of values. Creativity, self expression, perseverance, etc. etc. The exercise is to really reflect and pick one’s top 10, one’s top five, one’s top three, even top one value. A lot of what is uncovered in that process which I really love is not so much what topic students will write about but the angle that they take on that topic. What that topic means to them. There’s certainly a lot more to say but those are some highlights.

Q: Do you have a formula in mind that you help students implement or do you try and really make it more about the topic and the angle versus a specific way to craft the essay?

A: At the beginning I really want students to, once we’ve narrowed down the surface level topic, figure out whether it’s about a particular life experience, a particular passion, an aspect of their personality or their identity, their cultural heritage, or so on. We’ve settled upon the angle that we’re taking on that topic. We’ve talked a little bit about the writing. Then my approach is generally really to encourage students to just write. To just totally take the training wheels off, to silence the inner critic and to just generate a ton of raw material. To just write as much as they can in a very free flowing, un-self conscious way. Once this student generates a lot of raw material, then we talk again.

We help identify what the key building blocks are and how to maybe sequence a narrative structure that will flow nicely and that will be really pleasant to read, coherent. All these kinds of things. Often a big focus for us will be how do we start this? What’s the first sentence? What’s the first couple sentences? As I’m sure a lot of people have heard, it’s critical. It just has to grab the reader. With all that raw material, then we talk more about structure and that kind of thing. That’s when you get draft.

It can be really paralyzing and really anxiety provoking. You’re bearing yourself on the page. This is a really high stakes document. It’s enveloped in all the ambient stress of the whole college application process and the high school college transition. I’m really wanting to do everything I possibly can to make this as an enjoyable process as I can because it really can be.

Q: What kind of a time frame does that mean for students? Is this months of a process or a couple of meetings?

A: It depends. They have to put in a fair amount of work. The way I think about my job is not so much to lessen the amount of work that students have to do, but to make the process a richer, more satisfying, more valuable, and ultimately more successful one. A lot depends on the student and how quickly they’re willing to work on it. How much time they’re willing to put in. Start to finish, the student has time and is really committed, in a couple weeks you can go from an initial brainstorm to a really polished essay that the student can be proud of.

Q:  If someone’s interested in learning more about how they could work with you, what’s the best way to get in touch and do you work with people all over the country or just there in Berkeley?

A: Yeah. I do work with people everywhere. I love meeting students in person. As I said, this is a really personal process and that’s always fun, but yes. Absolutely, I do work over the internet. The process is no less effective or enjoyable remotely. I would say the best way to contact me would just be to email me at [email protected] or at essayyourway.com. Don’t hesitate to reach out. Be happy to talk things over.

Click here to read Kenton’s article about college essay coaches! 

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