107: What I've Learned from Reading Over 10,000 College Essays

THE PRACTICAL step-by-step GUIDE from Ethan's Show and tell:

SHOW NOTES

This episode is special because it’s an interview with one of my heroes of the college admissions world. In fact, his experience is so deep and he knows so much about so many different aspects about college counseling that if there were a “Master College Counselor” designation he would have received it. He spent 28 years in the office of Admissions at the University of Virginia--28 years!--and I’ll give you his longer bio on the episode in a minute, but

During our conversation, we cover, among other things:

  • What Parke has learned reading over 10,000 college essays
  • We’ll go behind-the-scenes to look at how close decisions are sometimes made by committees at highly-selective universities (and why essays matter even more as a result)
  • What Parke wrote his college essay about
  • Parke’s 10% rule for when students should/shouldn’t write about their activities or achievements
  • What an “authentic voice” is and why, contrary to popular wisdom, we maybe shouldn’t be encouraging students to write in it
  • Some dos and don’ts for the “Why us” essay, including one thing students should definitely do but most don’t, and
  • Why Parke believes his job is better than being a king

PLAY-BY-PLAY

What the episode’s about. [0:40]
Who is Parke Muth? [2:07]
What does it take to become a Top Writer on Quora? [4:10]
What Parke has learned reading over 10,000 college essays [7:40]
What was different in terms of how Parke read essays when he went from being an admissions officer to being an application consultant [9:00]
A behind-the-scenes look at how close decisions are sometimes made by committees at highly-selective universities (and why essays matter even more as a result) [11:10]
How students can give themselves a great chance of winning over an admissions committee: two different theories [13:20]
One question Parke asks students all the time [15:15]
What Parke never argued for (on behalf of a student) and what he would argue for in committee [15:25]
What are some of the best personal statements you’ve ever read? [18:16]
Is a hook necessary for a great essay? [20:40]
What Parke teaches the students he works with [22:10]
What Parke wrote his college essay about [23:25]
How Parke would approach a sports essay, if he were to write one [24:25]
Parke’s 10% rule for when students should/shouldn’t write about their activities or achievements [28:10]
How Parke starts an essay process with a student and sees his role with students [30:10]
How Parke sees his relationship to students [32:45]
How Parke motivates his students like a coach [33:50]
Do essays really matter? [34:54]
Why essays don’t make much of a difference for probably 80% of students [36:04]
Can you think of any examples of students that “wrote their way in?” [37:04]
One of Parke’s all-time favorite essays, which began, “The woman wanted breasts...” [39:00]
Why Parke started his blog and why he writes at all [40:00]
Why do you write a blog at all? [41:24]
What your essay tests and why do you post them? [42:55]
Some of Parke’s most surprising reactions to essays [44:47]
Why Parke thinks that a good essay doesn’t have to be a story about struggle  [47:30]
What is a student’s authentic voice and should students be encouraged to use it? [48:53]
“The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay” [49:30] 
What makes a good writer is an ability to play with voices [51:09]
How much help should students get in their essay writing process? [52:02]
How much help is too much help? [53:11]
How much should you let yourself explore students’ personal lives in the essay writing process? [54:50]
Why writing about your support for Donald Trump probably won’t help your admissions chances. [55:25]
Should I write about politics and religion in my college essay? [56:13]
How writing about unusual topics (like raising baby tarantulas) can help you stand out on a college essay [57:19]
How the idea of “writing what you know” is counter intuitive [58:08]
What are the riskier topics you’ve seen students pull off successfully? [59:52]
Why it’s important to toe the line between writing an essay that is outrageous and writing an essay that touches on risky subjects [1:02:14]
Should I curse in my college essay? [1:02:19]
How many great essays about horses or horse-riding have you heard? [1:02:40]
How someone’s privilege and opportunity can play into your college essay. [1:03:08]
Do you tell students to not about topics that highlight their privilege? [1:04:23]
What are you tired of seeing in Why Us essays? [1:06:17]
What are some creative approaches to writing a Why Us essay? [1:08:19]
How to prepare to write a Why Us essay [1:10:27]
How reaching out to schools and teachers at a school you want to attend can improve your chances of getting in [1:10:50]
How does it typically take to write a Why Us essay? [1:14:06]
Parke’s Show and Tell: The difficulty of students trying to get into high-caliber schools [1:17:13]
Ethan’s Show and Tell: a blog post about how to show schools that you’ve done your research [1:20:00]
The last question: Why do you do what you do? [1:20:26]
Why Parke feels like his life is better than a king’s. [1:22:37]

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