The why not the what

Admissions officers do not want an “embellished résumé.” They can get what you do and how well you do it from other parts of your essay. They want to know the motivation. The values that guide you. The French call this the raison d’être, or reason for being. It’s a popular cliché these days to say that we are “human beings” not “human doings.” Your college essays are an opportunity for showing of your raison d’être, not the what. This is why we begin college essays with a time of reflection. Instead of trying to explain how great you are at the trombone, the question should be why the trombone? Why not the clarinet? The trombone is an assertive instrument. It makes its present known. Maybe the trombone is your chance to be heard clearly.

Think about it

  1. what is something you like to do?
  2. when did you start this activity?
  3. what was going on in your life when you started this activity?
  4. what does the activity say about you?

Remember: colleges essay are really about whys. 

The breakdown for your senior year


  • Attend college fairs
  • Take the SAT or ACT for the second time
  • Request recommendation letters
  • Decide if you’ll apply Early Action or Early Decision


  • Finalize your college list
  • Finish your personal statement
  • Start your supplemental essays
  • Submit your Early Action or Early Decision application (if applicable)
  • Submit your FAFSA: Oct 1 (earlier = better)

November & December

  • Finish your personal statement and supplemental essays
  • Take SAT or ACT one more time
  • For arts and theater students: finalize portfolios, audition tapes, writing samples
  • Send official test scores to colleges
  • Finalize and submit all your applications


  • Focus on the parts of school that really interest you
  • Stay motivated by leading a balanced life
  • Keep getting the best grades in the toughest classes
  • Say thank you to everyone that helped you with college process


  • Receive letters with dignity and calm
  • Choose where you want to spend your next for years
  • Send in deposit by May 1
  • Finish strong
  • Breathe deep and enjoy the moment

Discovering your white star

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Sam’s white star illuminates the world around him. We all have something that brightens from without and within, when the world around us is like Mordor. Love. God. Beauty. Joy. Whatever. We all have one.

Our values are what put us in contact with our white star as often as possible. We all want to be in touch with “light and high beauty,” and we are all on a journey. As you think about your personal statement, also think about your white star. What makes you feel peace, hope, and meaning? What principles or codes put you in touch with your white star as often as possible?

Your values are the principles that help guide your behavior, what you choose to do. Samwise Gamgee’s values, for example, were friendship, loyalty, and determination. They were strong enough to keep him faithful to Frodo, even to the fires of Mount Doom. And they made for an incredible part of one the most epic stories. If Sam were to write a personal statement, he would benefit by thinking of his values, his code, and how the moments in his life were shaped by his values, and how his values shaped the moments of his life.

Our values guide our actions, and our actions are guided by our values. Get in touch with your white star and how it defines your values. This is a great place to start any narrative about your life. It’s so much more important than your online profile, which is only a dim and polished reflection of your white star and your values. Your values will last much longer than the trends and fads of the day. 


  1. What is your “white star”? Describe it in a few sentences.
  2. What keeps you in touch with your white star? Describe your behaviors.
  3. How are these behaviors related to your values?

The values brainstorm

At the beginning of the school year, I have my seniors do a values exercise. This is designed to have them think about what gets them up, gets them moving, what they’d fight for, what illuminates their world. I have them go to a list like this one, and choose five. Then from that list of five I have them choose three. From that three, one.

Try it: from a list of 50 choose five, then three, then one. Don’t worry if it doesn’t feel like your forever-and-always-number-one value. Just choose one that feels like you right now.

Then, value in mind, start thinking of moments in your life related to a challenge you faced, a difficulty, a heartache. They don’t have to be the life altering, earth-shaking moments. Maybe it was how you decided to spend a day off. Perhaps it’s reflected in your hobby or the kinds of people you get along with. The goal of this exercise is to connect your values to your challenges, and how you’ve responded to your difficulties. 

I know one of my values is balance. This was reflected in my choice to surf, and specifically to surf longboards instead of shortboards. Both require balance, but I like the game of balance offered by the longboard more. The question I would then ask is, why? Why did I value balance? What needs were being fulfilled by balance? And most importantly, what powers was I developing through balance and practicing balance? These powers were probably related to the other three or five values I would choose. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are generally generated by our network of values.

Chances are these preferences and little choices get at the essence of what you’re about. Try writing a story based on this value and decide if this could be the basis for your personal statement. See if you can connect your values to the way you’ve met your challenges. Chances are your thoughts, feelings, actions, and desires are related to your values, too. 

This is a great way to see how the things we do are influenced by what we value, and how the things we value are interconnected. I know I surfed because I had difficulty focusing in school, and that the desire for balance was related to my value of spirituality, and that surfing was a means of connecting to something bigger than myself. When I begin to see this web, a personal statement begins to emerge, that fits somewhere on this spectrum:


Our challenges make us aware of our needs, and we get our needs fulfilled in ways that correspond with our values. Consider the how the classes you take, your extracurriculars or your hobbies correspond with your values. This web could be the theme of your essay, or the soul of your essay.

How to optimize your junior year

Your path to college begins in like grade two, when you learn the types of things that pique your curiosity, and the things that you just kind of need to get through. It may begin earlier. Things start to get critical your junior year of high school. This is when you start actively preparing for college. While you probably don’t need to begin writing your college essays until the summer, you can do the following to optimize your junior year:


  • Do your best in difficult classes. 
  • Pay attention to the questions that most inspire your interest. Maybe they’re questions of energy efficiency in physics class. Perhaps they have to do with solving world hunger or providing clean water or fair trade. Perhaps they have to do with narrative structure and character motivation. Don’t think about what you should be interested in; pay attention, instead, to what really interests, confuses, or moves you. This is gathering material for your essays and interviews.
  • What do you want to do? is a too begin a question yet. Just ask “what do I like to do?” and “what do I think about?”


  • Prep for the SAT and/or ACT. Maybe take a prep class. Take several practice exams. Write several practice essays.
  • Prep for your AP test(s)
  • Research and apply for cool summer programs or jobs — do stuff that aligns with your values and dreams. Your summers in high school are precious times. I’m all about balance, and believe you should really enjoy this time, while making it purposeful and missional. If you’re interested in publication or journalism – or think you could be – an internship at a magazine or online publication might be a good use of time. This is still fully exploration time. You may think you want to be a doctor. My wife thought she wanted to be a doctor and spent a summer as a candy striper. She found that she couldn’t take blood. She decided to be a teacher, where she manages a lot of germs, but little blood.  


  • Take SAT and/or ACT for the first time
  • Do well on your AP test(s)
  • Finalize cool summer program or job
  • Research schools and start developing your list of prospective schools
  • This is time for the “dirty dozen.” Start with twelve schools. This is a manageable number to consider. 20 is too many. Three may be too few. You can give a dozen a good shake, and this is a good way to keep yourself from being too limited.
  • Begin brainstorming for your personal statement. Give yourself some time to think about what you do, what you feel, and what you value. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get in touch with your values.


  • Visit 2-3 colleges
  • Do things you love to do, but also think about why you do them.
  • Attend summer program or work summer job
  • Begin your personal statement. This is the golden time. You don’t have other assignments, so make this your primary assignment. Spend a few minutes each day with brainstorming and drafting. You may want to write three drafts and take a poll from family and friends to choose which one “pops.”


Words are magic

They are.

Think about it.

They make businesses and industries. They form alliances and relationships. They inspire wars and help people get out of war. Effort would be futile without words to instruct and to guide and to orient. Every word has a whole range of meanings and associations.

There was this philosopher and Franciscan Friar–a smart, holy guy–named Roger Bacon. He held that there were three substances capable of magic: the herbal, the mineral, and the verbal. The verbal is the only one that purely human. Our words are our magic.

They can also get you into college.

I like to help students discover their own stories, and to activate the magic of the verbal in their lives. I love to help students discover (not write–discover) their personal statement, because yes, it helps them get in to college. But it also helps them define their values, own their history, and find their white star–that thing that is more than a goal, it’s one’s bliss.

3 tips to begin your college essay

There are few things more intimidating than the blinking cursor on a word document when you have a looming deadline for a college application. Given that early decision college applications are usually at the beginning of November, you want to avoid that terrible blink-blink-blink of the cursor in late-October. This is why you want to begin thinking about your college essays well before then. So say it’s fairly early, like the summer after your junior year. You are considering prospective colleges, and you’re beginning to think about the application process fairly early on. What sorts of things do you think about when you begin thinking about your college essay? Here are five suggestions I’ve given to my students:

  1. Take time to pause, relax, and think about your life

Beginning (anything, really) is really the hardest part. This may be what led you to this article, but you shouldn’t rely on Google for brainstorming. Take a walk outside, and think about your life. Drink an iced tea and scan your memory to see if there are any patterns. Think about the 17-or-so years of your life as if it were a novel in English class. What sorts of themes emerge? What are the key symbols, conflicts, and characters? I suggest  some free-associative journaling from events in your life. Begin to think about what chapters, or portion of a chapter might be the most compelling story to tell.

  1. Consider your college essay prompts

Notice that I didn’t put this first. Why? You want to think about who you are, what makes you tick, and what distinguishes you from your peers, before you think about a prompt. You can tailor your own brainstorming about your life later. In January of 2018, the common application announced that they are reusing the same seven application essays prompts from last year. Read through these prompts and listen to your intuition. What question or questions elicit a response from you?

  1. Experiment with beginnings

Here are some ways to begin the actual writing process:

  • With a story
  • Reflect on a quote
  • Present a surprising statistic
  • Define a word
  • Present a problem.

Begin your writing freely and without too much regard for form or structure. Before, I’ve written about using three adjectives that you feel describe you. Maybe you want to choose one of those adjectives and ways in which your character relates to that word. If you can’t think of any words, here are some of my favorites: resilient, intuitive, quirky, courageous, inventive, empathetic, witty. Choose one of these and try telling a story about how you fit this modifier. 

Once you’ve begun your essay, ideas should flow more freely. Contact Mark if you want some help getting started.