Expert offers advice on penning college essays

Christopher Hathaway

When writing essays as part of the application process, especially for the selective schools, think back to a pivotal time in your life that resulted in growth.

Christopher Hathaway of Advantage Ivy Tutoring also advised students not to rush the process. Hathaway’s firm helps students with the essay writing process, not writing the essays for them.

In a phone interview, Hathaway also advised students not to rush the process.

“You’re looking at a 650-word personal statement and you have a range of topics that you can discuss. What you notice when you look at those prompts (is) they pretty much run the gamut. You can talk about anything you want, including their catch-all topic if for some reason your desired topic doesn’t fall under the umbrella of one of the others,” Hathaway said.

He recommends thinking back to your lived experience as a student and a young person.

“Try to pinpoint those moments in your life that have been pivotal in some sense. It could be a moment of epiphany; it could be a moment of trauma, perhaps. But something where growth ultimately stemmed from that moment in time and to think about how to frame a narrative around that,” Hathaway said.

Ideally, the personal statement should tell a good story.

“What you really don’t want is for the essay to read like a bullet-pointed, long-form resume, for instance. You want to engage the reader with detail about a particular moment in time that perhaps stands for many other moments in your life that are reflected elsewhere in your application,” Hathaway said. “But in writing this story you really want to examine a particular moment in as much detail as possible. What that means is that you will bring in your origin story, or whatever the motivation was prior to that point at some point in the essay, but it doesn’t necessarily need to come first. It doesn’t need to be a linear structure where you’re starting at the beginning and ending at the end.

“It might be that you’re just existing somewhere in that middle ground where the most interesting aspect of that story happened and then you fill in details to provide context for the reader as you go along. Ultimately, at the end of that essay you want the reader to have some sense of who you are as an individual and what your goals are for the future,” Hathaway said.

He also recommends having as many cold readers as possible who don’t know the student well and can identify three character traits that they would be able to attribute to the essay writer.

“It’s a way of checking whether your intention in writing that essay has actually come to fruition,” Hathaway said.

Those applying to undergraduate institutions in particular should have some idea of how they plan to use the resources the university is going to make available for them.

Ultimately, he said, schools are making an investment in their students.

They hope the student will be successful from a wealth generation standpoint where they can donate some money to help the school improve its programming and experiences for students in the future; or they’re going to do something remarkable that’s not necessarily defined monetarily.

That could be a humanitarian effort, or something in arts where “pay is not the predominant feature,” he said.

“When they’re making this investment they want to know that the student is someone who is driven and curious and who is capable of independently taking advantage of them because the biggest difference between a high school and a college is that freedom to explore and to experiment and really to grow your passions in whatever direction they’re taking you,” Hathaway said.

The college essay is the most important aspect of an application because it’s the best opportunity for an applicant to differentiate themselves from the crowd.

Hathaway’s organization primarily focuses on the top 20 schools.

“We do help people at all different levels of aspiration. When these schools are examining student applications the numbers are really the beginning point of that process, which means that there’s a threshold over which the student has to cross in order to even be in contention. If you’re looking at a school like Harvard or Yale, you’re looking at ACT scores of anywhere from 33 to 36. You’re looking at SAT scores 1500 and above and then weighted GPAs are going to be in the 4.2 plus range.”

“That varies by school and district,” Hathaway said. “The basic idea is that you’re getting incredibly qualified students from a numbers standpoint, so it’s very difficult for these schools to differentiate students through the numbers alone. That’s just an entry point, so the essay is that opportunity to really provide, first of all and most importantly, a voice to the application as a whole. It’s crucial that essay be written as authentically as possible, but they’re also getting the explanation behind the raw data.”

If the student is involved in groups like DECA and has taken leadership roles, that’s great to add to a resume or to an activities list.

“But the story, the essay is an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind and why you’re invested in those things. The why and the how are much more significant and important than the what,” Hathaway said.

The length of the process depends on the firm’s relationship with a student. Ideally, students start in their ninth or 10th grade year of high school. In some cases, it starts as early as seventh grade if they are applying to a specialized high school.

“Starting early in freshman or sophomore year of high school gives us the opportunity to develop that raw material with them, so our focus is on the essay. We view that as the culmination of a young person’s life up to that point, which is a crazy thing to think about and an insane task to demand of someone to encapsulate their being in 650 words. But that’s ultimately the task that these kids are presented with … Ideally, our process starts very early where we’re helping those students to make the most use of their time and to push them in new directions that help them to identify and maximize the intersection of their interests and their talents,” Hathaway said.

In terms of the actual essay process, he said they start when school lets out in May or June of their junior year.

The process goes on throughout submission deadlines, but the whole time the firm is playing a game of leapfrog through the various essays.

“For one essay in particular, the personal statement would take maybe two and a half months, but we’re not talking about strict working on that. We’re talking about taking breaks for periods of time for that distance to be in there, but also to allow the students to send it to cold readers,” Hathaway said.

Asked about essays in the age of artificial intelligence, Hathaway said their team just finished a fairly extensive review where they challenged the AI bots.

They provided them with details as they would a student and tried to coach them to improve their writing as much as possible.

“We realized that a threshold beyond which no bot could pass, so to speak, meaning that there’s a limitation to their ability at this stage. I have no idea what the future holds a year, two years from now,” Hathaway said.

He added that AI is a wonderful tool for efficiency if it’s used appropriately.

“But ghost writing an essay for a student is a bad idea and that’s for multiple reasons” including ethical concerns, but the practical reasons are perhaps even more so, he said.

“AI is capable of writing a decent essay, so I think for less selective schools it’s going to be a little bit more of a problem for them to differentiate students. I think they’re going to have to be more story focused and less writing focused because I do think AI is going to infiltrate them to some extent. But for the more highly selective schools, the bar for those essays is high enough that AI just cannot get you to that point,” he said.

“The writing that they’re doing is rote. It’s unoriginal because by definition their programming is pulling from past stuff that’s worked. They’re using similar vocabulary. In our trials, we had all sorts of overlaps. You’re sacrificing authenticity and originality by outsourcing to a program that’s pulling from past material and all of them are pulling from the same stuff,” Hathaway added.