The College Admissions Essays: Presenting Your Child’s Best Self

“Sam Teixeira is simply the best writing teacher I have ever seen. She realizes that a good essay doesn’t come simply from hard work or the desire to get into college, but from honest self-inquiry and understanding.”

-Jonathan Reider, Director of College Counseling, University High School, San Francisco, former Associate Admissions Director at Stanford University, and co-author ofAdmission Matters

Your Child’s Brilliance

You see it. You’ve nurtured your child for sixteen years. You’ve heralded them through successes and coached them through challenges. You’ve delighted when they found something that became “their thing.” You’ve given them space when they’ve needed to make their own decisions even when that meant finding things out the hard way.

Through sports games and school performances, pep talks and reality checks, you’ve devoted yourself as a parent to developing your child. And, no matter what the circumstances at any given time in your child’s life, you’ve been an unceasing advocate of…their brilliance.

A love of acting. A devotion to team sports. A passion for environmentalism. An obsession with art. A social facility where they know how to say the just the right thing to a friend in trouble. A quiet introversion where they percolate more in their head than they ever say. Through crises and triumphs, you’ve supported the birth of your child’s uniqueness into this world. At times it was momentous, but mostly it was simply a quiet process, year after year.

And now it’s time for your child to write it all up in 500 words.

Brilliance…in a box?

The moment has arrived. Over the next six months of your child’s life, they will be packaging up their whole life in a box, tying it with a bow, and delivering into the hands of the admissions officers who will loom over their fate.

This is very likely the most intense task your child has yet attempted.

Boxes are by their very nature limited. Not everything can go in them. You have to work with the materials that are available to you, and you have to fit them in a confined space. You can’t make a last-minute trek to the shopping mall to get one more item. And you can’t request a bigger box.

Test scores will be what they will be, activities have run their course, and your child’s transcript will tell its own story.

But words have power.

Students usually find the admissions essays to be the hardest part of the application, but they are also very powerful. Through them your child can make themselves stand out to an admissions officer in an otherwise anonymous application. But how?

This is not about your child marketing themselves.

Your child is not a product. They are not a tube of toothpaste. And they are not making a startup pitch. Admissions officers are not looking for “the next big thing.” They are looking for whole people.

Your child doesn’t need to “sell” herself. They need to start from the core of their being and express themselves with integrity.

The most common mistake that students make is thinking that their strongest writing comes from trying to impress someone else. With that mindset, students fall into the trap of trying to say what they think the colleges want to hear before discovering what they have to say. They try to cram everything they’ve ever done into an essay. Or they assume that their descriptions of their lives capture their core of who they are when actually they have not considered deeper layers of insight that would resonate more with an admissions reader.

Instead, strong essays engage artful communication.

Artful Communication 101

There are two components to artful communication.

  1. Authenticity
  2. Relevance.

Let’s look at each of these separately.

1. Authenticity

When a young person captures their essence in an essay, their words jump off the page and make them come alive to an admissions officer who is reading hundreds of essays each week. This gives them an advantage that is, quite simply, impossible to overstate.

Your child will not begin writing from a base of self-knowledge. Instead, they will gain that self knowledge through the writing process itself, because the foundation of authentic communication is first and foremost self-discovery.

Self-inquiry is the key to all convincing reflective writing.

If the essays are written without self-inquiry first, it is like spreading icing on a cake made of chalk. And, you know, this is true about most things in life. When we take the time to come from a deeper place, we get deeper results.

This is why the essays are hard, not just because good writing is hard work (though it is), but because it is really hard to see oneself. Attempting to self-reflect at this level without help is like trying to imagine your reflection without a mirror.

It takes a mirror.

The proper guide can lead your child to greater self-awareness and authenticity through astute observation of their history, personality, strengths, and weaknesses, and through skilled and compassionate probing to help them “go deeper.”

This is usually a moving process for a young person. They see their accomplishments in a new light. They form a deeper relationship to their strengths. They find greater compassion for their struggles. Their life gels for them and they discover greater faith in their future.

2. Relevance

But none of that matters if it won’t speak to an admissions officer.

This is a life skill. If you write a wonderful cover letter for a job, but fail to anticipate the perspective of the person reading it, it will stay at the bottom of the pile.

For high school students, this is usually the first time they’ve ever had to think in this way. Up until now, they’ve written only face-value responses to questions. What was the role of women in Hamlet? What were the causes of World War I? Questions in your child’s schooling have been direct — they simply had to answer them.

So naturally, that’s the approach they assume for the college essay questions. They stick with what’s worked in the past — they answer the questions. “Who was your most important influence?” “What would you want your college roommate to know about you?” “Why do you want to go to our school?”

The problem is, these aren’t direct questions.

In fact, none of these questions mean what they say.

Just as the job recruiter has only one question, “How will this person fit into our work environment,” every college admissions officer has only one question, “How will this student fit into our school environment?” EVERY ESSAY QUESTION IS THAT QUESTION. Or, rather, every college essay question is designed to elicit information that will help the admissions officer answer that question…in five minutes.

Five minutes. Really?

Yes. Five minutes. That’s all the time they have.

This is why relevance is so important. In order to answer these essays well, a young person must, for a moment, put themselves into the shoes of an admissions officer. They must consider how what they are saying — from their authentic self — will register with the reader. When they do, they will be able to pull from their well of self-awareness the qualities that will mean the most to their audience.

That’s authentic relevance.

How can a young person do all of that?

A guide. They need a guide.

And not just any guide. A skilled guide who can lead a student through the “relevance” piece in this process must have grounded and intimate understanding of how an admissions officer “reads a file.” Many counselors rely mainly on book knowledge and platitudes (e.g., “Write about what you’re passionate about!”), but the best guide will have worked in college admissions themselves or have been trained to “think like an admissions officer” by someone who has.

Now you can see that there’s a lot to this. It can be overwhelming.

The task of these essays is a big job. That’s why it’s so laudable that you are looking for support for your child.

The “Write an Amazing Essay” Program

Through the Amazing College Essay Program, your child receives focused attention, compassionate probing, and expert guidance to help them see their strengths and express them with authority, eloquence, and relevance in their college essays. At every step your child’s brilliance holds center stage alongside an unceasing “eye on the ball” in fitting that brilliance into an admissions framework.

I’ve spent over a decade devoting myself to the art of help young people express themselves as writers. On the college admissions side, I’ve been trained to “read files” by a former Stanford senior admissions officer who is now a leading expert in the field of college counseling. I was an editor and adviser for the chapter on college applications essay writing in Admissions Matters, a best-selling book on college admissions.

At the end of the program, your child will

  • Have written top-notch essays that reflect their brilliance and that augment the other pieces of their application
  • Have communicated their best self to an admissions officer
  • Enjoy a renewed sense of confidence about themselves and their life going forward
  • Have clicked “Submit”!

How It Works

Students meet with me for two-hour sessions over a number of weeks. During our final leg, I assist them with back-and-forth edits of their essays to make sure they are pristine before they click Submit.

I walk your child through all of the phases of this work. My first step? I conduct an in-depth review of your child’s history, academic transcript, test scores, and activities through evaluating all of their documents, interviewing you (the parents), and speaking with them. From there, I guide your child through focused questions to lead them to greater insight into their values and talents, and to discern which of these insights will be attractive to an admissions officer, and why.

Finally, I walk your child through every step of the writing process: pre-writing, writing, and editing. I introduce them to writing techniques for reflective writing. I review drafts and provide edits to strengthen their points and to make their writing more concise, unique, and powerful. Your child does not click submit until we are each are satisfied with every word.

During our work, a lot of light bulbs go off for students, light bulbs about who they are, what they want from their educations, and what they have to stand on that they can be proud of.

At the end of the process your child has completed amazing essays.

Homework Assignments

I assign tasks in between each session, from researching college programs to doing reflective free-writing to drafting essays.

This program will not work if your child doesn’t complete work that I assign in between sessions. If you feel this will be a struggle for your child, I do offer an augmented program with more support where we meet more often and we essentially “do the homework” together. If this is your situation, please inquire about this when you contact me via the contact form.

Do parents get to play a role?

Yes! I depend on you to give me the fullest background on your child that you can, and then, throughout the process when I am meeting just with your child (and not you), I arrange for us to be in continued communication by parent meetings (conducted in person or by phone) regularly.

As for the writing process itself, I let students choose how much they want to involve their parents in their writing before the finished draft is complete. Writing these essays can be a very tender process because they are coming to terms with important truths about themselves, so students often need space from their parents while they are writing.

On the other hand, some students like to have their parents look at each draft. I leave this up to my students, but I ask parents to respect their child’s wishes.

Program Details and Logistics

The “Write an Amazing Essay” Program provides

  • A full review of your child’s total application file, including high school transcript, test scores, activities list, and writing sample
  • A number of in-person sessions with your student (7 for the Common Application main essay focus)
  • One in-person meeting with you and two phone appointments along the way as needed
  • A devoted witness, guide, and advocate for your child that both of you can trust

I meet students at my office in downtown Palo Alto or online via Zoom. Many thoughtful touches have been made to make the Savvy Young Writers office a quiet and inspiring space for students to work.


For long-distance students, we meet for sessions via Zoom.

Likewise, students have traveled here to work with me, staying with friends or at a local hotel. If you’re consider this, please get in touch so that we can discuss details.

Program Enrollment Process

Because this in-depth program requires a significant commitment from everyone involved, we will both spend quite a bit of time upfront to make sure that we are a good fit. First, I will ask that you complete a preliminary questionnaire. Once we decide we’re moving forward, your child will then need to complete an in-depth questionnaire (45 minutes to complete) and send me background documents (transcript, writing samples, activities lists, and test scores). This gets the whole process started.

Detailed information about the program will be available in early Spring. Please contact me using the contact form to apply or to receive further information.

Unsolicited Client Testimonials

“Our son is enjoying himself working with you, and he’s making leaps in his ability to focus on a topic and articulate what he is thinking and feeling. I also wanted to share my thanks to you for your special support. Our son will certainly have a better representation of his person and personality with your help.”

– Parent of Gunn High School graduate, USC.

“You were great, truly great!”

– Mother of Gunn High School graduate, USC.

“I was so surprised because, when I wrote my essays with you, it didn’t feel hard, and I was expecting it to be a really hard thing. I think that was because I never felt like I was talking to someone who was helping me write a college essay. I was talking to someone who really wanted to get to know me, who actually had in interest in who I am. That was very different from what I expected. I know people say that the college essay writing and just the college application process in general is stressful, but I don’t think that it was for me. That was because of how you made it feel.”

– Los Altos High School, Reed College

“Thank you for all your support through this entire process. You have taught me so much more than how to write a great essay. I am truly grateful for the time you spent with me. I learned so much about myself that I had not realized before. I wouldn’t say that writing process was too painful because I enjoyed being able to talk to someone who understood my aspirations. I would not have chose anyone else to help me get that down on paper.”

– San Domenico High School, UC Berkeley

“I’m so thankful that I was able to go through this period of self-reflection, and I feel as if I’ve developed more as a person and a writer in these past few months. I’ve especially become much more comfortable communicating my thoughts (in writing too!). Of course, I have to give you lots and lots of credit for the long way I’ve come. I definitely won’t be disappointed with whatever results come in the mailbox because I’m already happy with my successes.”

– Lynbrook High School, MIT

How to Get In Touch

I can work only with a limited number of families each year, and each year I have more inquiries than spaces available. You are welcome to contact me to inquire about availability and pricing, or to get on the wait list for a future year. Please contact me using the contact form.

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