Over the past month, I was honored to chat with Ethan Sawyer, the College Essay Guy. Sometimes, if we are lucky, someone comes along who we instinctively know is an authentic, good person. When I spoke with Ethan, I immediately knew he was a life-changer for college-bound students. From his work to his personality-compassionate, caring and kind, please read our interview to see why you will like him just as much as I do.
Ethan, how did you land in this space helping students across the country with their college essay needs?
In a roundabout way, I think my whole life has prepared me for it. I give a longer version of this story on my About page, but the short version is this: I grew up as a missionary kid, moving around a lot and needing to learn how to ask good questions. I also really loved to write (I was the kid in the corner of the party writing down what people said and turning them into poems). Then in college I studied screenwriting and moved to Los Angeles with my best friend to be a screenwriter. But I got a great job coaching students on their personal statements and found a lot of what I'd learned about screenwriting applied to college essays, so I started teaching my students screenwriting structure and it worked: they told more compelling stories and we both enjoyed the process more.
As I started more deeply delving into counseling (Nonviolent Communication, Narrative Therapy), I started developing more tools and started sharing them on a blog (CollegeEssayGuy.com) and people really responded--counselors, students and parents started writing me notes thanking them for how a particular exercise or blog post had helped them or their students open up. So I started doing more-leading workshops, teaching online courses, and creating more resources--and it kind of evolved into my dream job. I certainly didn't grow up thinking "I want to be the College Essay Guy" when I grow up, but now I'm really proud of the values that the name and the website represent in both the counseling community and the world at large.
Can you tell us about the importance of the college personal statement? Where does it fall against the other factors in the admissions process?
In terms of the admissions process, grades are the biggest factor (a great essay can't make up for straight C's if you want to get into a highly selective school), and many schools still value test scores highly. But when it comes to a student trying to differentiate him or herself among many other students with great grades and test scores, the essays can make a big difference--the difference, in some cases. On a deeper level, I believe writing a personal statement is about so much more than getting into college--it's about taking stock of one's life and discovering (and not just reporting on) how one's memories and experiences have shaped who the student is today. It's a rite of passage and, in many cases, can be an empowering, healing and really fun process.
If I asked you how to write a college personal statement, how would you describe it in steps or as a summary?
I like this question. In terms of content, I like to begin with the Essence Objects and Values Exercise, which are the two 5-10 minute exercises that open my book, College Essay Essentials. I think it's possible to have all the content you need for a personal statement in about 15 minutes using these two exercises (really).
In terms of structure, I ask these two questions first: "Have you faced significant challenges?" and "Do you know what you want to be or do when you grow up?" The answers to those two questions map out into four types of essays (more on this in a second) and each type requires a different approach. In the book I give a step-by-step process for each type.
You share four types of student storytellers in your program offerings and classes. Can you elaborate a bit on each type of student?
Type A: Student HAS faced significant challenges and KNOWS what s/he wants to do in the future.
Type B: Student has NOT faced significant challenges and does NOT know what s/he wants to do in the future.
Type C: Student HAS faced significant challenges and does NOT know what s/he wants to do in the future.
Type D: Student has NOT faced significant challenges and does NOT know what s/he wants to do in the future.
For the Type A and Type C (challenge) essays, I recommend Narrative Structure, which connects story events in a causal way (Example: I faced X challenge, so I did Y and the impact was Z). This is the structure most American films use and (to make it really rock) depends on some sort of change, a catharsis, or a deep lesson.
But students certainly don't need to write on a challenge.
For the Type B and D (no challenge) essays, I recommend Montage Structure, which connects story events thematically. The theme could be anything from "This essay represents the scrapbook of my life" to "Endodontics."
You have a comprehensive set of video courses for students, parents, and counselors that specifically covers how to write the college personal statement. Can you tell us about your new course offering?
I work with a small number of students one-on-one each year and two years ago I was trying to figure out how to work with not only more students, but also more counselors and parents--as they're often the ones helping students write the essays. So I created a course called "How to Write a Personal Statement" that's available on-demand and replicates working with me one-on-one. Over the course of seven lessons, I walk students step-by-step through the process and offer Q&A to address specific issues.
Let's imagine I was having coffee with you as a prospective college student; what would be the three most important tips you'd share with me about the college essay writing process?
Don't focus too much on the prompt for your main essay. That gets you into your head thinking what "they" (some imagined admissions reader or readers) wants as opposed to focusing on the brilliant, beautiful gifts you (the student) have to offer. Strive for uncommon connections. A boring essay chooses a common topic, makes common connections, and uses common language. A stand-out essay chooses an uncommon topic, makes uncommon connections and uncommon language. And remember: the more common the topic, the more uncommon the connections need to be. Your English teacher might say "Show, don't tell," but I say "Show, then tell." The show demonstrates you're a great writer; the tell demonstrates you're a critical thinker. Be both.
You have an impressive suite of free resources on your site, and you also provide unique offerings for those who may not be able to afford your services. Can you tell us more about that process?
Most of my courses and resources are free or pay-what-you-can. One of my core values is access, and I want to help to students, regardless of income.
Plus, a wise human once said, "No one ever went poor from giving." I believe that.
What's on the horizon for 2017? Do you have any new events, speeches or conferences coming up that you'd like to share with our readers?
The College Essay Guy podcast! I'll be interviewing some of the most well-known and well-respected folks in the world of admissions. I can't be the expert on everything, but I'm great at asking questions (it's kinda' my job) and creating useful resources, so I'll be turning those interviews into new (fun) guides. I'm also creating a Counselor Workshop in a Box so any counselor can lead a great in-person workshop, whether for one student or 400 students, 1-hr or over the course of several days. Finally, I'm doing a three-day workshop for counselors in the Santa Cruz mountains. I'm excited to dive deep with them and explore what it means to be a counselor (and a human).
Finally, what do find most fulfilling about your role as the College Essay Guy?
I think I like that people feel really comfortable emailing me. I get all sorts of messages from all over the world with people saying everything from "Keep up the great work!" to "I'm stuck" to "I feel like we're soul mates." I think people feel they can reach out to me and tell me what they're thinking.
And they can.
Ethan Sawyer is a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. Each year he helps thousands of students and counselors through his online courses, workshops, articles, products, and books, and works privately with a small number of students. His book, College Essay Essentials (released July 2016), is currently the #1 bestselling book worldwide on the college essay.
Raised in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia, Ethan has studied at seventeen different schools and has worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver. He is a certified Myers-Briggs® specialist, and his type (ENFJ) will tell you that he will show up on time, that he'll be excited to meet you, and that, more than anything, he is committed to--and an expert in--helping you realize your potential.
A graduate of Northwestern University, Ethan holds an MFA from UC Irvine and two counseling certificates. He lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, Veronica, and their amazing daughter, Zola.
You can reach Ethan at the following email: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on all of his social media outlets at the following:
College Essay Guy
About Robyn Shulman, M.Ed.
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Pondering The Mysteries of College Essays
Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the Amazon bestseller College Essay Essentials, the #1 book on college essays. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine.
Raised as a missionary kid in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia, Ethan studied at seventeen different schools. He’s worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, grant writer, theater director, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver (true story). Ethan is also certified in Myers-Briggs® and hypnotherapy.
He is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, SACAC, OACAC, HECA and IECA (feel free to Google those) and lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.collegeessayguy.com.
1.) Can you tell us a little of how you came to be “The College Essay Guy”? Sure! I studied screenwriting in college at Northwestern and after graduating I got a job as a college essay coach and realized many of the principles of screenwriting applied to college essay writing. So I started teaching my students screenwriting principles and voila! Some of them wrote really amazing essays and were accepted into some great schools. I enjoyed counseling so much that I went out and got two counseling certificates, started working on a book, started posting content from that book online and after my friend read some of my content she said, “You could be like THE college essay guy.” So I saw that no one else already was and I thought, “Oh. I guess that’s me.” (Ethan can be found at www.collegeessayguy.com)
2.) Can you share any success stories? Yes – I had a student named Ahra who was really shy growing up until she joined her school’s Debate Club, which helped her come out of her shell. Eventually debate helped her not only develop personal confidence, but it also improved her personal relationships and she went on to win an international award. She used the narrative structure to tell her story, and, thanks to her awesome grades and SATs, she’s now at Stanford. Another student of mine, Julia, had no idea what she wanted to study, but knew she loved scrapbooking. So she used scrapbooking as a focusing lens to write an awesome essay that tells about lots of different aspects of her life. She just graduated from Amherst.
3) What is your philosophy for the essay writing process? I believe we’re all storytellers. Telling stories is how we make sense of our lives, how we give shape to the chaos. And what I particularly love about the college essay is that it requires students to take stock of their past, present and future–which is a lot–and to turn it all into a one-page statement. It takes time, but it’s totally possible and the experience can be fun, therapeutic, and in some cases life-changing.
4.) Can you give us a few quick tips? Sure. First, in the vast sea of college prep activities, some people overlook the college essay. It’s true, GPA and course load (tough classes) are what colleges tend to care about most. Then, generally speaking, standardized test scores. But if your GPA and test scores are close to someone else’s, the essay can make the difference. Parke Muth, former associate Dean at UVA, has written more about this here. Second, some students make the mistake of thinking a personal statement can be written in one night. I find it takes on average 15-25 hours to write a really fantastic personal statement.
5.) What is the best college essay story you’ve ever heard and why? The best college essays stories I’ve read are the “I Shot My Brother” essay, about a student who shot his brother, and the “Dead Bird” essay, about a student who tried to save a dying bird. Here are four qualities of these amazing essays (and notes on what students can steal from them).