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Step Two in Writing a College Essay: Don't Think It's a College Essay

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more advice about writing a personal statement for an American college or university. Rachel Toor is the author of "Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process."

RACHEL TOOR: "What I do when I work with students is say 'You know what, don't think that you're writing a college application essay.' Because that feels like a big, important thing, and when they think that, they get into these fits of proclaiming 'This is the way the world is and this is what I'm going to do.' And it sounds very declamatory and lofty and not very interesting or personal.

"What I tell them to do is, say, just write a letter to me: 'Dear Rachel, this is who I am, this is what I care about.' Or think about, as if you're writing to your parents or a friend, so that they write in a way that is much more natural and conversational."

AA: "But what if they're not a natural writer? What if they're more technically inclined?"

RACHEL TOOR: "That's a big problem, because in the United States, kids tend to join the same kinds of clubs. So they're all, all these kids who are applying are president of the National Honor Society, captain of the debate team, they play three varsity sports, they do all the same stuff.

"So the problem for the admissions people is these kids all look the same. Now, for international students applying to American colleges and universities, it's a little bit different. But what they can assume is that, if they're applying to schools that get lots of applicants from their countries, there are going to be things that are going to be typical.

"So my suggestion is always for them to think 'Well, you know what, what's interesting about me?' And kids who are seventeen often don't really know. Sometimes their parents know, but they don't really know."

AA: "Well, you know, I read now that on the personal statement, some parents are actually hiring writing consultants. I just read the term D.W.I., which ordinarily refers to Driving While Intoxicated, but I guess it means Daddy Wrote It. Have you heard that term?"

RACHEL TOOR: "[Laughter] No. I'm actually -- I mean, I'm one of those consultants. People hire me and what I do is I work with them on their essays. I have never written an essay for a student. Right now, it's big business, and the range of what people charge is from nothing to forty thousand dollars -- "

RS: "Forty thousand dollars?"

RACHEL TOOR: "Forty thousand dollars."

RS: "For a college essay?"

RACHEL TOOR: "For help with the college admissions process."

RACHEL TOOR: "One of the things I always used to say when I was in admissions is that I'm a pretty good reader, and I can tell the difference between prose that's been written by a seventeen-year-old and prose that's been written by a fifty-year-old.

"And there are also other checks. You have the teacher recommendations who say 'This is a really smart kid and she's really creative. She has a little problem with writing.' And if that student sends in a perfectly pristine, beautifully written essay, it raises some red flags.

"What I work with students on is helping them come up with the right topic, and then pointing out to them the tics and bad habits in their writing."

RS: "Let's focus a little bit more on the foreign student. To strengthen their writing skills before they come to an American university, what advice would you have for them?"

RACHEL TOOR: "Read contemporary American novels. Read novels written in English. Good writers become good writers because they're readers. I think the specific advice about applying is to understand that this is a process, and it's not true for the state universities, which are much more quantitatively driven, so their TOEFL scores and their curriculum that they've taken, that's going to matter more; their G.P.A. is going to matter more.

"But (if they're applying to) the private schools, then what they really need to do is understand that there is a person who is going to be reading their application, who's going to be responding to them as a person, so to make it less formal. And that doesn't mean they have to write about themselves necessarily. They can write about a love of architecture. They can write about cricket. They can write about anything they want. They just have to do it in a way that's going to be interesting and revealing of who they are."

AA: Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She's also a college consultant and author. If you missed the first part of our interview with her, it's at And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.