Interesting Essays

Interesting Essays

A while ago, I read an article in Fast Company, What does it mean to be “interesting”?

As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about college admissions essays. So much of what makes an essay compelling is its level of interestingness—that it surprises me or challenges me or helps me learn something that I did not know before. Yet, this is what I find students most frequently get “wrong” when it comes time to choose what to write about.

Because students have been conditioned to think about what matters in the college process incorrectly, they tend to want to focus on uninteresting topics or takeaways in their essays. For example, one of the most uninteresting topics, to me, is the winning of awards and other honors. I tend to find essays about robotics competitions, big games, and other traditional wins to be a bit boring because I have read a lot of them. These are common, almost default topics because students think talking about their accomplishments is what they need to do to impress admissions officers.

These experiences could be interesting but are primarily uninteresting topics because students approach them incorrectly. Instead of focusing on how they experienced the experience itself, how it challenged them or pushed them to think or act differently etc., they focus on the outcome. Therefore, the reader is also left unchallenged, having not been surprised or learned anything new about the writer.

Students should feel confident that admissions officers will see the outcomes of their hard work on their resume—this goes for all awards and honors! There is almost never any need to talk about outcomes of this type in an essay unless a prompt specifically asks (for a supplemental essay, for example, not the personal statement!).

 

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August Monthly Action Plan – By Grade

The school year is almost here! Enjoy the final few weeks of summer. And, if you are a rising senior and want to make the most of August (this means completing applications!) contact us! We can help you head back to school with a long list of college application items checked off your to-do list.

Here’s what should be on your radar this month:

Seniors

  • The Common App refresh is complete. If you have not done so already, register for the Common App (www.commonapp.org) and other school-specific applications as per your list (for example, the University of California), and fill them out.
  • Continue to complete essays!!! Senior year fall grades count. The more you complete before you go back to school, the more time you should have for your coursework.
  • Continue to visit colleges and connect with students, faculty, and staff. Remember to interview where applicable and take lots of notes. The information you gather is often perfect material for supplemental “Why School” essays and interest letters after you apply!
  • Begin to finalize your college list. It’s important to know which colleges you’ll be applying to so you can a) work on essays and b) finalize application strategy (when you will apply and where). Will you be applying early action? Early decision? Do you have an ED II school in the mix (you should instead of relying on RD)? If you still have tests to take in August, September, or October, confirm your EA schools and work on those apps.
  • Touch base with the teachers writing your letters of recommendation. They will be very busy once school starts; be proactive and drop them a note now reiterating your thanks, as well as letting them know when you plan to submit your first apps (this can be far in advance of actual deadlines, for example, in September if testing is complete). 

Juniors

  • If you haven’t done so already, schedule a meeting to discuss your 11th-grade game plan with your guidance counselor. Your counselor will write you a letter of recommendation for college, so make an effort to get to know them and for them to get to know you.
  • This year, try to get more involved with 1-2 main extracurricular activities (bonus if these support your academic interest). Look for leadership opportunities, but also keep in mind demonstrating leadership goes beyond leading a club or team. Consider activities outside of school as well.
  • Now is the time to plan the rest of junior year in terms of testing. When will you take the ACT or SAT? Will you need SAT Subject Tests? How many and which ones? When might you take them? Have you started formal test prep? Please contact us if you would like suggestions for tutors and other prep resources. Now is the time to start test prep!
  • Once you have some test scores, come up with a preliminary college list, so you can…
  • Begin to visit the websites of the schools you are interested in. Explore the admissions and academics pages. Start to think about your major of interest and how the activities you are involved in support it. You 100% should be exploring your academic interests outside of your coursework.
  • Fall is a great time to visit colleges and engage in extended research and outreach. Over the years, I have found that students who take these “extra steps” consistently get into their top schools…and many more.

Sophomores & Freshmen

  • An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor for the majority of colleges. A rigorous course schedule that is in line with your strengths can help demonstrate intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge yourself, and that you are comfortable with hard work. Your number one priority this year should be your grades!
  • If you haven’t done so already, get involved in activities inside and outside of school. Seek out opportunities to develop leadership roles. Depth, not breadth of experience, is key. Most colleges prefer to see fewer activities, but ones that really interest you, where you are involved in a significant way. Evidence of leadership, initiative, commitment, and meaningful engagement is important. You may also want to consider an internship, research position, job shadowing opportunity or part-time employment in an area that interests you. Starting your own club, website, or community service project are also lovely options, but keep in mind you don’t need to do it all.
  • Schedule a meeting to discuss your high school game plan with your counselor. Your counselor will write you a letter of recommendation when it comes time to apply to college, so make an effort to get to know them and for them to get to know you.
  • One of the most significant factors in a strong performance on the verbal portions of the SAT and the ACT is independent reading. Enhancing your skills during high school will not only help you perform better on college entrance exams, but it will also prepare you for success in college and beyond. Regular reading of articles and editorials (e.g., New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist) in addition to studying vocabulary lists and signing up for “Word/Article/SAT Question of the Day” can have a significant positive impact.
  • Many schools allow 10th graders to take a practice PSAT.  The experience of taking the PSAT as a sophomore will give you a sense of what to expect on future exams. However, don’t feel like you need to study for this test. It is just practice!
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Start Your Common App Essay Today!

Now is the time to complete a very important part of your application: your essays!

The 2019-2020 Common Application prompts will remain the same as the 2018-2019 essay prompts.

Contact us to learn about how we help students—in a minimal amount of time!—craft  authentic, memorable essays!

 

2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

During the 2018-2019 application year, the most popular topic of choice was: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.” (24.1%). The next most popular topics were: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” (23.7%), followed by “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” (21.1%).

 

And in case you missed it, read Emma’s 10 do’s and don’ts for writing the Common App essay. If you are interested in working with Emma, reach out.

 

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10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writing the Personal Statement (aka The Common App Essay)

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Our essay experts know best. Check out these 10 tips from Emma that will help you write the most effective personal statement. Summer is the best time to tackle this important essay, so start now! Interested in working with Emma? Contact us 

  • Don’t worry about the prompts. It’s helpful to read through the prompts to see if doing so sparks any ideas; however, there is no need to stress about writing an essay that exactly “answers” a prompt. Your goal is to write the best essay you can about whatever you decide is best to write about. Working with students 1:1, we totally disregard the prompts and usually find that their essay still easily fits under one of the questions. And, if not, there is often an open-ended prompt such as: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”
  • Do open with a scene. A strong opening scene draws the reader into your essay. Admissions officers and their first-round readers have hundreds of applications to get through—make yours stand out from the first sentence. Intrigue them or scare them or make them laugh. Make them want to keep reading.
  • Do focus on a single story. You only have 650 words. Perhaps that sounds like a lot to you: it’s not. There is no reason you should worry about filling it up. Through our process, you will find out how to generate enough detail to write an essay about any story. Nor should you worry about cramming as much as possible into the personal statement. Remember that colleges have all of your application data and that trying to do too much in the essay will only end up making your essay feel rushed and scattered.
  • Do make sure that your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You can tell your story out of order—for instance, opening with a scene from a stressful moment in order to build suspense before jumping back into chronology—but you always want to make sure your story has each of these elements. Skipping any single one will confuse your reader and make your story feel incomplete (because it is!).
  • And yet don’t get bogged down in detail. We usually find students have trouble generating enough detail. But sometimes we get a student who is unable to summarize effectively, too. Having too much detail can make your story confusing and also mean that your reader will have trouble understanding what the most significant elements are. It usually also means you don’t have room for reflection—the most important element in the essay!
  • Do present yourself in a positive light. We actively encourage you to tell a story that showcases your vulnerabilities, failures, weaknesses, and mistakes. However, either your narrative or your reflection (or some combination of the two), needs to ultimately redeem you so that your essay, in the end, shows you to be someone who is actively working to improve—to rectify mistakes, move past failures, or strengthen weakness. Your essay should be honest, but its main purpose is to make you seem like someone admissions officers want to see at their colleges! Make sure you come off well.
  • Don’t use huge thesaurus words. Again: you aren’t trying to impress the admissions officers! You are trying to show them who you are—and you are trying to make them like you. Using big words can mean using words you don’t quite know how to use, and that will show. Even if you do know how to use them, unless your essay is about how much you love long words or languages, using the big, 25-cent words can make you sound pretentious and overly formal. The language should sound like you and be relatively casual—not curse-word, talking-with-friends casual, but maybe talking-with-your-grandmother casual.
  • Do use vivid, interesting words and varied sentence structure. Being casual doesn’t mean the writing shouldn’t be good or interesting! Do push yourself to use words you might not use in your everyday speech, and do mix up the sentence structure to keep the writing varied and exciting. Do feel free to include words from your personal vocabulary—words from the language you speak at home or from a regional dialect or words you’ve made up. That can add a lot of texture and personality to an essay. Just make sure you define the words for your reader if the meaning isn’t clear from context.
  • But don’t use emotional language: I was happy; I was sad. Instead, let an action depict the emotional state. That is, instead of saying “I was happy,” you might write, “I couldn’t help skipping a few steps down the street after hearing the news.” And, instead of saying “She was sad,” you might write, “Her shoulders slumped, and she cradled her head in her hands.” You can’t see an emotion, and you always want to give the reader something to see.
  • And don’t use cliche—i.e. common, predictable, overused—language. Cliche language includes (but is definitely not limited to!) phrases like:
    • I need to be true to myself.
    • Time heals all wounds.
    • Every cloud has a silver lining.
    • Good things come to those who wait.
    • I learned more from them than they did from me.
    • Every rose has its thorn.
    • You win some, you lose some.
    • Little did I know.

Of course, your essay might have one of these messages at its heart. Maybe you did learn more from the kid you tutored than they learned from you. Maybe you did find the “silver lining” in a terrible situation. Both of these could make for great essays. But you want to verbalize that realization in your own unique and surprising way.

 

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July Action Plan – By Grade

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Rising Seniors

  • As you continue your essay work, open a Common App account, and begin filling out the base data (Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities). Unlike in past years, if you open up an account now, it will not be deleted before August 1, 2019. There is no better time than now to get your CA base data completed. However, keep in mind the CA is down July 28-31 as it’s updated for the 2019-2020 app season.
  • If you’ve finished testing, it is time to review your college list and application strategy. Pinpointing your top 5 or so schools now can help you maximize your time over the summer doing research and outreach (and writing supplemental essays!). Need help with your essays? Contact us
  • If you are not finished testing, continue to prep.
  • If you have summer college visits planned, take advantage of the summer slowdown, and prepare meetings with your department of interest ahead of time. Interview if possible, too. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. Extended research and outreach can make a big difference in your admissions outcomes.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). If you do, aim to complete it over the summer.

Rising Juniors:

  • Continue working on your resume, and think ahead about the activities in which you want to deepen your involvement in 11th grade and beyond. If there are activities you took were involved in during 9th/10th that no longer serve your or your interests, drop them.
  • Come up with a plan for test prep. Summer before junior year is a great time to begin test prep! Here are a few resources to get you started if you are not quite ready to work with a tutor 1:1: = PSAT, ACT, SAT, SAT on Khan.
  • Thinking about how to explore your academic interests this summer? I hope so! There are tons of options, and you should be doing something “academic” this summer if possible. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan AcademyCoursera or edXTed Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

Rising Sophomores:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Explore your academic interests this summer! If you are unsure what they are, that’s even more reason to get out there and do some exploring. Figuring out what you do not like is often just as important as figuring out what you do like. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edXTed Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

 

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It’s College Essay Time!

Summer is the best time to write your college application essays, and it’s a process you can and should start now!

The essay writing process might be challenging at times, but it should also be rewarding. Our goal is not only to help students write essays they are proud of and that showcase who they really are to colleges but also to help them improve as writers, so they arrive at college confident and ready to tackle higher-level writing requirements.

Meet our essay experts:

Meet Emma: Emma grew up in NYC but left for Phillips Academy Andover, where she boarded all four years. Before starting at Harvard in 2008, Emma took a gap year during which she worked at a nonprofit in Ghana, taught English in South Korea, began learning Russian in St. Petersburg and took care of horses in the French countryside. At Harvard, she concentrated in Russian History and Literature, studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia for multiple summers; she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. After graduation, she returned to New York and worked in book publishing for two years before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a poet, where she taught literature and creative writing. She has since taught composition at various universities, worked as a professional freelance editor, and privately tutored high school students in writing.

Meet Kris: A New Yorker born in Lithuania, Kris graduated from Harvard with a BA in economics, and completed his MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received the top student and post-graduate fellowship funding, and where his thesis advisor was Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding. In between those two degrees, he worked in finance in Vietnam, started an education consulting company in China, and taught lawyers in Lithuania. His essays and photography have appeared in various outlets, including The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine, The Browser and The Millions. He splits his time between New Mexico and New York and is working on a novel.

Want to work with Emma or Kris? Contact us to schedule a free, 30-minute consultation call and learn more about our essay process!

 

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Will Your 11th Grader Be Away This Summer?

Who you are doesn’t change between the second half of junior year and the time you apply to college, so why wait any longer to write your personal statement?

If your 11th grader is away at camp, traveling, or at a summer program this summer, you will want them to have this crucial component of their application completed before they go. Trust me, coming back home in August with no parts of the college application complete can make for an insane end to summer vacation and time-crunched fall. It does not have to be this way.

For the past couple of years, we have had a small group of students write their personal statement over their winter break or shortly after the new year. The result: far less stress on the college application journey because one of the most important parts of their application was already complete. Same amazing writing we always help students produce, even less stress. That is what we are all about!

This year we are formally offering weekend-long 1:1 personal statement bootcamps for motivated, summer-time-crunched, or any juniors who simply want to get ahead in addition to our standard 1:1 essay expert service and comprehensive college counseling packages, which include essay work.

Space is limited for winter 2019. Contact us today to discuss scheduling! Your student will thank us later when they are confidently ahead of the game.

 

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How to Gear Up for College Essay Writing

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Why? It’s one of the most valuable resources for writers. You write a lot when applying to college, and beyond cranking out apps, it’s a process that lends itself to learning how to write well. To me, it’s a must-read!

 

Why? Over four weeks, you will be guided through a series of video exercises with questions and prompts to self-reflect about all the foundational elements of your backstory. From it, you will better you understand how the elements of your backstory have set you on your path in life. This is a must if you are going to write an effective personal statement.The process works: YouSchool has taken thousands of people through it and knows that if you do the work, you’ll gain a clear sense of what story you’re living in. You are also provided the structure to engage in deep conversations with people you trust (parents, teachers, friends, college counselors!). BackStory is a fantastic way to gear up for personal statement writing.

 

Why? It’s one of the only “college essay” books I can stomach. More importantly, it’s a thoughtful and sometimes funny (depending on the type of humor you enjoy) guide to writing the personal statement. It is also written well and is very easy to read.

 

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Do Perfect Students Have Nothing Interesting to Write About?

I am especially fond of Janine Robinson’s many posts on writing anecdotes. This month I am “final reviewing” many personal statements. In doing so, I’ve been thinking a lot about topic generation and how to get students to dig deeper to find topics that I have not read a hundred times before. It always bothers me when parents complain that we took a few hours to brainstorm topics; I’m not sure they understand that pinpointing a decent topic can take a lot of work. It is disheartening that so much digging needs to take place at all, but it often does. Anyway, Robinson’s blog post on essay topics has some interesting points, so thought I would share.

From what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic. These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.

It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. Here’s an example of a student I worked with recently:

The mom sent me an email summarizing her daughter’s background:

The daughter was interested in history and computer science, and also in theater (worked on every school production since 7th grade). She also did Model UN (with accolades); was editor of the school newspaper and active in debate club. Also, she was captain of the robotics team, the chess club and some other academic team. She had built her own computer and the family’s home service. She also participated in three varsity sports. The daughter’s GPA was stellar and test scores excellent.

Where did she want to go to college?

“Her high school counselor thinks she has a good chance at the Ivies,” mom wrote.

Sure sounds like this girl could have her pick of colleges, right? Good luck with that!

Acceptance rates at the prestige schools are at all-time lows. Even if she wrote an outstanding college application essay, her chances would be slim to none at the most elite schools. The real problem, to me, is that this student isn’t unusual.

Most of these applicants have similar off-the-charts grades, test scores and extracurricular dossiers. With everyone at the top of the heap, the focus often turns to their college application essays. The tragedy I mentioned in my sensational headline is that these are the exact brilliant students who have the hardest time coming up with an interesting and meaningful essay topic.

Why?

They are too busy doing the same things. Team sports, band, drama, clubs, and internships. Model United Nations. Summer camp. Mission trips. Robotic competitions. And mostly…studying.

Even though their activities and experiences are truly character-building and lesson-teaching, the highly orchestrated nature makes them difficult to mine for gritty, organic or relevant life-shaping lessons. That’s why one of my first questions to students I tutor is whether they had held a job. Summer jobs. Working part-time during school. Even hourly work. These are a gold mine for topic ideas, mainly because they fall outside that high school student bubble where everyone does the same thing. Suddenly a student has to deal with getting stiffed by a customer at a restaurant where he waits tables. Or a student has to find a way to get his lawn mower to job sites without a car. Maybe a student gets passed over to caddie at a golf club because she’s Hispanic.

I advise students to recall “times” they faced problems in their past to discover real-life moments that helped shaped their thinking in some way. If they can show themselves in action handling that issue, their stories (and essay topic) will reveal a piece of their unique personality. If they also reflect and explain what they learned when handling that problem, they also can reveal their character.

Personality + Character = Awesome Personal Statement Essay

The sad thing is that the most high-reaching students often have not had a summer job. Not only have they not had time in their activity-packed lives to hold a job working at Subway, or a clothing boutique or for their parent’s grocery store, but they simply don’t have ANY FREE TIME. Many of these students are distressed when we start brainstorming an essay topic. They say the same things as all students–“There’s nothing interesting about me.” I ask them what they do when they do get a rare moment of time to themselves.

They pause.

Think.

Think some more.

“I like to hang out with my friends,” many tell me. Oh yea. Friends. How sad is this??

Unfortunately, hanging with friends doesn’t often yield great essay topics, so we keep fishing around in their past to find something they have done where there weren’t a lot of adults around making sure nothing went wrong.

Perfect life. Nothing happens. No story. No story. Dull essay. Talk about pressure!

These students have worked so hard, for so long, and truly sacrificed a lot to be perfect students, the exact kind who should get into the most competitive college and universities. I believe many should simply let go of the Ivy League fantasy and focus on the several hundred or more outstanding educational institutions that don’t have Ivy status. Boy, would that chill out this frenzied application world almost overnight. I believe the kids would let them go without a second thought if their parents went first. I know I’m old school, but I have to note that many of my achieving students also mention “My anxiety” or “My depression” as possible essay topics.

I don’t think that’s just a coincidence.

I remember one student who was so desperate for an interesting experience that he planned to borrow an experience that happened to his mother when she was young. And guess who’s brilliant idea this was? Yup, mom’s. But for many of these perfect students, who have engaged in more interesting and challenging activities than many people do in a lifetime, they can’t find that magic topic or everyday experience to nail their college application essay.

It’s the overachievers who come from privileged backgrounds who have it the hardest. Somehow these students do have time for international vacations, second home visits, ski trips, spa outings, sailing, riding horses and golfing (I’m not trying to be snide; this is what they tell me). It’s possible to extract interesting experiences and write compelling essays that involve these privileged activities, but I haven’t seen many. Students who have had to step in to help their family or their own financial well-being are the lucky ones—at least when it comes to essay topics.

If they lived on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and helped raise the pigs.

If they helped their mom clean houses on weekends.

If they ran the cash register at the family laundry mat.

If they had to get a summer job to earn spending money (HINT: That could be any kid.)

Perfect Students: Dig Harder for Your Essay Topic

This is where “real-life” happens, and no matter how hard you try, it’s much easier to write about, extract relatable experiences and moments, and draw out life lessons when life involves a degree of struggle. I feel for these overachievers. They are hard-working, well-intentioned and great kids. For some, this may be their first taste of how life can sometimes be unfair. Don’t despair, though, if you are a perfect student who has done all the right things, plus some. You will still get into the most awesome schools.

When it comes to your college application essay, and finding a killer essay topic, you are going to have to once again be that kid who goes the extra mile. You can and will find great topics. They will just take more digging and imagination, possibly more research and self-reflection. I push the idea of the “mundane,” over the impressive. Works every time.

Even if you are one of those determined students who does everything, along with thousands of others doing the exact same thing, you are unique. You just need to work hard to find some type of problem (challenge, obstacle, failure, phobia, conflict, set-back, crisis, mistake, etc.) you faced in order to show how.

 

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Using the Modern Love Podcast to Teach Narrative Writing

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, but applicable all year ’round, here is an idea from Kinana Qaddour for using the popular Times podcast to encourage narrative writing.

Modern Love is a series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love. Each week, an actor also reads one of the essays in a podcast. Though the stories are often about romantic love, they also take on love of family, friends, and even pets. This teacher finds their themes universal and the range of essays engaging models to help her students find their own voices.

In my work, I have found that most students have little or no experience writing personal narratives, which they need to write for the personal statement/Common Application essay requirement when applying to college. Naturally, I love this idea—so give it a read and share with a teacher who may find it useful!