10 Steps To Writing A College Essay

Praise for Alan Gelb’s Approach: 

“Indispensable…Gelb provides applicants with much-needed advice as well as the confidence and skills they need to win over the admissions dean.”
—Sue Wasiolek, dean of students at Duke University

 “Alan Gelb has done the impossible: he’s created a sane and simple process for crafting a knock-your-socks-off essay! His guide is perfect for high school students facing the most important document they will ever write. The student still has to do the work, but Gelb’s approach reduces the stress.” 
—Donald Asher, author of Cool Colleges and Graduate Admissions Essays

 “Alan’s guidance in the process of writing my college essay was invaluable. Not only did I end up with an immensely superior product than I would have without his help, I also learned, with Alan’s help, how to mine the depths of my experience to find a meaningful narrative and then convey it with a clear, coherent structure. I got in early decision to Columbia University with that essay; I am forever indebted to Alan for that.” 
—Josh Freed, admitted early decision to Columbia University 

“Taking an ordinary essay and helping to mold it into an extraordinary one is what Alan Gelb does best. [He] helped transform … my essay into a final draft that could stand out amongst an elite crowd.” 
—Megan S. Steven, PhD, one of Alan’s first students, admitted to Dartmouth for undergrad and awarded a Rhodes scholarship; now a faculty member with the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth College 

“Alan Gelb saved us by working with our daughters to help them understand what works in a college essay. My daughters’ admissions to Brown and Macalester were enormously helped by his advice.” 
—Jane Hirschmann, parent

Lily’s College Essay

“I know you’re terrified of this act,” said Ann, my director, “but you have to let yourself become vulnerable. We’re all here to support you. Trust us. We love you.” 

We were just days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I needed a breakthrough, and this was Act Three.

 

At the end of this act, Emily, my character, dies but has the chance to relive a day with her family. She learns that the people around her did not really see what was important in life. Her idealized recollection of her life is shattered. She is deeply disappointed and saddened by her discovery. The only way to perform this last act is with great emotion. But, even though I knew this, I would not allow myself to go to a place where I could really feel Emily’s pain and loss. 

A few months before I left for this theater program, my sister, Beth, who was living in Chile, suffered a seizure. We learned that it was caused by a brain tumor that had been growing undetected for many years. Beth was flown home immediately for brain surgery.

 

 

The first time I saw my sister in seven months, she was in the hospital on a stretcher with IVs in her arm. The night before her operation, the doctor told us what could happen during brain surgery. Beth could become paralyzed, lose memory, and she could die. I have never been so sad and terrified in my entire life, and I was so angry that this had happened. As it turned out, Beth came through the surgery well and the tumor was benign, but the horror of the experience has stayed with me. 

Day after day, we rehearsed the last act and day after day I stayed dry-eyed and emotionless.

 

Talking to Ann, I came to realize why I couldn’t get to the feelings that this act required. The scene hit too close to home for me. Death had come so close and I did not want to relive those feelings. 

I stood there and said my lines. I tried as hard as I could to not just talk about death, but to allow myself to feel. I couldn’t. Ann stopped the rehearsal. She asked a staff member, Howie, to go on stage. “Hold Lily. Don’t let her fall,” Ann said, “but try to make her feel physically off balance.”

 

 

Howie held on to my shoulders and pulled me in all different directions. As this happened, I said my lines and suddenly started to cry my heart out.

 

This was my breakthrough. 

My sister’s illness threw me off balance and changed my life forever. When, once again, I was thrown off balance, Act Three changed forever. In that moment, during rehearsal, my defenses fell and I was able to reconnect to the sadness I had felt. I discovered that I could go there again safely and grow from this experience. From that moment on, each rehearsal and each performance was done with great emotion. We were days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I had a breakthrough, and that was my Act Three.

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