The open road could lead to an essay. The view from the back seat on a recent trip to Zion National Park. PAT BERRY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

For Montclair Local

Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Check out the archives for


her tips on writing a meaningful essay, building a college list, finding financial aid, and more at For information on essay coaching, visit, and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram.


I’m writing this month’s column in the back seat of an SUV. We’re traveling south on I-15 in Utah, en route to Zion National Park. John Mayer is playing on Spotify; the crack in the windshield — created by a Nebraska highway pebble delivered by an 18-wheeler — stretches across two thirds of the glass; and we’ve learned that college towns are rich ground for advancement in the license plate game. (All we’re missing is Hawaii.) But none of that is as interesting as the spectacular view from my window.

We are moving this 2015 Subaru Forester from New Jersey to its new home, in Oakland, California. Why not enjoy the ride, we asked ourselves? We only have a week, and one of us will have to say good-bye before California, but that’s enough time to visit a few places we’ve never been, like Zion. My companions and I are comfortable with seat-of-the-pants travel. We left Montclair with only an Airbnb reservation in Las Vegas. Jackson, Wyoming, was on the rough itinerary until, road weary, we opted to turn left after Nebraska and check out Colorado instead. Since leaving home, we’ve tasted “the best Italian food in Des Moines,” vegan fare in Denver, and breakfast biscuits with gravy in Cedar City, Utah. And, surprisingly, we’ve kept the junk food to a minimum. 

So why is a 3,000-mile car trip relevant for a column on going to college? Well, if you’re a rising senior who plans to go on to college, there’s a decent chance you’re doing at least two things this summer: thinking about application essays and taking a road trip with friends or family. And if you follow me or read this column with any regularity, you know I believe that inspiration for compelling takes on the world is everywhere. 

There’s something about the confines of a car trip. 

You’re in a comfort zone in a sense (the family car, let’s say), but the fact that you’re on a journey suggests opportunities for discovery. I offer that there are seedlings for essays in those trips. Stuff happens. You get to know people. You get to know yourself. Sometimes a question is posed, and you’re forced to think about something you hadn’t thought about before. Or maybe you wonder what the chances are you’ll spot a Hawaii license plate anywhere in Mainland USA.



The open road could lead to an essay. The view from the back seat on a recent trip to Zion National Park. PAT BERRY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL


Several of my clients have used the topic of the road trip to great effect. There was the young woman who was unhappy with her parents’ decision to move to Colorado from the New York City suburbs “for the experience,” but then discovered she was more adaptable than she ever knew. Then there was the student, a person of color, who had to evacuate his Miami home during a storm. His parents, siblings, and grandmother drove north to stay with family in South Carolina, and discovered prejudicial treatment at the gas stops and restaurants along the way. He wrote a powerful essay on fear and learning from his grandmother how to move through uncomfortable situations with calm attention. 

On this trip, we’ve listened to indie music and “Longform” interviews with authors. We’ve debated whether the ’90s TV show “The West Wing” has aged well socially and politically (not too well, no). And we’ve heard “How To Do Nothing” author and artist Jenny Odell discuss how to be present. (Now, that’s an oversimplification of Odell’s bestseller, but when you’re driving through Moab, it’s impossible not to consider that tuning out social media and being present for the majesty before your eyes is exactly what you should be doing. Anyway, I’m pretty sure there’s an essay in that.)

A recent message from a Dartmouth admissions officer to applicants resonates: “I love how your essays elevate an ordinary topic to something sublime with nothing more than thoughtful perspective and inventive prose.” And that’s precisely the objective of the application essay. College admissions officials don’t expect tremendous life experiences from 17- and 18-year-olds. What they are looking for is thoughtful reflection that connects the experiences you have had with what you’ve learned and what you think and feel about a subject.

When you’re on the road, keep an open mind and an open notebook, and jot down your observations as you go. You may be surprised by the array of ideas that present themselves.

As for this trip west, I’m the one hopping off in Vegas, but my travels will continue. I’ll board a flight for Minneapolis and then drive north several hours to Grand Marais, Minnesota, and a reunion with college friends. Some of these friends and I took a road trip after graduation, and I’m still sharing anecdotes from those seven weeks of crisscrossing the country. 

Meanwhile, my current traveling companions will explore Vegas while the windshield is being replaced. They’ll hop back in the car and ask themselves, What do we want to see next? 

And for sure they’ll be watching for that elusive Aloha State license plate.