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.


Ahhhhh. That’s the sound of high school seniors exhaling now that you’ve hit SUBMIT on Early Action and Early Decision applications. I wish you all well! And I thank those of you who asked me to help you brainstorm your college essays. 

One of my great joys is witnessing your thoughtful rifling through memories (and sometimes photos) for the moment or experience that feels like something you could spend up to 650 words on in an essay. Some of you arrived at our first meeting with a topic in hand, and I helped you identify anecdotes or scenes from your life that served to brighten your narrative or illustrate your main point. Sometimes, though, it took a little digging to get to a solid idea. 

An exchange that happens during many a first meeting with a new client begins with a certain sideways glance or shy look from the student. Invariably, they’ll examine their hands or fiddle with the corner of a sheet of notebook paper before blurting something like “This is a dumb idea” or “I’m sure I can’t do anything with this, but… ” It’s then that inspiration pulls up a chair at my dining room table. 





I love those hesitant disclosures that you’ve been holding something back because, more often than not, those somethings are far from dumb or unusable. Often they are little gems that add nuance to a narrative and help to connect the dots in your story. This was true for a student in Massachusetts whose mom found me through my website. As a starting point with each new client, I provide a list of questions and ask them to talk to me about the ones that tickle their imaginations, even if they don’t have an immediate response to them. I had sent the Massachusetts senior the list, and now she and I were speaking by phone. She lingered over the question, “Does your family have a tradition that’s unusual and/or very important to you?” She paused. “This will sound a little weird,” she began, “but we make a pretty big deal out of Halloween.” 

She explained how her neighborhood really goes to town on spooky decorations and how, once she and her sister were too old for trick-or-treating, Halloween was an excuse to watch horror movies.They love the fake gore, jumpy scares, and adrenaline rushes. I learned that she loves biology and that her ambition is to attend medical school and become a pediatric heart surgeon. She hesitated again. “I like anatomy, and I watch surgeries on YouTube to learn about medical procedures,” she said. Huh. I asked her if there could be a connection between her enjoyment of horror movies and her fascination with videos shot in real operating rooms. At first she giggled at the notion — and then realized she had her essay. She began it with a memory of feeling both terrified and delighted one long-ago Halloween night. 

For anyone who still has deadlines to meet, don’t fall into the trap of trying to strategize an essay that is unique next to all the thousands of others stacked in front of application readers. Just decide what’s meaningful to you, and consider what you have to say about that subject. As much as I’d love your business, you don’t need an essay coach to tell you what events or people or talents or books or sports or teams or clubs or pets or jobs or disappointments or journeys or conversations or classes or ___ (fill in the blank) matter to you. Pick one and hold it up. View it, like a prism, from all the angles you can, noting what comes to mind and prioritizing those ideas that say something about you. Your uniqueness will come through in the way you assemble your narrative, organizing and connecting the dots in your life.

A year from now, you may not remember what your application essay was about. What I hope you do remember is that you dug in, trusted yourself, and revealed to your readers who you are and what you care about.