Boot Camp prepares students for rigors of essay writing

I wheeled up to the classroom, parked outside the door, and leaned in to listen to the speaker.

"If you are applying to a rolling decision school, the sooner you finish your application, the better," the instructor said. "Last year we had a student submit his application at the end of this class and in three weeks, he had been accepted."

I heard no response from his audience, but then 17-year-olds aren't known for their audible feedback.

"Any questions?" he asked.

Again, the silence. Must be a small group, I surmised. After all, it was a gorgeous August morning, only a couple of weeks before the beginning of school. A light turnout was understandable.

"Work on your edits. Ask for help if you need it," he continued. "We'll break at 10:15."

As I entered the room, I was stunned at what I saw. Twelve tables housed 27 rising seniors. With laptops up and eyes glued to the screens, these young men tapped their thoughts quietly, steadily.

It was the last day of their five-day College Application Boot Camp, an annual offering at St. Paul's School, designed to help students complete the Common Application Form, the admissions form that many colleges are now accepting online.

Writing tips, gathered by camp director and creator Jake Talmage, were on the board: Be direct. Show, don't tell. Be positive.

I left the group to their edits and found Dr. Joel Coleman, English Department chairman and a five-year boot camp counselor, to ask him about the camp's challenges.

"The hardest thing for them to understand is to communicate who you are — not who you think they want," he said. "and to avoid mistakes like the 'Grandpa Essay.' "

The Grandpa Essay?

Coleman reminded me of the one essay option that asks students to write about someone who has had a significant influence on them.

"Sometimes this essay becomes a bio of the grandfather, or other admired figure, and is not revealing of the student," Coleman said. "Talmage calls it, 'The Grandpa Essay.' "

As a former college admissions officer, Talmage has read hundreds of applications from the other side of the table.

"With the 'Grandpa Essay,' admissions would learn a great deal about Grandpa but very little about the student and Grandpa's role in the student's life," said Talmage, St. Paul's director of college counseling.

"These essays require a different kind of writing, beyond analyzing and supporting thoughts with proof. Students need to be introspective and write about themselves, something they rarely do at this age."

Other categories of cliche essays, according to Talmage:

• The "Brochure or Resume" essay summarizes the rest of the application, failing to offer any new information.

• The "Woe is Me" essay depicts a hardship in a depressing way rather than focusing on student characteristics the hardship reveals.

• The "Sports as a Metaphor for Life" essay features losers winning, or other larger, yet impersonal, life lessons in sports.

"Each topic, however, can be a good essay," said Talmage, "as long as it is used as a starting point for revealing writing — about the student, not the subject."

Griff Magness wanted to get a head start before things "got crazy" at school and found it helpful to have English teachers available for reviews.

"This is hard," Nick Baker said. "You are supposed to write about who you are through what you do. I like music, but is that who I am?"

That is perhaps the most challenging part.

"We are trying to help them write about who they are," Dr. Coleman confided, "and they're only 17."

And writing essays for applications that can affect their rest of their lives.

Becky Galli resides in Lutherville. Contact her at or visit

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