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Interview With Evan Bailyn, President of The Penn Group

SJT: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. What should students keep in mind when they are writing their college admission essay?

EB: I think it’s important to write about what you like. This sounds like an obvious statement, but believe it or not, it’s rarely done. A lot of students try to write an essay that’s Harvard-worthy, or NYU-worthy, or appropriate to whatever school they’re applying to. Colleges have piles of essays that sound too profound for their own good. Students need to focus on the little things that they wonder about during the day – the oddities, the quirks of who they are. I find that most kids tend to play it safe when in reality, writing about a deceased grandparent is not going to score you as many points as writing about the time you fell off your chair in English class.

SJT: Do you really think it would be appropriate to write about a topic that’s not directly related to education, like falling off your chair in English class?

EB: Yes, I do. The purpose of the college admission essay is to expose the way a student thinks and communicates ideas. If the admissions committee wants to know how scholarly the student is, they can look at his transcript. Of course, I’m not advocating writing a completely out-there admission essay. No matter how playful you get with it, a college admission essay is still an essay. But I am saying that you need to keep your admissions officers awake.

SJT: How important is the college admission essay in the overall admissions process?

EB: Very. Obviously, it’s not going to get an academically unqualified student into a school, but it will certainly improve her chances. I tell all my clients that all they need to do is get their foot in the door—in other words, be within the average SAT and GPA ranges for their schools—and I’ll make sure they get the boost they need to get the attention of the admission committee.

SJT: Does a student ever come to you for admission essay editing and it turns out that he doesn’t really need any help?

EB: I think that happened only once in my career. Since the Penn Group works with a lot of top students—National Merit Scholars and the like — we see plenty of essays that exhibit a great deal of talent. But it’s very rare for a seventeen year old student to master grammar, organization, and style. I think the student that wowed me may have gotten some help. His mother was a writer.

SJT: What do you say to a student who has unrealistic expectations about his or her chances of getting into a school?

EB: I’m honest with everyone that comes to me. If I promise them that an admission essay will get them in and it doesn’t, I’m partially at fault for the negative impact that rejection has on the student’s self-esteem. But most people who come to me aren’t overconfident. They tend to have a realistic conception of where they will be accepted. Of course, the most exciting clients are the ones that get in despite being at the bottom of their school’s mean SAT range. That’s the magic of the college admission essay.

SJT: Can you tell us some of the common mistakes students make when they’re writing their college admission essay?

EB: Unoriginal topics are the most common problem with college admission essays. Using a voice that isn’t the student’s own is another issue that I see a lot. And of course grammar issues.

SJT: Your company claims to have one of the best rates of success of any online service. What’s your secret? And do we have to pay an arm and a leg for it?

EB: [laughs] I wouldn’t say an arm and a leg. The price is reasonable considering the expertise of the writers and the results our clients tend to get. College admission essay editing is an investment in the student’s academic and professional future. As for my secret, it really comes down to knowing how much of a risk to take, and knowing that it’s riskier to be un-risky.

SJT: Before we can go, do you have any other advice to impart to college-bound seniors who are stuck on their college admission essay?

EB: Yes. Don’t be shy about asking for help. Get advice from at least four or five people before sending off your admission essay. But always stick to your guns — your English teacher or guidance counselor isn’t always right. If you write something that really feels right, let it be. Your instincts may be well-rewarded.

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