Finding the Confidence to Write High-Quality College Application Essays

I recently discussed confidence in the college essay writing process with Matt Bieber of Real Clear English. Below is our transatlantic conversation…


When students sit down to write their college application essays, they’re expected to share their inner worlds with distant, anonymous readers who hold a great deal of power over their future.

It’s no surprise, then, that students are reluctant to tell their stories – even if they have really good stories. I see this hesitation all the time in my own students, and my guest – Megan Johnson of Best You Consulting Group – does too. The question is, what do we do with this feeling?


My students tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. They think they have nothing interesting to say.
  2. They think that a good essay involves kicking the winning goal or going on a mission trip.
  3. They are hesitant to tell their secrets to strangers.

The students who fall into the first group often feel that because they haven’t encountered tragedy in their life, no one will find them interesting and therefore, they’ll never be admitted. While tragedy can make for a good essay, it’s not your only path to admission. Everyone is different. Your “boring and regular” life may not have seen tragedy, but you still have something to say.

The second group feels like their essay needs to fall into the safe zone. Volunteering and sports are “safe.”

To students in the third category, I understand the hesitation. Will a group of strangers judge me for what I’ve done or what I’ve been through? In short, no. They are longing to get to know you. They are not judging and they understand that sharing your story is personal and completely respect that.

When I served on the admissions committee at Fuqua, Duke’s MBA program, I read a lot (I mean A LOT) of applications. My favorite essay at Fuqua asks for “25 random things about you.” Those who repeated pieces of information from their resume or only provided surface-level (safe) information about themselves were not memorable when it came time for admissions officers to present at committee meetings. The students who went deeper, were vulnerable, shared a story about something that went wrong, were funny – they were memorable. I felt like I got to know them personally by reading their essays. I bonded with them. As I result, when it came time to make admissions decisions, I fought for them.


I often tell my students that this is where admissions officers are coming from, but it’s great to have some hard proof! And it makes sense: admissions officers aren’t robots – they’re real people who want to feel connected to other real people.

Let me ask a little more about your third category – the students who are wary of sharing their secrets with strangers. You and I both encourage our students to share. In your view, how much should they share? Is there such a thing as over-sharing? Or are these the wrong questions?


I do think there’s such a thing as oversharing. Vulnerable, yes. Vulgar, no. In some ways, I think the students who choose to overshare are afraid that their lives are boring and that they need to shock the reader in order to get attention.

As students begin drafting essays, I think they need to ask themselves why. Why am I sharing this particular story? What does it say about me? Is this how I want to be remembered?

I’m interested in your take, Matt. Does all this talk of oversharing scare students into playing it safe?


I hope not! I’m all for honesty and vulnerability – the more, the better. But as you say, it has to be honesty with the right motivations behind it. Just trying to shock the reader will almost certainly backfire, and for two reasons: one, because admissions readers have seen just about everything before, and two, because telling lurid stories often involves cheapening your own experiences. It’s painful to see students treat the most sensitive moments in their own lives – or in the lives of their loved ones – as currency to be traded in an admissions game. And naturally, doing so doesn’t inspire confidence among admissions readers, either.

Confidence strikes me as central to the whole essay-writing process. Students who have some basic sense of their own dignity – who trust that their own experiences are valuable, and who don’t feel a constant need to compare themselves to others – often end up writing the essays that imprint themselves in readers’ minds. And a big part of my role is reminding students of that truth, and helping them see it for themselves.


I couldn’t agree more on the confidence piece! I think a lack of confidence makes a student fall into one of the three buckets that I described earlier. It takes confidence to feel like your story matters, to not play it safe or to share something that feels personal. Borrowing from Augusten Burroughs, I think it means letting go of other people’s perceptions that are out of your control and granting yourself some basic space to work.

Matt, any closing advice for high school students trying to find confidence in their writing?


I think you said it perfectly! Of course, that kind of confidence can be hard to generate and maintain, and it helps to have support as you go through the process – a family member, a friend, or a professional coach. It’s also important for students to remember that writing well about your own life is hard – it’s a real skill, one that takes time to develop just like any other. If you walk into this process thinking you’re going to sit down and slap together a high-quality essay in a few quick sessions, you’re probably setting yourself up for frustration. But if go into the process humbly, curious to see what you might learn and how you might share your discoveries, you’ll do beautifully.

13 things you must do to stand out in today’s competitive job market

There are many things that make living in North Carolina hard to beat. People are right to tout the limitless outdoor activities, the near perfect climate and the booming economy. But another thing that sets North Carolina apart from many other states is the sheer number of world-class colleges & universities the state is home to. From time to time, I am fortunate enough to partner with these schools in a professional capacity.

I was recently asked to participate on a panel and conduct mock interviews at the Master of Quantitative Management program at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. This ten-month business analytics program was introduced at Fuqua this year. It is designed for college graduates with strong quantitative backgrounds and provides training in analytics and communication within the context of finance, marketing, forensics or strategy. The objective is to prepare students for a career in data-based problem solving.

Panelists represented a variety of companies including Stealz, Lenovo, Data Blueprint and LivingLab. While the companies represented a wide range of sizes, industries and locations, some common themes emerged:

  • Startups and smaller companies place a premium on transferable skills. Given their size, these companies often require employees to wear multiple hats. Therefore, they seek candidates who can demonstrate agility.
  • One size does not fit all. Candidates must write targeted cover letters and resumes for the job they want.
  • Make the top third to half of the resume and cover letter count as the recruiter or hiring manager may not have the luxury of reading to the end.
  • Apply early. Recruiters review the early submissions and only go back to review more if they don’t find who they are looking for.
  • Expect some kind of case exercise during the interview process. Hiring managers want to know how candidates will handle real life situations, on the fly. They are looking for insight into your reasoning and problem-solving capabilities.
  • Candidates need to anticipate behavioral-based interview questions. Therefore, they must be prepared to share examples to highlight competencies. This requires a thorough understanding of the role and the position description.
  • Passion! Hiring managers are seeking candidates who are passionate about their company and are looking for genuine alignment with the company’s values.
    • SAS even has a separate values interview conducted by a group of people from across the company who demonstrate those values.

Most of the conversation at the event revolved around the importance of building a network and utilizing referrals, which is something that I’ve written about previously in How Kevin Bacon will help you find your next job. Across the board, panelists agreed that referral candidates get extra attention and are sent to the front of the line.

The room, made up largely of students with fewer than six months experience, wondered, “how do I build a network if I don’t have any real work experience yet?” Many international students also expressed concern over not having a deep network in the U.S.

  • The consensus of the panel members was:
    • Identify where you are likely to meet your target network. Attend conferences, meet-up groups and networking events.
    • Don’t blindly send out a LinkedIn request. Find common connections, organizations or interests. Use those as the basis for building a relationship.
    • Recognize that networks are a two-way street. When connecting, think about what you have to offer the other person.
    • Look to your left. Build relationships with those around you. Utilize your undergrad and graduate school alumni networks.
    • Devour your passion. Comment, like and share white papers and blog posts. Compliment the writer.
    • Pursue extracurriculars related to your interests.

The representative from LivingLab mentioned that he doesn’t think the company has hired anyone who is not a referral. If you didn’t think referrals were important before, I hope you do now!

The professionals who participated on the Fuqua MQM panel represented organizations of all shapes and sizes. But the common messages were loud and clear: Be versatile. No one knows what business challenges we will face tomorrow. Be direct. You can’t assume the person reading your cover letter or resume will eventually get to what makes you extraordinary. So lead with it. Cultivate your network. Cast a wide net, but do so deliberately. And engage with your connections. Lastly, let your network know who you are. Show them what you are passionate about and why it makes you both more interesting and valuable.

Top 10 Resume Tips Recruiters Wish They Could Actually Give You

I review hundreds of resumes per week and spend additional time getting my clients’ resumes in tip-top shape for master’s programs and job applications. Here are my 10 recommendations:

  1. Quantify, quantify, quantify. I will sound like a broken record with this one. Numbers make a recruiter or hiring manager stop skimming and pay attention. Numbers provide context and show impact. Speaking of numbers…
  2. Update your resume regularly. Even if you aren’t looking for a job. Do you know how hard it is to remember how many interns you managed in the summer of 2012? Or by what % you increased revenue in FY2014? When you are completing your mid or end-of-year review, copy some of those great stats into your resume. It doesn’t have to be nicely formatted or worded, just get the content (and numbers) down on paper. Your 2019 self will thank you!
  3. So what? You are telling your story in bullet points. Sometimes, I read them and think, “so what?” Yes, you did a thing; but more importantly, did this thing have impact? Don’t forget to include that part. You analyzed something? Great. But what happened as a result? That’s what I really want to know.
  4. 1 page is enough. 15+ years into your career, I’ll cut you some slack. Otherwise, I promise, 1 is enough. If your bullet points are quantified and show impact, you can get all that great content on 1 page. 2 easy cuts?
    • All of those characteristics (team player, driven, strong communication skills) that you list about yourself at the top of your resume. Honestly, I don’t read them. Let those things shine through in the bullet points, cover letter and in your interview. Who’s going to say they have poor communication skills anyway?
    • Eliminate “a, an, the” from your bullet points.
  5. Don’t use 8-point font. My eyes hurt. And there are likely so many words on the page that I can’t figure out which end is up. So, I give up.
  6. Keep it simple people. Unless you are in a creative field, for me, simpler is better. Personally, I’m not a fan of graphics or complicated layouts. Don’t shoot the messenger.
  7. Include months. Otherwise, someone might think you are trying to hide a gap. P.S. Don’t hide a gap. But be prepared to address it.
  8. Frontload your bullets. I know you worked really hard on your resume. I do. But I’ll be honest, recruiters are skimming it. Tailor your first few bullets under each job to speak to the needs outlined in the job description (Wordle can help) and to highlight your greatest accomplishments. The recruiter may not make it to the last one.
  9. What’s in a name? Sometimes, it’s hard to understand what someone has done if they use a lot of industry jargon or if the company at which they worked is not well recognized. Consider adding a line that explains what the company does. If your industry jargon doesn’t translate to the next company or job, dumb it down for us so we can better understand what you did and how that translate to this new job.
  10. Tell me something personal. Especially if you are applying to an MBA program. Let’s be honest, it’s fun to learn about people. That’s why I’m in this business. If you are including a personal section at the bottom, draw me in. Top 3 things I see: cooking, travel and running. I love all of those things so I’m not telling you to find new hobbies. But spice it up. How about: pad thai fanatic, sea kayaking in the Baja, 3 Boston Marathons and counting. WAY more exciting, right?

Most of these are simple fixes that make tons of impact. Do it. Now. Need help? You can find me at

A Visit to George Mason University

Nestled in suburban Fairfax, VA, not far from the heart of DC, George Mason has much to offer a variety of students in the crowded Virginia & DC college and university market. The largest public research university in the state of Virginia, students at GMU take full advantage of its location which affords countless educational, professional and social opportunities.

Internships in the nation’s capital are only 20-30 minutes away by metro which means that 85% of students gain crucial experience and begin building their professional networks before they graduate. Given its Tier 1 research institute status, the National Institute for Health is one of the many prestigious employers who recruit heavily on campus.

GMU has a nationally-recognized engineering program, including the only cybersecurity engineering program in the country. The Nguyen Engineering Building leases office space to many large corporations, offering additional internship opportunities right on campus.

Other notable disciplines include a 5th year accelerated accounting program, an accredited forensic science program, a competitive dance major (only 20 students accepted each year) and a nursing program, which will be housed in the brand-new Health and Human Services building.

An Honors College is available to top students allowing them access to Robinson Faculty (distinguished professors in the liberal arts and sciences) and a Living Learning Community. LLCs, as they are known at GMU, are collaborative partnerships between departments, faculty, housing and residence staff. Students participating in an LLC take one or more classes together and live on campus as a group, in a common dorm. In addition, groups of students in LLCs engage with peers, faculty and staff coordinators through numerous extracurricular projects and activities. The University Scholars Award, George Mason’s largest merit scholarship, covers full tuition and is offered to 10 in-state and 10 out-of-state students.

While it’s only been 40 years since GMU formally separated from the University of Virginia, it is now the second largest residential campus in Virginia. Historically a commuter school (74% live off campus), that status seems to be evolving with options available to those who want the on-campus experience. In addition to Living Learning Communities, GMU offers 350 student clubs, 22 NCAA D1 teams and Greek life, although only a small percentage of men and women go Greek. While campus might not be a hub of activity on the weekends, students are able to take advantage of the benefits of living in the greater DC area.

George Mason should not be overlooked for its growing athletic tradition either. They field more than 20 Division I teams, made up of 458 student athletes. The Patriots made national headlines during the 2005-2006 NCAA tournament when the men’s basketball team shocked the sports world by making it to the Final Four. During their run, George Mason found itself a significant underdog in each game before upsetting Michigan State (who had made the previous year’s Final Four), North Carolina (the defending National Champions) and UConn (the tournament’s #1 seed). The Patriots eventually lost in the National Semi-Final game to the University of Florida, which went on to win the tournament. The season was historic by any measure and is widely considered the best tournament run by a “mid-major” conference team in NCAA history. George Mason, which entered the season predicted to finish 6th in the small Colonial Athletic Association, finished the year as the 8th ranked team in the country.

Melissa Bevacqua, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, described GMU as “authentically diverse”. While 80% of the 36,000 students hail from the state of Virginia, GMU students come from 137 countries and almost all 50 states. The admissions office is focused on growing its international and out-of-state student population. As a result, the school is score optional for out-of-state non-engineering students with a GPA of 3.3 or higher. In addition, the university is proud of its mission of access, reporting that half of the current students started their college career at a two-year institution before transferring and that underrepresented students perform just as well there and after graduation.

All of these characteristics come together to create a unique learning environment and opportunity for the right student. George Mason seems to embrace its underdog status in the crowded landscape of Virginia colleges and universities. And rightly so. Whether you are a student looking to transfer from a two-year institution, or a more traditional applicant who is looking to gain real work experience and benefit from the proximity to DC, George Mason University is a great option. And one that will not be overlooked much longer.

A Visit to Elon University

Despite having approximately 6,000 undergraduates and 700 graduate students, Elon feels like a much smaller liberal arts college. My tour guide, Wil, is currently in his senior year, majoring in finance and accounting. He is a tremendous ambassador for the university and did a great job sharing all that Elon offers. Here’s what I learned…

At the center of Elon’s educational philosophy is the belief that learning happens everywhere. As a result, their signature program, the Elon Experiences, offers a natural extension of the work done in the classroom. Students are required to complete two units of experiential learning which may be done through Study Abroad, Research, Internships, Service and/or Leadership. Based on the numbers, it’s clear that students take advantage of the offerings beyond the basic requirements. Of recent grads, 74% spent at least one term abroad, 92% took part in at least one internship, 24% conducted faculty-mentored undergraduate research outside the classroom, 47% held at least one leadership position and 92% engaged in service. Other highlights of the academic programs:

  • For those interested in pursuing professions in medicine, there are two designated human donor labs for undergrads and a pre-health advising system.
  • Engineering is offered through a 3+2 program which supports students in working toward two degrees: one from Elon and one from an engineering university. The school currently has affiliations with North Carolina State University, Georgia Tech, Pennsylvania State University, Virginia Tech, Columbia University, University of Notre Dame, Washington University in St. Louis, University of South Carolina and North Carolina A&T State University.
  • Through the Mooney School of Education, students spend their first year observing and their last year teaching in a classroom. The school has a dedicated library on the first floor. Outreach to the community can be done through the Village Project which offers the chance to tutor English or Math in the local schools.
  • All students receive an academic advisor on day one of freshman year. A new one is provided once a major is declared.
  • All students are assigned a dedicated librarian. The Belk Library offers space for group work along with writing and tutoring centers.
  • About 20% of students study in the School of Communication and it’s easy to see why. The new building overlooks tiny downtown Elon, NC and includes a state-of-the-art studio donated by Brian Williams of NBC which produces several TV shows staring and produced by Elon students. Strategic Communications is the most popular major on campus.
  • The business school is expanding but classes are relatively small and capped at 33.

I had the opportunity to meet Kate Upton, Assistant Professor of Finance, when we were touring the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business. When I asked her what she liked most about her Elon experience, she said it’s the value that the school places on mentorship. Mentoring students isn’t just encouraged; it’s something on which professors are evaluated.

The student body is 42% Greek but it’s predominately made up of sororities. Wil is not in a fraternity and said that not joining may have impacted the development of his social life initially but he does not feel that not participating in the Greek system has held him back. He did say that not going Greek might be more of an issue for females than males.

College Coffee is a cherished tradition on campus. Every Tuesday morning, the community comes together for conversation over coffee and pastries. Another Elon tradition is the lighting of the luminaries during exam time in the lead up to the holidays. Elon was named after the Hebrew word for oak and two traditions have developed in celebration of these roots. New Student Convocation for first year and transfer students is held “Under the Oaks” behind West Dormitory. Each new student receives their own acorn at the close of the ceremony to symbolize their beginning at Elon. At graduation, each student receives an oak sapling which symbolizes their growth at the university.

Students are required to live on campus and participate in the meal plan for two years. Wil is so fond of both that he is participating all four years. Food must be good! In addition, to offering seven residential neighborhoods, Elon also offers 26 living learning communities to enable groups of people with shared interests and goals to live together. Examples include Gender & Sexuality, Leaders in a Global World, Interfaith House, Creative Arts and World Languages.

Elon offers several need and merit based scholarships. In addition, the university offers six Fellows Programs which include additional scholarship opportunities. To be considered, students must submit an additional Fellows application which will be reviewed by faculty committees. If selected, you will be invited to attend Fellows Weekend during which students participate in a seminar and write a response to the topic discussed, interview with faculty and attend information sessions about the program. From this weekend-long process, Fellows are selected.

According to Wil, diversity is an initiative of major importance to university president, Leo Lambert. The school is proud to have achieved 20% racial and ethnic diversity in the Class of 2020. In the summer 2017 edition of The Magazine of Elon, Lambert says that the school is “now in the early stages of meeting the next great long-term challenge for Elon: building our endowment for the primary purpose of increasing student financial aid”. Earlier this year, Lambert announced that he was stepping down after 18 years. Wil described Lambert as personable, said that he’s done a good job of representing the student body and has helped the school to gain name recognition.  During Lambert’s presidency, applications for undergraduate admission have doubled, enrollment has grown from 4,000 to more than 6,700, and full-time faculty numbers have increased from under 200 to 425. During this period of growth, student academic credentials increased, average class sizes dropped and the student-faculty ratio decreased from 16-to-1 to 12-to-1. In the days following my visit to campus, Elon announced Dr. Connie Ledoux Book as the university’s ninth president.  Dr. Book comes to Elon from The Citadel where she served as Dean & Provost, the first female to hold either title in The Citadel’s 175-year history.

Rankings are an important component of the university’s branding and marketing efforts. Elon has successfully transformed itself from a regional, religious college to a selective, nationally recognized university. It will be interesting to see how the university evolves under the leadership of Dr. Book in the years to come.

A Visit to Wake Forest University

It was a beautiful fall day in NC when I visited the Wake Forest campus. The trees had not yet turned dozens of shades of oranges and reds but the air had shed the weight of summer’s humidity. I stopped by Byrum Welcome Center to listen to the morning’s Information Session, hosted by Thomas Ray, Wake’s Coordinator of Diversity Admissions. Thomas is an alum and he maintains the passion of an undergrad for his alma mater. The takeaways from my visit are simple: Wake Forest could truly be a fit for a variety of different students. It is small enough to be manageable but large enough to provide a diversity of coursework and extracurricular activities.

Walking the campus, you can’t help but notice the gorgeous Georgian-style buildings. With 350 acres, it’s big but manageable on foot. While the university does have several graduate programs, the focus here is clearly on the undergraduate experience and the building are arranged to that end.

While the campus is beautiful, it’s the students who make this campus come to life. Although not mentioned during our info session, Greek life is a big part of the social scene at Wake Forest. 35% of men and 57% of women go Greek. The Student Involvement Fair is a great way to understand everything else that Wake offers from bass fishing and a cappella to Christian drama and sustainability.

Wake Forest’s motto, Pro Humanitate (For Humanity), is a calling for students to use their knowledge, talents and compassion to better the lives of others. That calling seems to permeate every aspect of the campus and the experience at Wake Forest. One in four undergrads participates in Wake N’ Shake, a 12-hour dance marathon that benefits cancer research ($336,000 was raised in March 2017). While wandering the campus, I stopped by a table where a student was encouraging people to sign up for Project Pumpkin, which provides a safe trick-or-treating option for area youth. This year’s theme is Heroes vs. Villains. Another popular option among students is a service mission program called Wake Alternative Break. During the week, students will focus on a social justice issue, engage in readings, reflections, and blogging and participate in direct service. Since 2003, students have “Hit the Bricks” around Hearn Plaza to raise money for the Brian Piccolo (Wake Forest ’65 and the subject of the multiple Emmy winning “Brian’s Song”) Cancer Research Fund which benefits the local Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Comprehensive Cancer Center.

We can’t talk about Wake without talking about sports. Wake is part of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and is one of the smallest school in the division. The school has 48 ACC Championships in 11 sports. Enthusiasm for Wake sports can be measured in toilet paper. Students, alumni and other fans take to “rolling the quad” to celebrate athletic victories. While Wake Forest is known nationally for their basketball success, the Demon Deacons have made waves in football as well; in 2007, they exceeded all expectations and earned a bid to the prestigious FedEx Orange Bowl. The men’s soccer team has appeared in the NCAA Tournament every year from 2011 to 2016.

During my conversations with students, several commented on how supportive and approachable the professors are. 99% of courses have < 25 students in the class. As a result, students form strong relationships with their professors. Those relationships are important to ensure a student’s success at the school that’s been dubbed “Work Forest”. The path will be challenging but students are supported from day one with multiple academic and peer advisors.

The liberal arts education offers courses across the humanities, literature, fine arts, social sciences and math and natural sciences. Students are required to take classes across all divisions as well as satisfy a cultural diversity requirement. There are 35 majors to choose from: accountancy, biology, art history, music in liberal arts and women’s, gender & sexuality studies to name a few.

In January 2017, Wake Forest debuted Wake Downtown, a 151,000-square-foot center (former R.J. Reynolds space) in downtown Winston-Salem, a 13-minute shuttle ride from Reynolda Campus. The space is dedicated to newly approved courses of study in engineering, biochemistry and molecular biology, and medicinal chemistry and drug discovery.

Going global is an integral to the Wake experience as well. 70% of the student body studies abroad at least once during their time at Wake. In addition to Wake Houses in London, Vienna and Venice, the school offers 400 programs in 200 cities. That global spirit can be felt on campus as well, with a 10% international student body and organizations like the African and Caribbean Students Association, which hosts an annual event full of cultural food, fashion and entertainment and Friendships Beyond Borders, which provides a community for international students by pairing them with upperclassmen in mentor relationships.

According to the campus student newspaper, Old Gold & Black, here’s what’s happening on campus:

  • “Rethinking Community” initiative: a series of conferences, dialogues, speakers, performances and events exploring the “polarized, diverse, virtual, and global” nature of life in the second decade of the 21st century
  • A new virtual reality class at Wake Downtown (
  • Teach-ins facilitated campus discussions on Charlottesville
  • Orientation for first-year students, including the Convocation and Pros vs. Joes, which clearly succeeded in bonding the new students

Having worked with many Career Services offices in my time as a recruiter, without a doubt, The Office of Career and Professional Development at Wake Forest is among the best. The staff works hard to develop strong relationships with employers. In fact, there was a career fair going on in Benson Hall the day that I was there; there were approximately 80 companies in attendance. Career Treks offer students valuable opportunities to learn about companies, industries and careers in a personal setting. Students travel to Atlanta, DC, New York and San Francisco to engage with industry professionals, expand their networks, and increase their awareness of career possibilities. The office engages early with contact starting day one of freshman year. The results are clear: students understand how to engage with employers, how to write a strong resume and how to utilize their network; 98.5% of Wake Forest graduates are employed within six months of graduation.

Wake Forest University could be a good match if you are seeking a smaller school (but not too small), with strong academics, a support network from peers, professors and staff, and a deep commitment to enriching the lives of others.