Book Review: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays

Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays (Paperback, Kindle, Nook)

By Robert N. Cronk
Arasian; first edition (2010)

Concise Advice is a Timely Antidote to Writer’s Block

It’s a scenario I see all the time: Parents wade into the college admissions quagmire when a child begins the search and application process. Then, years later, as Junior’s diploma gathers dust in a box in the basement, Mom or Dad is still sharing college knowledge with eager and uncertain newbies on the College Confidential discussion forum.

Robert Cronk, however, has traveled yet an extra mile. He has not only informally advised countless families via CC since his own 24-year-old son’s application days, but he’s also the author of a new and helpful book, Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays.

If you’re currently a high school senior who worries that you’ve never cured cancer, published a novel, or lived in a homeless shelter and thus will have nothing significant to share at application time, this book is for you. It’s also ideal for those who stare vacantly back at teachers or advisors when cautioned that the best college essays will “Show, not Tell.”

Cronk’s 10-step plan, which begins with, “Close your eyes and walk down memory lane,” will enable students to hone in on appropriate essay fodder and to turn even everyday experiences into meaningful prose. He equates the “story” that a college essay can tell with that of a screenplay, and he succinctly unveils the “Three Act Structure” of the typical movie plot that will translate neatly into essay format. Cronk uses several examples that should be familiar teenage fare (“My 14th birthday party when my sister gave me a sketchbook;” “When the coach asked me to come in last at a swim meet to give our star swimmer a chance to rest;” “The time I transferred into my high school and everyone thought I was a freak;” “The time I almost fainted watching a vet amputate a dog’s leg;” Nary a tragedy nor national award in sight!)

The steps that follow are small, logical, and almost painless. Even mediocre writers should blossom under Cronk’s tutelage as they come to see the value of providing specific details in their “story.” Cronk takes a page out of my own book (almost literally) when he notes that the most overused topics can become unique essays through the inclusion of personal details.

Concise Advice also offers suggestions on how to tackle specific prompts such as the”Significant Experience,” the “Most Influential Person,” or those pesky, “Why this college?” questions.

Cronk is a computer engineer by training. Although he has taught at both the high school and university levels, he’s not an English teacher. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Georgia Tech, and his résumé includes Artificial Intelligence work for the U.S. government. (He even helped to develop and build the first wireless network in Haiti.) The contrast between Cronk’s professional background and his insights into the college admissions essay seems to suggest, “Fear not, prospective pre-meds, physicists, and music majors: Anyone can do this.”

As the title proclaims, Concise Advice is brief indeed—barely 90 pages. Yet, like my other favorite essay guide (On Writing The College Application Essay by Harry Bauld), it may still seem too long to high school students who are already beleaguered by other admissions imperatives. Thus, instead, this book might be the perfect landing pad for helicopter parents. Those want to shepherd their children through the admissions maze but aren’t quite sure where to direct their energies can benefit from Cronk’s counsel and then pass along a “Reader’s Digest” version to their progeny at the very first signs of “I have no clue what to write about!”

Sally Rubenstone is Senior Advisor at College Confidential and co-author of Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions