Education Consulting

Boutique is an education consultancy that specializes in editing and enhancing the admissions application essay, as well as other education services. Founded by Juli Min, Harvard and Andover alumna.

Filtering by Tag: essay

The "Why Us" Essay

Almost every college will ask you to answer the question "why us?" at some point or another - in written form on the application, or perhaps in person in an interview. 

This question is difficult because it's basically been asked of every applicant since the beginning of time. Which means that the admissions officers have heard all the typical, vague answers: beautiful campus, great location, great classes, great professors, my dad went there, my friend went there, my cousin's friend's wife went there.

The key is to be specific when you answer. That means you must think about who you are and how your needs are met by the college, and also how the college's needs are met by admitting you. You want the short answer to read like a mini personal essay. By that, I mean: you want it to reveal something new and very unique about yourself that isn't showcased elsewhere in your application. Remember, you don't want different parts of your application to be repetitive - you want to take every opportunity to show as many different sides of yourself as possible.

Here are some specific ways to be specific

  • School traditions: these can include annual traditions or festivals, social groups, or interest groups. Some examples might be prestigious music ensembles, an annual technology summit, etc. Make sure to elucidate how you would add to these traditions and groups.
  • School culture: If you are particularly academic, entrepreneurial, professional, or intellectual, and the school matches your personality, interests, and goals, explain how you are a good match. If you aren't the typical student for that school, explain how you might be able to mix things up a bit and bring something new to the school culture. 
  • Specific majors: Many universities have designed unique majors or courses of study, and take pride in that. If their custom-built curriculum is perfect for you, explain why. Again, explain what you'll also bring to the table in terms of new ideas, energy, and enthusiasm.
  • Curriculum: Does the idea of core classes appeal to you? Does a quarter system appeal to you over a semester system? In what style do you like to learn - fast vs. slow? professionally immersed vs. isolated academically? How does the school's system suit your learning style, and as always, how can you add value? 

Two Examples

For Middlebury College:

I remember vividly the time the Dissipated 8 from Middlebury College came to my school to give a performance. I fell in love with their a cappella rendition of the song Satellite. It was the first time I was exposed to Middlebury, as well as a cappella music, and the first time I'd heard contemporary songs arranged and sung so beautifully. I was hooked on the idea of a cappella, and the group gave me a great impression of the school.  

This is a personal anecdote about Middlebury that very few students can also have. If I were to write a Why Middlebury essay, I might start off with the performance of Satellite, perhaps describing how the song grows and expands, relating that to how I first was enamored with the college and then later came to learn more about it over the years. Then I could write about my love of language and Russian literature, and Middlebury's own Language schools and the wealth of opportunities they have to study language and culture. 

For Harvard: 

I could again mention my love of music, especially jazz and a cappella and how the Radcliffe Pitches are such a professional group with a long history and great opportunities to tour the world singing (disclosure - I sang for them in college, so I'm a little biased). Academically, I could write about the unique and also variable concentrations available at Harvard for studying literature, and why I want to study lit theory and languages through their Comparative Literature track. 

The "Why Us" essay is not easy. It requires you to know a lot about the college to which you are applying, and it also requires you to know a lot about yourself and your worth to an institution. Start off by looking deeply into both the college and also into yourself. Best of luck, and always reach out if you have questions.

Stereotypes & History

I spent some time in Beijing, China's capital city, this month. Mostly sightseeing, but also meeting some friends, eating a lot of great food, and doing some work on my book.

Throughout the trip, people would often ask where we were from, and we'd say, of course, Shanghai. Often a topic of conversation would be the differences between people from the north and the south. Apparently, people from the north are more open, simple people, who love to engage with community in an honest and collegial way, enjoying a good drink now and again. Southerners are more socially discerning, paying careful attention to detail and maintaining tact and sensibility in relationships. At least this is what we were told by northerners. :)

These conversations got me thinking about stereotypes, and specifically, location-based stereotypes. It is possible to dig deeper and ask why different regions - with their separate histories, challenges, and terrain - create different people. Shanghai's mercantile history and port city location have shaped the people in the city. Beijing's political history and location bordering northern powers have shaped BJers as well. 

There are many ways in which we are shaped by where we live. Personalities are as much a product of huge communities like our country, our generation, and our cities. On a smaller level, we live in a neighborhood, with certain people, speaking a certain lingo with a select group of friends. We are also born with traits and personalities that are shaped by our environments, at times the two coming into conflict.

If you want to write about where you come from, or a community you are a part of, one way into that question can be to think about the stereotypes and expectations you or others have about the place or the group. How am I an American, what does that mean, and how am I different than the norm, or the stereotype? Why? How am I a typical younger sister, and how does my relationship differ from the norm? Pry open the layers of your identity, and take a good look at how they follow the norm, as well as diverge.

Whenever I post a prompt-type post, I'll tag it "prompt." See more in the Search section of this website or click on the tag below.  

642 Things to Write About

I'm a sucker for books about writing. I buy every one! A while ago, suffering from a bout of writer's block, I picked up 642 Things to Write About. It has writing exercises that can be used to get you started. Just today I flipped to a random page in the book and saw a few prompts that I thought might inspire a good college essay. 

  1. A family (not your own) on the street where you grew up
  2. The way you mistreated a friend
  3. A letter to the editor

Speaking of letters to editors, if you have extra time on your hands, or a free thirty minutes every day, I strongly suggest reading the newspaper. (Blah blah, old advice Juli.) But do not just read the newspaper and the OpEd sections. Make sure to also check out the letters to the editors. Get multiple perspectives and then form your own. Don't skip the comments if you're reading online. It's one very good thing to learn to read the newspaper and digest analysis from well-respected writers. It's another even better thing to read the (oftentimes) well thought out reactions from readers who have strong feelings and opinions. Heck, it's even important to be exposed to the sometimes ignorant and antagonistic views of the public and be able to identify them as such.

And write your own letter to the editor. Participate in the conversation when you feel you can. Practice articulating your thoughts and involving yourself in the debate. Not just for college admissions and the essay, but for everything after. 

College Essays about $$$ Featured in the NYTimes

The NYTimes has rerun its application essay contest, Students and Money, and has published a few essays that they liked. 

Read them here.

I have to say, they are all great. But my favorite line was the ending of the fourth one, about her mother's hands. That sentence is really quite lovely, and a surprise, both in terms of meaning and rhythm.

Because that essay was one of my favorites, I'll do an analysis of the entire essay's structure below and see if we can reveal the skeleton, which you can try to use as an exercise when writing your own. :) Notice especially, how tight the essay is, and how well the theme of "hands" is integrated frequently throughout. 

Paragraph A: Introduction of Subject (Intro also serves as a small mirror of the larger essay's structure) 

  1. Using synechdoche / figurative language to introduce the subject of the essay and also the subject's relationship/function to the writer.
  2. Another sentence full of sensory language that serves to further add detail about the subject that is relevant to moving along the essay's topic (the fact that the mother works in a kitchen hints at her labor-intensive work).
  3. A sentence that connects thematically to the paragraph (tears) but reveals the conflict/change to come.

Paragraph B: Introduction of Problem

  1. Reason for problem
  2. Restating problem in a different, also sensory way, using technique used in A1, via the theme of "hands" and the same figurative language technique.
  3. Sensory detail, extension of problem via hands imagery.

Paragraph C: Effect of the Problem - Conflict

  1. Effect of problem on writer (with a positive bent).
  2. Effect of problem on writer (with a different, more negative bent).
  3. Extension, with more detail - an example of why the writer was affected negatively.
  4. Another example.
  5. Larger view of the problem; rephrasing the problem as not a problem, viewing the situation with understanding and perspective.

Paragraph D: Restatement 

  1. Summary of the effect of the problem - via theme of "hands."
  2. Larger analysis of the problem in relation to society / America.

Paragraph E: Crisis & Resolution

  1. Setting up the crisis with specifics of time/place. Introducing the problem.
  2. Continuance of the action - building tension. Expanding action signals its significance.
  3. Action, calling back to previous ideas (strong woman brought to weakness)
  4. Action, hint at the cause of the crisis (phone), another reference to the theme (fist/hands).
  5. Revelation of cause.
  6. Reaction to understanding the cause.
  7. Reaction to cause, marking growth and change both in time and in action. Appeals to emotions.
  8. Effect of reaction. Appeals to emotions.
  9. Summary of change that occurred.
  10. Summary of growth that inspired the change. 
  11. Thematic understanding based on the problem, crisis, & resolution, stated through the imagery of the theme, hands. 

Why I Love Working on the Essay

I've worked with students applying to boarding school, university, even business and med school. I've done everything from test prep to admissions consulting to school tour planning. But these days I am fortunate enough to specialize in the the part of the admissions process I love the most: the personal essay. 

What that means is that I help students to do three things: 

  1. Brainstorm essay topics
  2. Decide on the right narrative structure
  3. Edit language and style as needed

The real work, I always say, is in the first two steps. The third is a piece of cake once you have the first two.


It's almost every other student who comes to me with their head down, mumbling the phrase "I have nothing to write about. I'm so boring." I get excited when a student tells me this. Because I know with 100% certainty that by the time we're done, they'll have an essay that is definitely not boring.

The most enjoyable part of the process of helping a student with the college essay is getting to know them. If a student has no idea what to write about, my first job is to ask him leading questions and have him do exercises to break through the old ways he is thinking about himself to unearth the really unique and awesome things and moments in his life. Everyone is unique. I know that's a cliche, but what's cool is that it's really true. And once we know what possible topics and angles the student can use for a great personal essay, we can move on to finding the best way to lay it out. Sometimes step 1 takes a while - a few meetings even. But it is the most important part. Figuring out potential topics and stories are the foundations upon which the essay can be built!


Will the essay be told chronologically start to finish? Will it be told backwards? Will it be told as an action tale, or will it have lots of exposition? How about a graphic novel-type essay? Will there be an overarching message depicted through multiple smaller ideas or stories? Will it utilize a frame narrative? There are endless choices for how one can organize and move meaning through an essay. Depending on the topic, the story involved, and the theme, the student and I will determine what narrative structure(s) might work best. After this phase, students may write a few essays with different topics, and they may even try a few different structures for each topic before deciding which works best. That leads us to phase 3. 


Once the essay topic, theme, and structure are decided, the writing is the easy part! I don't get too involved, since the student has to write out the essay drafts. I do some editing during revisions to enhance language, tension, momentum, etc. But I am very adamant that the student's original style remain intact. That is a very important element to the essay as well, and I wouldn't bulldoze over it for the world. The editing phase is the kind of editing your English teacher may give you on your essay. Except I will spend a lot more time and detail on it. This phase is fun for me since I get to do some more traditional writing coaching, helping students understand why word choice, flow, and sentence structure are so important.


I've been doing this work for 6 years, and it never gets old. Each young person comes to me with a wealth of interesting experiences, ideas, habits, preferences, and hobbies. I get to hear about those things, and then I get to help shape them into a piece of wonderful creative non-fiction. I am a writer at heart, and this process is really fun for me.

But the best part about working on the personal essay is that it's really an uplifting, positive process. The essay asks what is special about you? and the student and I meet to discuss and work on that question, sometimes for weeks or months on end.  The admissions rat race is rigorous, tough, and riddled with challenges and expectations that often produce insecurities and doubts. The essay is really a chance for a student to take a good look at him or herself and feel pride and self-worth in who he or she has become. I get to help awesome human beings see the ways in which they are awesome, even ways they didn't fully realize. And the student walks away feeling, hey, I'm pretty cool, and I've got a pretty cool way of expressing that. If that's not something to enjoy, I don't know what is.