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: personal essay

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.  

Big Data, Big Deal

Sometimes articles come out about the differences in admissions between schools that try to make mountains out of molehills. This article is one of them. Apparently, using big data, a website has identified the specific words that Harvard and Stanford like to see in application essays. For example, using "mom" and "dad" is better for Stanford, and "mother" and "father" are better for Harvard. 

First of all, I doubt there is a very significant difference between the acceptance rates based on these words. I don't know what it is, but I can't imagine there is such a stark difference, where words are exclusively favored by one school over the other. Secondly, I just don't think this micro-level of trying to game the system is worth anyone's time! Instead of focusing on the slight advantage one word can give you over the other, focus on the content of the essay at large. I know big data is trendy these days. But in this case, the quality of an essay is still much more important than the quantity of keywords you use. 

Don't waste your time on sensational drivel. Read good books, be a good person, and do what's important to you - that's what will make you stand apart.

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. 

My College Essays

I wrote two college essays. One was about singing in a high school rock band. One was about my mother’s influence on my life. I’ll give you a summary of both essays, and then explain why I chose to write about the two topics. Note, my essays didn’t really have titles - I just created them for this post.

1. Band of Brothers

I was in a funk rock band in high school. I was the singer and lyricist, and there were three others in the band with me - Nathan (bass), Geoff (guitar), and Jason (drums). The essay was thematically about the idea of “brotherhood.”

I thought this was pretty clever, since, well, I’m a girl. But the point that I was trying to get across through my essay was that the friendships that I made at school with my bandmates (who happened to be boys) taught me lessons about friendship, loyalty, teamwork - in a word, brotherhood. But through the group experience, I also learned a lot about myself, about music, and about my own tastes and goals.

2. The Decision that Changed My Life

I wrote another essay about the influence my mother has had on me. The essay centered on the story of her deciding to leave a pretty horrible marriage to raise my sister and me on her own. She made her decision in large part so that my sister and I might see her as a woman who respects herself and stands up for herself, and so that we might also become strong, independent women ourselves one day. The essay included some backstory on my parents’ relationship, some explanation of the trials she went through on her own, analysis of the impact of her action on my life, how I’ve tried to be like her in some ways, and how I’m still learning. My mother is one of the bravest, most independent, smart, and resourceful women I know, and her actions changed the course of my life.


Why did I write these two essays?

I wrote on these topics because they were moments in time when my life (because of my actions or choices, or the actions or choices of someone close to me) could have veered in another direction. I changed and grew so much because I formed a band with three friends. My life took a completely different path when my mother left Korea and her marriage to raise us on her own. 

There are moments like these in every person’s life. They can be big or small, dramatic or quiet. They may be experiences of intense joy and optimism, or they may be periods of immense doubt and challenge. If you were to try to come up with these moments for yourself, try to visualize your life as a straight line that begins at the point when you are born. It continues on in a straight and consistent way for some time, maybe months or years or decades, until something happens to you or your family or even your country. Maybe you fall down and hurt yourself; maybe your family moves; maybe you fall in love with a piece of music or a book. At that point, the line bends to a certain degree because you have changed, and it begins to take another path. It continues straight on that path for a while until the next life-defining change occurs. Your job is to identify these junctures, these moments of change. What happened, why, who was involved, and how did you grow as a result? 

In other words, find X: I would be totally different if X hadn't happened.

Obviously, this is just one way of brainstorming subjects for college essays. My essays were two experiences I wanted to write about when I was 18; only later did I try to analyze how I might have gotten to my ideas in general. For a college essay, you can write about anything - your favorite object, a joke you heard once, the way you decorate your room. The options are endless really. But if you’re stuck, trying to think about the “moments of your life” is one way to get started.

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.