#1794 Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps: Crafting a Winning Personal Statement 3rd Edition (2017) Gelb, Alan. New York: Ten Speed Press. 229pp. $14.99. ISBN: 978-0-399-57869-4


Margaret Sumruld

Connect Services

Central New Mexico Community College

Albuquerque, NM

[email protected]


In a sea of similar college applications, a well written essay can set a student apart and can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. Alan Gelb has worked for many years with students as they write their college admissions essays, and has developed his methods into ten easy to follow steps that can help students write strong personal statements, increasing their chances of getting into their dream schools. These steps are outlined in his book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.

Gelb cares less about trying to give admissions officers what applicants think they want to hear, and more about writing an engaging personal statement that causes the reader to take notice and really shows off the student’s personality. That’s not to say that Gelb ignores what colleges look for in application essays. Early in the book he lists some ways in which students often fall flat when writing their essay, such as being too predictable, sentimental, or self-congratulatory. When brainstorming topics, he addresses subjects that may be sensitive or controversial, or that may present the student in a negative light. This third edition also touches on supplemental essays and waitlist letters, and for those he does examine what college admissions officers are looking for and how to meet those expectations. When it comes to the personal statement though, he emphasizes keeping the reader in mind during the writing process as an important part of any writing project. Like any piece of writing, the personal essay should be active, tell a compelling story, and provide insight into the experiences, thoughts, and goals of the writer. Students can only produce strong personal narratives when they dig deep and find the find the topic they are most drawn to.

It is this perspective that makes this book a valuable resource, not just for students applying to college, but for anyone looking to write strong personal narratives. Gelb starts off with prompts that can be used to brainstorm possible essay topics, then probes deeper to find the conflict and theme of the story within that topic. Through each successive draft, Gelb looks at different aspects of the writing and editing process. In the beginning, he focuses on structure, tone, point of view, and tense. As the student moves through the writing process, he recommends severe edits, removing unnecessary words, and critically examining verb, adjective, and adverb choices. He ends with a final polish, in which he identifies many common grammatical and spelling errors which should be corrected, as well as some old fashioned grammatical rules that aren’t worth worrying about. The structure of his ten step process is intuitive and approachable. Gelb understands how hard it can be for students to write personal narrative essays, especially if the student is applying to several schools and needs a different essay for each, but he assures readers that they have a compelling story inside them. His process is designed to bring that story out while maintaining the unique voice of the student. It also gives busy students a structure to their writing process, making it easy to juggle multiple application deadlines and avoid procrastination.

Because he has worked with so many students, Gelb is able to illustrate his writing process and techniques with real student writing. Short writing examples are peppered throughout the book, and an appendix features successive full drafts of real essays, so that readers can see how his process develops initial ideas into the final essays these students ultimately produced and submitted. These examples can help the reader see how his techniques do make the narrative stronger as well as show readers how to apply them to their own writing. Because Gelb’s book is an easy read and is filled with practical information that anyone can immediately begin applying to their writing, it is a great resource, not just for high school students and the people who work with them, but for anyone interested in strengthening their writing.

Posted in: 2017 Book Reviews
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