As students struggle to write the perfect college admissions essay this fall, San Mateo’s Elizabeth Stone hopes to help give them an extra boost with her new book.
Stone, 54, wrote “The Better College Essay: Fitting In and Standing Out” not for students applying to college, but for their mentors seeking help in how to best guide them in writing a solid essay. She calls her method for helping young writers, “editing without a pen.”
“It’s about helping them write essays without writing it for them,” said Stone. “How do you get a student to write a better essay without touching it? It’s about talking a student through a lot of ideas and understanding what their perspective is on things.”
With a Ph.D. in special education from University of California at Berkeley, Stone started her career as a research psychologist and taught child and adolescent development. Now, she is the executive director of Campanile, a group that hosts college tours, counseling for college admissions and test prep services.
The book, Stone’s second, deals with some of the deep-rooted reasons it’s hard for teens to write a college admissions essay. She notes the essay is really important because it’s the student’s one chance to let the admissions officer hear his or her voice. The essay may be the defining piece if test scores, grades, class rank, rigor of coursework, excellent recommendation letters, leadership and extracurricular activities are all similar, she said.
“It’s not a grammar exercise,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of students need a mentor to help them. The level of introspection adolescents have is not up to the requirements colleges have. Developmentally, they are not there yet.”
Stone, who has 19- and 22-year-old daughters who attend Stanford University, notes most teens haven’t been able to think about their experiences at that sophisticated of a level. She compares the work mentors do to therapy, in which therapists get their patients to reflect and will challenge what patients say. Like that, she wants mentors to help students think about what they’re writing about in a different way. She took her own advice and found herself a mentor for writing the book.
“For me, I worked with a mentor for getting my book started,” she said. “There was a lot of talking about what I wanted my book to be about. I had a wonderful teacher, Ann Zimmerman from Stanford, who helped me conceptualize it.”
Although Stone has written more than 80 articles on higher education, this is her first book she’s authored on her own. She co-authored another book, but said authoring her own book was much more personal.
“It doesn’t take on such a personal story (when you co-author),” she said. “When you’re writing a book on your own, there’s a lot of you in the book. There’s a lot of your own process.”
The book took her about 20 months and the biggest challenge in writing it was to figure out what to write about. She said she wrote everywhere and anywhere, as she travels to a lot of different colleges.
“When you’re writing a book, your task is to deconstruct what that problem is,” she said. “Once you have that road map, dividing the book is not very difficult.”
Born in San Francisco, Stone grew up with parents who were high school English teachers.
“I grew up in a household where writing was really valued and important,” she said. “Storytelling was really valued and important and has a lot to do with my interest in this particular field. This is the part of the college app that kids really struggle with and the essay can be a real roadblock for kids going to private colleges.”
She is currently thinking of another book to write at the moment, she said.
Stone will be speaking at San Mateo Main Library’s Oak Room, 55 W. Third Ave. in San Mateo from 6 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10 about the book. For more on the book, go to campanile.us/about/the-better-college-essay. The book is shipping out this month.
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