Remember Applying to College? Now It’s Your Kids’ Turn

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I’ve been a writer for three decades—but college essays are a challenge like no other

By Brad Herzog ’90

Nothing quite intimidates like a blank page. I’ve been a freelance writer and author for 30 years, and it’s still a challenge, almost a dare. But over the past few years, as a father, I’ve had a front-row seat to an even more challenging version of that empty canvas: the college application essay.

I watched as my sons, Luke and Jesse, sat down to craft their stories. The task: reveal profound self-reflection and reams of personality while believing that your future hangs in the balance. For many, it’s a bit like dipping a quill into an inkwell filled with angst.

Author Brad Herzog

’Tis the season. Over the next several months, countless young dreamers will be taking stock of themselves and hoping to craft a masterful self-portrait. It’s all part of a gauntlet that I found both fraught and fascinating, every step of the way.

Step 1: The College List

Your child, still trying to figure out their place in the world, is tasked with deciding the parameters of a whole new (and much larger) one by trying to predict their future wants and needs. As much as I tried to convey that no outcome is final, choosing a college sure starts to feel like a life-altering decision.

And it requires myriad smaller choices. As a parent, I could only offer questions. What are you looking for in a school? Specific academic opportunities? Renowned faculty? Diversity? Big-time sports? A small pond, metaphorically?

How about the climate? The location? Is there an improv comedy troupe? A brand-new film study center? An Ultimate Frisbee team?

In my case, my sons primarily gravitated toward small liberal arts schools, mostly in New England. But we live in California. Clearly, our little birds were going to fly, and fly far.

Step 2: The Tours

I meticulously planned a trip out East with each son. But no matter how well-conceived, college tours are at the mercy of random circumstances—the time of day or year, the weather, the dining hall cuisine, even (perhaps especially) the luck-of-the-draw tour guide.

As much as I tried to convey that no outcome is final, choosing a college sure starts to feel like a life-altering decision.

Jesse and I experienced a too-quiet low-talker at Middlebury and a dose of welcome informality at Hamilton. Luke and I encountered an over-the-top enthusiast at Brown and a devastatingly handsome middle-aged fellow—yours truly—at Cornell.

But my (and my wife’s) alma mater was the last of nine schools we visited. It’s harder to be impressed when you’re exhausted. Sorry, Big Red.

Step 3: The Choice

Educated guesses and hot takes translate into personal rankings and cringey terms like “reach” schools and “safety” schools. (Yeah, I never liked that hockey chant.)

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In the era of typewriters and mailed applications, a handful of possibilities used to seem like plenty. But in these digital days, application numbers have skyrocketed—thus admissions percentages have plummeted. So the decision involves as much strategy as instinct.

Did I stay out of it completely? Sort of.

A couple of colleges seemed like excellent fits. So Luke and I just happened to arrive at the idyllic Amherst campus during the afternoon magic hour in peak-foliage mid-October. And when Jesse and I visited Wesleyan, we happened to stay at a nicer-than-usual hotel, right near campus.

Call it passive influence. I won’t say where they wound up applying early decision, but the schools rhyme with “Blamherst” and “Schmeslyan.”

Brad and Amy Herzog with son Jesse in his freshman dorm room
The Herzogs get son Jesse settled in for his first year at ... Wesleyan!

Step 4: The Applications

You’ve spent years becoming a person of breadth and complexity; now package yourself into a neat bundle. The essays are the heart of that package, including the occasional quirky, school-specific supplement (i.e., University of Chicago: share a palindrome in any language and give it a backstory).

How do you capture your essence in a few hundred words? How do you stand out in a field of standouts? What about you is memorable, amusing, intriguing?

I’ve seen students struggle mightily with the task, so I’ve added “writing coach” to my resume. Having learned over three decades that a great story is simply a good idea well-expressed, I’ve decided to help students tell their tales.

Brad and Amy Herzog in front of a waterfall as college students
Brad and future wife Amy at Buttermilk Falls.

Use a strong voice, I say. But be vulnerable. Or self-deprecating. Or downright funny.

Dive right in with a great opening line (“I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks …”). Don’t be afraid to geek out about your passions, whether it’s physics or forensics, animals or anime, cupcakes or kombucha.

Yes, it’s true that everyone has the potential for success and happiness wherever they land. The one constant is the mindset of the student—and I’ve discovered that a remarkable thing can happen amid an applicant’s self-analysis.

They suddenly realize that, actually, they are unique. They do have stories to tell. They’re worthy.

In other words, I’ve found that these students—my sons included—find themselves. And just in time.

Brad Herzog '90 majored in psychology in CALS. He is the author of more than 50 books, including dozens of children's books and a collection of four U.S. travel memoirs, as well as scores of stories for Cornell Alumni Magazine, where he was a contributing editor for more than two decades. He and wife Amy Hillsberg Herzog ’91 live in northern California.

All images in this story provided.

Published September 6, 2022


  1. Rich Fontaine, Class of 1986

    Congrats on navigating the process with successful outcomes. I went through the same recently with my two sons and quickly recognized how much more challenging it is today than when we went through it.

    I’ve always enjoyed your writing in CAU and other media outlets over the years. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Sarah

    Dear Brad, I am going to use your article to explain to my high schooler the essence of the college application essay. You captured it all so well. Thank you for your humor and sharing this!

  3. michael katz, Class of 1964

    So Brad, did u help your sons with the essays or not? Or would Amherst and Wesleyan be aghast with your answer?
    And how relevant were the essays in their acceptances? Any thoughts?
    michael katz
    mill valley, ca

    • Brad Herzog, Class of 1990

      Hard to say how much the essays were vital or not. It depends, I suppose, on the strength of the rest of the application. I just think a story that leaves a reader liking the applicant or impressed at the insight or appreciating the humor… seems like it can only improve chances. My guys didn’t need too much help:

  4. Nancy Goldberg, Class of 1957

    So happy to hear that you are working with students on college applications. It’s so important. I have been doing that for over 50 yrs. My best to you and your family. Love, Nancy

    • Brad Herzog, Class of 1990

      Hi Nancy! Didn’t realize you’ve done that for so long. Good for you! I hope you and the family are well, too.

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