Coming this spring !
College App Personal Essay (CAPE) Course !
I'm ridiculously excited to join forces with Circe Consulting to run college app personal essay programs for juniors and rising seniors. Along with our summer online synchronous workshops, we'll be launching a DIY course for students that's unlike anything out there!
Package deals for private, public, parochial, online, and home schools, as well as private college counselors.
Contact me here for more info.
The College Applicant Personal Essay
a case for re-naming the college essay
by Jim Joyce and billy lombardo
The three labels most commonly used for the (bear with me) "essay that high school seniors write for their college application" are Common App Essay, College Essay, and Personal Statement.
I don’t like any of them.
The term Common App Essay gets its name from The Common Application, the non-profit organization created to simplify the application process for college candidates. It started with 15 member organizations and now represents something like 900 higher learning institutions. The title describes, in two words, exactly what the function of the essay is; it refers to the writing portion of the Common Application. But it provides no other information about the essay.
College Essay is even less effective in its ability to describe the document. In addition to the use of the phrase for our purposes, here, College Essay also refers to analytical essays written by college students.
As for the final label, I like the personal in Personal Statement, but the word statement in Personal Statement doesn’t quite do it for me. “I stand for justice” and "I'm a cat person" are also personal statements, but those statements in your application to get into the school of your dreams probably won’t tip the scales in your favor.
It will do you good to think of this important document as The College Applicant Personal Essay, because the best of college essays are personal essays.
And because the best of college essays are personal essays, it makes a great deal of sense, at the start of this process, to look at characteristics of the personal essay for guidance.
The following checklist of personal essay characteristics was gleaned from Phillip Lopate’s introduction to his book The Art of the Personal Essay.
All of these elements can (and arguably should) be included in the college essay.
Characteristics of the Personal Essay
______the personal essay has an APPARENT subject and a DEEPER subject
In every good story, there are at least two stories; one is on the surface, and one is submerged.
______the personal essay is intimate (close authorial presence and distance).
Though the college essay is likely to include a story, it is certainly not like the Once upon a time stories of your childhood; it’s personal. No one but you could tell this story.
______the effect of the personal essay is artful, literary, well crafted
Like personal essays, the college essay is included in the genre of creative nonfiction; which is to say, the college essay is nonfiction (it’s true) and it’s creative.
______the voice and tone of the personal essay are conversational
Phillip Lopate says that “Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues with themselves.” The college essay may have elements of the formal, but generally speaking, the tone of the personal statement is meant to be informal, casual, personal.
______the personal essay is not afraid to be emotional
Though there is no requirement that the personal statement be emotional, we are first and foremost emotional beings; our everyday habits are influenced by our emotions. In the admissions officer’s eyes, there’s nothing emotional about your grades, your class rank, your stats; but your essay can go there.
______the personal essay shares a range of emotions
Happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, surprise—the best of essays touch on more than one.
______the personal essay yearns reveal the truth
…even if one of the truths revealed in your college essay is that you’re not perfect.
______the personal essay examines limitation and inconsistency
Limitation and inconsistency are two more truths that the college essay should not be afraid to reveal. Lopate says, Essayists are “intrigued by their limitations,” and they admit things that you’re not always supposed to tell strangers. Cases in point: Eula Biss admits to punching her younger sister in the stomach, Brian Doyle thinks God is sometimes a crook, and Chuck Klosterman sometimes eats napkins.
______the narrator of the personal essay is reliable
Your reliability as an essayist says something about your reliability as a student.
______the personal essay explores what it doesn’t know
Though college essayists often take this an opportunity to tell college what the applicant knows, the often overlooked essay explores a problem that the student doesn’t know how to solve/
______ the personal essay is not afraid to examine the small things in life
Phillip Lopate says “[the personal essay] is writing that “takes a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then brings interest to it.” Sometimes, it is your reflection on the smaller, perhaps unexpected subjects that distinguish you from the rest of the applicant pool.
______ the personal essay leans toward the comic
Comedy isn’t easy to sustain in an essay, but don’t be afraid to dip in and out of it in your personal statement.
______ the personal essay isn’t out to be loved by the reader
This may be a result of the essay, but it’s not the goal. Lopate says “The personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.”
______the personal essay thinks against itself, challenges its own conventional thought
If the essay is an exploration, an examination, a reflection, a search for truth, than it’s very likely not a certainty. It’s okay for it to question, to argue with itself. Let it be a perhaps.
______ the personal essay is flexible in form and style
Though stories may follow a fairly recognizable arc, the essay isn’t expected to. Though it needs to come together by the end, the reader will be okay with some meandering on its way. The same thing may be said of the next characteristic of the personal essay…
_____ the personal essay is digressive, associative
_____ the personal essay tells a good story
Like all good stories, though, we expect it to lead to a grander idea, a loftier purpose, something perhaps even beautiful.
_____ the personal essay is elaborate, explanatory, thorough
Granted, Phillip Lopate wasn’t thinking about essays that have a 650-word limit, but even with that threshold, you’ll be served well if your goal is to produce something elaborate, explanatory, and thorough.
_____ the personal essay is individual and universal
Though the best of college essays are profoundly individual and unique, a worthy essay ought to give the reader “that shiver of self-recognition…which all readers of the personal essay await as a reward.” – Lopate
Jim Joyce is a writer, teacher, illustrator, musician, letter press aficionado, and workshop leader.
billy lombardo is a writer, editor, writing coach, baker, and writing desk maker. He directs college essay workshops and courses for Circe LLC (
founder/instructor at writing pros/e
billy lombardo has taught and coached in the Chicago area, in high schools and universities, online and face-to-face for 35 years. He is the author of four books, The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories, How to Hold a Woman, The Man with Two Arms, and Meanwhile, Roxy Mourns. billy is the founder and editor of Polyphony Lit, a student-run, international literary magazine for high school writers and editors around the world. billy has taught fiction at Illinois Benedictine University, Roosevelt University, the Latin School of Chicago, UCLA's extension program, Global Online Academy, and Northwestern University Summer Writer's Conference. He is the grateful recipient of a residency at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Grant. billy is the 2011 winner of the Nelson Algren Award for his short story, "Clover." He is currently at work on three fiction projects, as well as The House of Fiction, Deconstructed, a book on the craft of fiction for young and new writers.
why choose writing pros/e for your editing, writing, and writing instruction needs?
billy has an extensive history as a writer and writing instructor, and as an editor and managing editor. He's written and edited poetry, short stories, novels, hybrid fiction, nonfiction essays, articles, plays, screen plays, restaurant reviews, op eds, proposals, letters of reference and recommendation, flash fiction, annual appeals, Mayor’s letters, class day speeches, graduation and keynote speeches, wedding vows, business brochures, annual appeals, introductions, interviews, eulogies, blurbs, book reviews, reference letters, recommendation letters, letters to the editor, letters from the editor, web content, mission statements, business descriptions, and a case study for a product designed to detect and analyze arbitrage in ICO's.
editing for the individual
When I was a young writer, I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew I had something going for me, but my writer’s toolbox had two tools in it, a sixteen-ounce hammer and one of those little screwdrivers you might see on a watchmaker’s desk.
When my first story got accepted for publication in a magazine called Cicada, it was edited by a brilliant editor named Debby Vetter who knocked 470 words out of the story (at $.25 per word). Only 30 lines in the entire story were untouched by her pencil.
She told me when cherry trees were ripe in the Midwest. She found two sentences in the same paragraph that ended with the word “night.” She found three appearances of "door" in a paragraph. She found internal rhyme in a sentence that made it sound like a line from a song.
She tracked the number of times I said, "bakery," "garden," "patio," "just," "kind of," "started to," and "began to." She taught me about speaker tags and significant details.
The loss of those 470 words came at a cost to me of $117.50. It was the single most important lesson of my young writing life.
Debby Vetter didn’t help me develop my voice as a writer. She didn’t teach me any new words. She didn’t even need to provide the rationale for her editorial suggestions. But she made me feel like my literary voice mattered, and she taught me to hold myself to a higher standard as an artist. I have Debby Vetter on my shoulder through every editorial endeavor.
Clearly, the work of editors can make a difference in the lives of young writers. The benefits of an editorial education go far beyond the simply service of editing the manuscript. A good editorial education will help you become a deeper reader; ideally, it will help you discover things in literature, on your own. Take it to heart, and a good editorial education will help you become a better writer by constantly challenging you to put precise language to how a piece of literature behaves on paper. Whether your interests are in fiction, poetry, or literary nonfiction, a good editorial education will help you grow in your own development as a writer in any genre.
If precise communication is of value to you, you will not squander the expertise of a good editor. It may be one of the most important things you can do for yourself.
One of the most common editorial requests from organizations is to prepare documents, web content, appeals, and proposals for publication. No one knows the organization better than the organization. Words matter, precision matters, and clarity and accessibility matter. Very often, storytelling, grammar, mechanics, and structure are the job.
It helps to know the subject matter, of course, but if the organization has its experts, the good writer has all the resources they need to get the job done, whether the assignment is about pharmaceutical research, medical procedures, architecture, financial services, an annual appeal for a brand new 501 c 3, arbitrage behavior in ICOs, or new research on insect-born diseases.
editing for the organization
writing for the individual and the organization
Everyone has a story, and one of the great joys of Writing Pros/e is helping people tell their story. The great writer, Flannery O’Connor felt that if we make it through childhood, we’ve had enough experience to write for the rest of our lives.
Whatever the writing task, it’s never me writing the story for the client; it’s merely me helping to tell their story.
Sometimes it means helping them come to better understand elements of the story that are buried beneath the primary narrative. It means helping the client get at the great unsaid—the 95% of the story that churns below the surface.
Other times, it’s a matter of helping the person with the story get started, giving them an idea for structure or point of view. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of listening to them, taking notes, asking questions and follow-up questions, transcribing anecdotes and figuring out the best way to language what for them feels un-languageable.
Whatever the case, it requires a deep understanding of the individual.
"and you need
the right storyteller"
The same is true for the organization. But as with the individual’s story, telling the company story—describing the architecture of the organization, naming and branding new products, solutions, policies, and ideas, communicating with staff and clients about re-organization and personnel, and translating complex topics, data, and research into accessible language—depends on more than just knowledge about the client. It requires a commitment to mission and belief, to the voice, tone, and style of the client.
And you need the right storyteller:
“As a Harvard honors graduate and current chairman of the Great Books Foundation with a lifelong interest in the craft of articulate expression, I regard Billy Lombardo as unquestionably the finest writing instructor my two children (both Ivy League students) were fortunate to study under. From a process standpoint, he provided a methodology and structure that stimulated an effective thought process for thesis conception and development. From the standpoint of substantive editing, his perceptive comments, as both technically and conceptually incisive, significantly advanced the writer’s capability to achieve coherent, concise and original expression. I enthusiastically recommend Billy’s exceptional talents to anyone seeking first-rate writing instruction and editing.”
"Billy transformed my children’s writing. He taught them how to engage a reader as well as the mechanics of writing. Students blossom under Billy’s tutelage as he makes them want to improve for themselves, not just for a grade."
"Billy Lombardo helped me find a way to articulate my voice and ideas by giving me the tools to put my thoughts into clean and precise analytical essays. Part of his ability to push students writing to the next level comes from his deep understanding of craft. He can pick apart any piece of writing and articulate the devices the author uses, or could use, to achieve their desired effect. Billy pushes his students to fall in love with writing and make learning equally fun and rewarding. With his ability to help writers of all learning styles articulate themselves, and methods of adding depth to his student’s analysis, Mr. Lombardo has made a profound impact on me and my classmates, both in terms of our writing and how we approach the world."
"My daughter entered high school without much regard for literature and approached any writing assignment with great trepidation, often sitting in front of a blank screen for hours. After a few weeks of Eva's first semester in Billy's class, I was surprised to see her excited to tackle passage analysis assignments. After two semesters with Billy, Eva's writing skills dramatically improved, earning her high marks on her essays in English and History class. More importantly, her exuberance for literature was undeniable. Eva would often place one of her English novellas on the table and look up with a big smile and say, 'I am so into this reading Billy assigned to us.' Eva and I credit her writing skills to Billy' thoughtful, personalized and spirited instruction. Billy will, undoubtedly, be remembered as 'the teacher who taught Eva how to write.' "
Mr. Lombardo knows how to make the writing process exciting, even when it’s at its most stressful. He worked with me on writing samples for the University of Iowa’s Young Writers’ Studio, and he was a tremendous help in editing my college application essays. I’m a senior in college, and I still keep Mr. Lombardo’s writing advice in mind with all my assignments.
fees for writing, editing
Client provides assignment description, campaign, etc., along with all necessary content/information.
Project may necessitate follow-up questions, conversation, meeting in person if necessary and appropriate.
Ghostwriting with a Heart
Everyone has a story, not everyone writes. I ghost with an ear for your voice, an eye for the truth, and a Heart for your Story.
(contact billy for rates)
fiction, nonfiction manuscripts
* Click Here for an informative description on copy editing vs. developmental editing
Fees depend on job, number of pages
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fees for writing instruction & coaching
the college essay
instruction & coaching
Writing assistance/coaching fees will vary depending on the needs of the client.
Fiction and creative nonfiction projects may vary from idea generation to publication to to working on various features of fiction:
point of view, tense
subtext, narrative threads
(contact billy for hourly rates)
College Essay Coaching from Scratch
• tried and true prompts for
• suggestions for expansion
• commentary on prompts
• suggested essay approaches
(based on prompt responses)
• coaching, editing from discovery
draft, revisions, until final draft
• supplemental essays
(contact billy for hourly rates)
purchase directly from billy (prices include shipping)
"How to Hold a Woman is exquisitely written, real, painful, and true. Billy's talent for depicting the nuances of marriage and family is extraordinary; reading this, one feels as though Alan, Audrey and the boys are your close friends, about whom you somehow know a little more than you should. Billy's understanding of the human heart is profound."
– Elizabeth Crane
"Billy's exquisite book shows us a fractured family the only way it can accurately be shown–through a fractured lens. The sorrow and honesty of this wise book is almost unbearable, but it's literature's best kind of unbearable, built upon a foundation of generosity, heart, and masterful craft."
"A switch pitcher? A guy as good as Seaver right and Koufax lefty? The thought intrigues as does Billy Lombardo's touching and original debut novel."
"Ranks with The Natural as one of the finest baseball novels I've ever read...a breathtaking wonder of a book."
"An intriguing and layered look at that hoary old love triangle–Dad, Son, and the National Pastime...a beguiling tale, with pleasant surprises and just the right mix of affection and cynicism. It understands the game–but just as much, it understands what the game can do to those whose it ensnares."