The Trouble with Boys and College Application Essays

The Trouble with Boys and College Application Essays

When I gave one of my summer college application essay writing boot camps this last weekend in my hometown of Laguna Beach, I had 11 boys and one girl.

As the students showed up, I casually mentioned this gender imbalance to the group and one of the boys quipped: ‘Because boys can’t write.’

I like to think of myself as someone who is gender neutral, and this comment caught me off guard.

My first thought was: That’s hogwash.

I’ve worked with hundreds of students on these dreaded college admissions essays for the last decade, and noticed little difference with the quality of writing between boys and girls.

The variety in the overall writing ranged wildly from awful to brilliant, with most coming in somewhere in the middle. But that disparity had nothing to do with gender, as far as I could tell.

In general, girls often had more confidence in their writing ability coming into the essay writing game than boys, but once most boys landed on a topic they liked and received a little guidance on how to execute their essays, they often aced them.

I reflected for a moment on why my workshop attracted so many young men, and concluded that the problem was not boys and writing.

The issue was well-meaning parents not believing their sons could write and many have a tendency, as with all things college admissions, to panic and overreact.

In fact, two of the boys were high school sophomores! In my opinion, that’s nearly two years too soon to start worrying about these essays.

A couple were juniors, and I guess it didn’t hurt for them to start learning the college application essay writing drill. But I believe the seniors were on the mark, especially since they were the most focused and motivated.

Here are A few tips for boys Writing Essays(and Girls, if they apply)

(Disclaimer: This advice is speaking in very general terms, based on my anecdotal observations and experiences working with boys and girls, and there might be many exceptions. If you certainly are a girl who falls into any of these patterns, these tips totally apply to you, too!)

1. Boys often can have a more difficult time finding topics, at first. The hardest students are those who have not developed many outside interests, and seem to spend most of their free time playing video games. These may be very challenging, though not impossible. You just have to dig deeper. One of my favorite sources of hot topics are summer jobs. (You kids out there starting early; not too late to get one!) (Check out Jobs Can Make Excellent Topics.)

2. The best college application essays are highly personal, in my opinion. Most of the time, it can be harder to persuade the young men I use to open up with me about their feelings and deeper thoughts and ideas. It’s not that they are incapable or don’t have them; it just takes more prodding and even gentle pushing to get them out.discrimination thesis Boys can be as deep of thinkers as girls at this age, and I enjoy that these essays offer an opportunity to explore their personal thoughts, ideas and opinions. (Try Open Up: How to Connect with Pathos.)

3. Boys love action and a good story (which go together)! I have found that once boys understand that the magic bullet of a great essay is an entertaining or interesting story from real-life their life! many of them have a change of attitude. If they can recall one they like, most boys are naturals at crafting them into mini-stories to use to power their essays. This can help you start: How to Write a College App Essay Even if You Think You Can’t Write.

4. Boys are more comfortable breaking the rules. Boys often end up writing the best essays because they have an easier time of letting go of all the English class writing rules, which often included using long words and a ‘voice’ trying to sound smart. Once they learned that the goal was to ‘write more like they talk,’ many boys are off and running with their essays. Learn how to Find Your Essay Voice.

5. Boys gravitate toward sports-related topics. Since many boys have been defined by their sports through playing them and fan culture, many first want to write their essays about sports. Often sports, especially sports injuries and victories, are red-flagged on the cliche list of college application essay topics, it’s worth trying to expand their thinking. Once boys are educated about the pitfalls of sports themes, however, they are typically game to explore other awesome topics. These can help: 5 Top Tips on Finding Topics.

So there. Boys write just as well as girls. And many even better.

Parents can stop worrying about them. It’s great to offer them resources to help them with their writing, but trust that once they know what they need to do most knock it out of the park!

Just like girls!

Good luck!

(One last thought: This misconception that ‘boys can’t write’ seems to be the inverse of the bias against girls in the STEM world: In higher level high school English classes, girls most often were deemed the ‘natural writer’ stars, from what I observed. Yet, at the same time, most of the prescribed literature classics were scribed by men. I think we should work to know, and assert when possible, that all students have potential talent in all fields, regardless of gender, or culture, race, social status, etc.)

What are YOUR thoughts on this? I would love to hear from students, parents, teachers, counselors, whoever has an opinion on boys and writing. Just leave them in the comments below. Thanks!

I received an email from a mom recently inquiring about my tutoring services for her college-bound daughter.

In her email, she included a story about their family history that she thought might make a good topic for an essay. It was mainly about the grandfather’s immigration ‘coming to America’ experiences and the Holocaust.

While it sounded interesting, it didn’t seem that relevant or exciting to me at least for the purposes of an essay that’s supposed to focus mainly on the student.

At the end of her story, the mom ended with this line: ‘My daughter’s response: ‘I read that if your parents think it is a good idea…it probably isn’t!’ LOL!’


Simply that this mom had a sense of humor about her rejected attempts at helping showed me that this mother-daughter team will be fine.

Of course parents want to support their kids. They can’t help it; it’s part of the job.

That funny quote from the daughter isn’t necessarily true, but it’s not that far off.


Because many parents haven’t done their very own homework yet on what makes up a great essay, and especially a stellar topic.

RELATED: Learn What Makes a College Application Essay Great

If her daughter had written her essay all about her grandfather, it would have been a hands-down dud. Above all, these essays need to be almost exclusively about the student.

Other people can play a role in some essays, but only if it had something to do with what the student was trying to showcase about their own life, values and experiences.

Many parents also share another potentially harmful misconception about effective essays and their topics: They think they need to be impressive.

Don’t you want to write about that award you won at the science fair?

Why wouldn’t you include that you are an Eagle Scout?

What about that trip to China where you travelled for a month with your church and built a school for orphans?

Sorry, Mom and Dad. Those are truly impressive feats and experiences, and can play a role in the college admissions game. They simply don’t translate into effective topics for these essays.

Still eager to help? (Hang in there with me now…)

First, spend some time learning what makes a great college essay.

Another excellent way that you can be of help assuming you are on a speaking basis with your kid and they want your help is to brainstorm past experiences with them.

The best essays include real-life experiences, often simple memorable moments, incidents and ‘times,’ from the past that students can share to illustrate what they have learned, how they think, what they value and their unique personality.

This is your big chance. No one knows these often funny, poignant, surprising, heart-breaking, silly, unbelievable, ironic, everyday moments like YOU guys!

If your student is smart, he or she will engage your help at some point in their search for a great topic, especially these life moments from their past.

(Students reading this: Pay attention here. This works for you as well. If you want your parents off your back, throw them a bone: Give them a role. Ask because of their help brainstorming moments from your past. No one knows YOU or those stories better!)

This is your opening to help and in a huge way. These little mini-stories can literally make or break a personal essay.

They often start with: ‘Remember the time you…?’

Before you get too excited, here’s another tip: the most effective stories are not about your kid’s shining moments of success and victory.

In fact, the opposite is true. If you truly want to help, you will help them remember those often mundane moments of ‘times’ when things actually went a bit sideways, went wrong, ended poorly, were embarrassing, and hurt.

RELATED: Learn more about When Your Problem is a Good Thing

Why in the world would your brainy, hard-working, competent, loving kid want to start a college application essay about a simple time when something bad, or challenging, disappointing, or humiliating happened?

Three Reasons Off the Top of My Head

  1. It will be interesting because something happened. When things are rosy, nothing happens and it’s boring. You want to engage those glassy-eyed admissions officers!
  2. It will show your student at a low moment and will help make she or he naturally relatable. We have all been there. Connect with your audience. Likable is good! Etc.
  3. The student can then quickly shift into sharing how they felt (good stuff!), how they handled or managed that problem (which will reveal their personality) and what they learned (you want lots of this in an essay!).

Are we good now?

So do your homework, then wait for an opening. Tread gently. These are not your essays.

If you are lucky enough to have a truly wise kid, chances are at some point they will solicit your help.

Then, JUMP IN!! It can even be fun sitting down together and going through those families stories and memories.

All you need is one !