AMA & GIVEAWAY: Have your college-essay questions answered by a Harvard-educated professional editor

Since 2013, Neal Adolph Akatsuka (@Gradesaver_Neal) has helped hundreds of high school students craft and refine their college application essays in his role as a senior editor at GradeSaver. GradeSaver was founded in April 1999 by two Harvard undergraduates who spent most of their college years editing each other’s essays. They soon realized that students all around the world would benefit from having someone edit, revise and offer suggestions on their essays. As the company grew, they recruited Harvard students and alumni as editors.

For a short time, Neal is available to answer your most pressing questions about college application essays.

  • Can’t decide what to write about?
  • Not sure how to talk about yourself?
  • Wondering if your angle is clichéd or your first line is catchy?
  • Struggling to write the “why this college” essay for your safety schools?

Check out GradeSaver’s recent article on how to write a college essay Then, ask Neal anything that’s on your mind about college essays.

GIVEAWAY: The first 50 people to ask a question will get a free pdf including six successful college application essays with commentary by the Gradesaver editors.

Neal Adolph Akatsuka earned his BA in Anthropology with a minor in American Studies and certificate in Japanese from the University of Hawai’i. He later graduated with his AM in Social Anthropology and ALM in Digital Media Design from Harvard University. Previously, he served as a teaching fellow, senior tutor, and graduate admissions associate at Harvard, and contributing editor for the Society of Cultural Anthropology. His writing has been published in Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words; Lambda Alpha Journal; Food and Power in Hawai’i: Visions of Food Democracy, among other journals.

CC ADMIN NOTE: This sponsored AMA is intended for the community to ask questions and receive answers from an official CC partner, GradeSaver. Any off-topic discussion will likely be moved to a separate thread.

Any tips on how to write/format a ‘why us’ essay? Is there anything you would absolutely/absolutely not include in it?

How can you make such short essays personal? I am having trouble conveying my thoughts in 200 words.

@user9 The “why us” essay offers the opportunity to not only demonstrate your passion, but also your research and reasoning for attending a particular school.

Whether or not you already discussed your interests and passions in another essay, you should establish what you plan to study and ideally how it relates to your long-term career and/or life goals.

Your research and reasoning should be based on your exploration of the school’s resources - so, at the very least, take the time to explore its website, but ideally talk to current students or alumni.

In terms of format, if you are having trouble getting started, I recommend first discussing the academic resources for your proposed major (e.g., courses, professors, related minors/certificate programs), then expanding to adjacent resources for your academic interests (e.g., research programs, study abroad) and career goals (e.g., internship programs), and finally mentioning extracurricular opportunities (e.g., student organizations, volunteer programs). This format allows you to illustrate the multiple layers of support that the school offers, all of which should be framed in terms of how they help you to reach your academic, career, and/or life goals. Of course, you should adapt this format based on your needs and the specific resources and opportunities available at a school.

As to what to not include, I recommend staying away from generic reasons that undermine the depth of your research and reasoning for choosing a certain school - e.g., school rankings, perceived prestige, school location. That being said, sometimes this advice can be disregarded, based on your particular goals. Maybe the school’s location in a certain city gives you access to particular internship opportunities related to your academic/career/life goals. But even then, the location should be discussed vis-a-vis the internship opportunities, not in terms of the location itself.

@user9 One approach I recommend is to treat your short essay as a vignette. Unlike longer forms of storytelling, vignettes focus less on plot and structure than on imagery and meaning to evoke an idea or moment.

To follow this approach, start by choosing a single topic or experience of significance to you (and to the essay prompt). Based on that topic or experience, select a single idea or moment that captures the core message you would like to communicate to your reader. Then, build a detailed description of the theme or moment based on imagery, meaning, and reflection.

To do so, as you know with only 200 words, you need to choose your words carefully and with intention. So focus on concrete details that engage your reader’s senses (i.e., sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell), and appeal to credibility/ethics, logic/reason, and/or emotion/feelings (i.e., ethos, logos, pathos).

So, for example, say you need to write a short essay about an extracurricular activity and its significance to you. If you happen to love and play the piano, you could write about a moment at a recital when you found your confidence and earned applause from the audience, or when you learned about persistence in the face of a crucial error and silence from the audience. Either way, you would use concrete details like the sound of thundering approval from clapping hands, or deafening silence from awkward glances broken by people shifting in their seats, to place your reader in your shoes (generating empathy) and to carry them to your point (persuading them of your confidence or persistence).

I’m having trouble thinking of any ideas for my common app. For the prompt I was thinking about, how do I pick a moment or lesson I’ve learned in my life and relate it to who I am today?

What are some topics or essay techniques that are clichéd or should be generally avoided due to how common they are?

1 Like

Any tips for international students working on their essays? I personally attend a high school in the US but am considered international since I’m on a visa. Also, some colleges have word limits set at 350 words but say ‘Please respond in about 250 words’. Would the admissions officers take it negatively if essays come out to 340-350 words?

What are some tips for finding a narrative that represents who I am? Even after looking at topics to help me find something mundane that represents who I am, I’m still struggling.

Hi! Thank you for taking the time to help us out!

I was wondering whether “montage” essays are a good idea, in which you gloss over several anecdotes that relate to a common theme in your life. I was thinking about writing about how different “schools” (both K-12 and extracurricular ones) shaped me.

For example, in dance school, at 11 years old, I was the absolute worst dancer because I had only been there for 7 months while my peers were doing that for 7 years. Hence, I decided to become excellent at the only thing we were “equal” at: stretching. For the following months, I dedicated myself to the splits. I was the first one to get them in my class and am, to this day, the best stretcher in my martial arts school for example. That experience gave me the mindset to always try and become the best at what I am currently the worst; the habit of facing my weaknesses head on to turn them into my new comfort zone.

I have other stories from other schools that showcase a few other values. I was thinking of combining 3-4 of them into an essay. Does that sound like a good idea?

How do you go about with “showing and telling” in the essay? My essay doesn’t focus on only one event so I am unable to really show a lot, but explain more. I heard you should show then tell and another advice dismissed the great importance of showing if the telling is used in a way that can actively evoke a certain image with descriptive nouns and verbs.

What is a new skill you would like to learn in college? (50 words) I really want to learn how to cook since I don’t wish to live on instant ramen or hot pockets. Should I write about it on the academic side? Thank you.

What if I can’t identify a single moment that shaped or represents me? Every advice I receive is to focus on a specific event, but it doesn’t work for me and I don’t know how to approach it.

I’ve seen the prompt asking applicants to reflect on a time their perspective was challenged by multiple schools. Do you think this needs to be about a conversation or niche topic? What’s the best way to approach this?

I am an international student, and would like to know how to ensure that the essay I write is culturally correct. My fear is that I may write something which may be considered as insensitive by an admission officer in a US college? Also, can I write about a specific phase in my life and reflect on that? Thank you for your help

Back to the “why us” prompt, all webinars I’ve attended say that do not write things that I’ve seen on their website or brochures because they know this themselves. But wouldn’t research be the only way to find out what they have to offer and research just leads you to what school info is out there?

How do I decide what’s important in an essay? For example, if I have an extracurricular that is focused on education and social justice, how should I balance each aspect in an essay about this extracurricular?

Are there any topics that should be avoided when writing the college essay?

1 Like

@SteadySeas112 and @Samuel_Opoku-Agyeman

Rather than focus on finding a moment, lesson, or narrative, start with who you are and what you want to convey to your reader. When you place yourself under the best light, what about you shines through?

To that end, take time to reflect and consider these questions:

What do you value? What do you believe? What do you care about?

Once you know the answers to these questions, consider the following approaches:

How do you channel these values, beliefs, and/or interests into action? What experience exemplifies such action? When have you felt the most proud of your actions? When have you felt the most conflicted or frustrated?

Alternatively, why do you hold your values, beliefs, and/or interests? Did you cultivate them based on a certain experience or interaction with a certain person? Were they ever challenged by a certain experience or person?

The experience you choose can be anything, though ideally it is truly significant to you. Ultimately, the experience itself is less important than the perspective or approach you analyze the experience with. You want to show how you think about this experience, and why based on your values, beliefs, and/or interests.


I would argue no topics or techniques are off the table. What you talk about, and how you construct your essay, are secondary to how you approach the topic and how the structure of your essay brings your approach to life with clarity and movement.

The real pitfalls to avoid come from a lack of concrete detail, passion, and self-reflection, as well as the use of a perspective without grounding in your personal life and experience.

1 Like