Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Helping students find their voice

I like to find the origin of circumstance. Going back to the roots of such and then looking from the bottom up gives an understanding of cause and effect.

I've always enjoyed writing and attribute this proclivity to my high school English teacher, Brother Felix. He was a relentless taskmaster and stole a witticism of Mark Twain, insisting, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Brother introduced me to George Orwell's essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It's my guide to writing. Under his tutelage I became a persnickety writer.

For the past 38 years I have been helping my students write the university essay. I sit with them analyzing, editing and restructuring, helping them find their voice.

Currently high school seniors and community college transfers are faced with the often overwhelming task of writing the university admissions essay. Nothing is as burdensome to students as the personal statement, the 650-word essay of the common application.

It's not a method taught in school; it's not a book report, an English paper, nor a diary entry.
Instead, it's a memoir, a first-person narrative that requires the writer to stand outside him or herself and write what they see.

A writer has to believe that they have a story to tell. A good writer finds that story and then looks a bit deeper for the Zen of the experience. That's what you write! You write the Zen! If you don't write the Zen then you are merely writing information.

The college admissions race is both competitive and maddening, and the essay looms like a guillotine waiting to sever the head of whoever submits an imperfect statement. Students often ask if a good essay will really get them accepted.

While no essay will make an unqualified student acceptable, a good essay can help a qualified applicant stand out from the competition. A good essay just might be what turns a “maybe” into a “yes.”

The scariest part of writing is before your begin. You stare at a blank computer screen and come to a screeching halt. Don't blame it on writer's block; it doesn't exist. Until you commit yourself to writing, there's always hesitancy. Jack London said, “You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Writing is hard and often overwhelming. It is hard for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it is hard because no matter how smoothly you try to form your sentences, they invariably tumble out of you, all stiff and angular like a box of bent pipes.

A writer writes by writing. Put the first word down, and then another, and another and soon you have your first paragraph. That's where you begin.

Students must understand that the college essay takes time, preparation and creativity. It's a process of continuous edits.

You are developing art, and artists should never be satisfied. I'm baffled by the attitude of some students who approach the essay as though it were a homework assignment.

The personal statement requires that a writer have a connection with himself or herself. It's about developing a rapport with the reader. You are a unique person.

Find that uniqueness and put it on paper. You will reveal your voice and create a story that is wonderfully compelling. Remember, you are telling your story and exposing who you are as a personality.

In essence, your revealing essay will convince the university to believe they want you because you will build and contribute to the freshman class.

One last thought: The self-help books on writing the college essay are typically useless. However, search for “How to write a Great Statement of Purpose,” by Vince Gotera. It's the best one I've read.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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