#062: Michelle Hiskey on Helping College Applicants Write Their Essays

Michelle Hiskey doesn’t have a traditional freelance writing business.

For one, she has a full-time job. So she works her freelance work on the side.

Also, her clients are NOT the traditional businesses and nonprofits many of us work with.

Instead, they’re high school students who need help writing their college application essay.

In this interview, Michelle explains what this type of writing is all about. What’s involved. What she charges. How she approaches the work. And what type of writer this specialty is well suited for.

She also talks about how she’s giving back to her community in a creative and meaningful way.

This is an inspiring and fascinating discussion — perfect if you’re exploring different ideas or business models.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes or on Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Tell us about yourself

Michelle is a freelance writer who also works full time as a senior editor at Emory University in Atlanta. Until 2008, she worked as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Tell us about your freelance business helping high school seniors with their college application essays

A friend asked Michelle to help his daughter with her college application essays. Michelle discovered there’s a market for this kind of service and that she loves working with teenagers.

College admission essays are an important deciding factor in whether students get admitted or not.

These essays require a different kind of writing than most high school writing. Students have to show what they’re made of and distinguish themselves from the pack.

How much are you allowed to help students with these essays?

It’s their essay. You can’t ghost write it for them. You can only coach them through the decisions they have to make as they write it.

Michelle compares her role to that of a sports coach or tutor. Students have to do the work and final decisions are up to them.

What essay questions are on the application?

Today, most colleges require applicants to fill out a Common Application or “Common App.” The Common App requires a 650-word essay that the student composes in response to one of five “prompts.”

For 2014-2015, the five prompts are:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

(In addition, individual universities may require supplemental essays. )

Often students have something they want to write about, but they aren’t sure how to fit it into the questions. Michelle helps them map their essay into a narrative structure that grabs the readers’ attention.

Walk us through a typical engagement

Michelle gets most of her clients through word of mouth. When she gets an inquiry, she sends a description of her service, her pricing and a questionnaire. She’ll ask about timelines, learning styles and possible topics.

Michelle then sets up a one-hour interview to see if she and the student click.

If the student wants to continue, what are the next steps?

Michelle meets with the student again for an hour. She listens to the student talk about him/herself and looks for moments when the student is excited. All students have interesting lives; they just don’t see it that way.

Michelle charges $75 per hour, a rate comparable to a high-end tutor.

Do you continue to meet with the student in person? Or over the phone?

After the first meetings, Michelle and the student usually communicate online, using Google Docs. She focuses much of her coaching on helping students see the big picture and pull out the strongest story about themselves.

These students are on the threshold of adulthood. Michelle tries to help them realize they have the tools within them to move on. It’s not just about writing.

A good writing coach can help college applicants uncover their own stories.

What type of writer would do well with this kind of service?

You have to be patient—teenagers often leave things to the last minute.

You have to be a good listener, honest and able to negotiate with parents. You have to be able to communicate directly.

You can’t line edit. You can’t just say, “This is how I would write it.” You have to give concrete feedback. You can only suggest, not tell them what to do.

You’re donating a portion of your profits from this work to a nonprofit. Tell us about that

Michelle donates a percentage to VOX Teen Communications, an Atlanta-based nonprofit youth development organization that helps teenagers tell their own stories.

As freelancers and business professionals, we’ve all been mentored by others. Now it’s time to give back.

If people want to pursue this type of writing business, how should they start?

Find a network of high school seniors. Talk to teachers and guidance counselors. Look for after school programs, especially low income, high achiever programs, and volunteer as a writer and editor. This will give you a chance to see if you like this kind of work. It will also generate testimonials you can use if you decide to turn this into a business.

How can listeners learn more about you and VOX Communications?MASTLOGO

VOX Teen Communications: http://www.voxteencommunications.org

Michelle Hiskey’s email: [email protected]