Image courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle Image courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle
By Hannah Howard



When Yelena and I were at Columbia together, I had no idea she was such a big deal. Seven years later (gasp!), I know Yelena is a really big deal. And now she’s the “Admissions Guru,” New York’s application essay whisperer who will shape, mold, and prod words into beautiful perfection and take a ton of stress out of the super stressful admissions process while she’s at it. My chat with Yelena:

 

Hannah: What inspired you to start The Admissions Guru?

Yelena: My one claim to fame happened when I was 17-years-old. (I peaked early). My college admissions essay beat out 40,000+ submissions to win a $100,000 essay contest run by Campbell’s Soup. That one essay paid for Columbia University—and helped me find my calling. In my Russian-Jewish immigrant shtetl within San Francisco, I became the unofficial admissions guru and offered free editing and counseling to family & friends. Ten years of professional writing & editing later, I decided to expand my services into a national business.

Hannah: What makes a great (admissions) essay?

Yelena: Something totally real and unpretentious. Admissions officers want to get know the real you apart from a dizzying algorithm of numbers, extracurricular hours, and GPAs. Give them a slice of life that reveals who you are instead of something fake that you think sounds good. I wrote about cooking with my grandma—so simple it’s almost cliche. But I used that anecdote to explore my immigrant identity and show what I’ve overcome.

Hannah: Why pro bono? Tell us about your buy one/give one program.

Yelena: For every paid essay I edit, I donate one free to an under-served student. When I was in high school, I couldn’t afford to pay for tutoring, so I sympathize with determined kids who are at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier counterparts. I recognize that private services like mine tend to exacerbate the poverty and class divide, so this is my tiny way of helping bridge that gap.

Hannah: What advantages and challenges do NYC applicants have in the application process?

Yelena: I feel for NYC kids. Could there be any more competition? It sometimes feels like that word was invented here. Services like mine even exist for getting kids into nursery school! There are plenty of perks, though, like growing up in such a diverse, multicultural city full of unique opportunities to develop and find yourself. Kids here grow up fast and that maturity is reflected in their applications. And in terms of education and internships, there’s nowhere better.

Hannah: What’s your favorite part of the application process?

Yelena: Helping a student discover his or her voice and tell his or her story. Even non-writers get inspired and empowered.

Hannah: What’s the most painful?

Yelena: Watching students make common mistakes, like treating the admissions essay as an academic paper and coming off as stiff and fake. Or writing it like a second resume by listing every single bragging point instead of choosing one passion to focus on and digging into why that made them who they are today.

Hannah: Should we all freak out about getting in?

Yelena: I hope not! My mission is to take the stress out of the process by being your personalized coach. I remember how freaked out I was senior year and how much pressure I felt to get in. I still cringe when I think about it. I literally banished the TV from my room because I couldn’t afford any distractions. (I have a major early 2000’s culture gap to this day). And because more people are applying to college than ever before, it’s gotten even harder and more stressful. It’s a terrible thing students have to go through.

Hannah: Final words of essay wisdom?

Yelena: One of my favorite resources for this topic is former admissions officer Harry Bauld and his book On Writing the College Application Essay. My English teacher Mr. Poirier had a quote from the book posted on our classroom wall that said, “Write Now. Revise Later.” I live by that mantra to this day. Believe it or not, even professional writers have writer’s block. More than you think. The coolest thing about the writing process is that once we let our judgy subconscious take a breather, something miraculous happens on the page. But it takes time to get there. No matter how good or bad of a writer you think you are, start early. Most students go through multiple drafts before finding the right topic or hitting the right tone. Starting the summer before senior year, for example, gives you time to figure that out sans nervous breakdown.