How to “Ace the Essay” – Interview with Valerie Conte-Mesquita

Just in time for college application season! We had an eye-opening interview with the dynamic and radically authentic, Valerie Conte-Mesquita, Ridgefield native and founder of “Ace the Essay”. Her workshops, coming this month to Ridgefield, are unique in their approach to writing the college essay.

With her accomplished background in both marketing and writing, she’s designed her college essay coaching program to do a lot more than help students write. She’s on a mission to help teenagers gain confidence and love for who they are today and who they are on the road to becoming. And, similar to Valerie, her program embodies a lot of heart and humor. Read on as she shares her winning formula and tips with parents.

Why is the college essay so important as students apply to colleges of their choice?

Essays are critical to college review boards because until there’s an essay, the application is mostly just data. The essay is where a student really comes to life. It is the opportunity to showcase the human behind the application and to reflect their personality, values, and goals.  Additionally, it helps the colleges assess things like: Can they succeed at our college? What can this student add to our campus/program?

What weight does the essay hold in the application mix?

According to CollegeVine, the virtual platform that helps students with the admissions process, essays account for 25% of a student’s overall application. In fact, the essay holds more weight than grades and coursework (20%), test scores (15%), and recommendations and interviews (10%).

Why is writing the essay so challenging for students?

First off, writing is difficult for almost anyone, including published authors. For students it’s even harder because up until this point, they’ve mostly only had experience writing academically. They really haven’t flexed their “personal narrative” muscles. They don’t have much experience reflecting on pivotal moments in their life or thinking critically about how something made them feel. Colleges are looking to uncover what makes them unique, and they want to learn something personal about them. 

For many teens, the voice they use in their essays are their parent’s or counselor’s. But college review boards are highly attuned at deciphering “parent/counselor speak” from “teenager speak”. My program helps them find their own voice, which is the only voice the colleges want to hear in the essay.

Tell us about the college essay writing workshops coming to Ridgefield this October.

There are many students who still haven’t nailed down their essays for this application season. I want to offer a super easy way for students to get what they need in the timeframe they need, and at a cost they can afford. I’m offering nine workshops all before year-end. The workshops are 3-hours long, and only $299. Some are being held at First Congregational Church in Ridgefield, others at Hotel Zero in Danbury.  

Workshops are classroom style, and in person. We walk through several discovery exercises for personal brand, authentic voice, story topics, as well as literary examples and writing strategies for craft. I also provide tools and resources for completing their essays on their own. 

Ace the Essay College Writing Workshops Ridgefield CT

Where and when will the workshops be held?

Workshops held at the First Congregational Church in Ridgefield will be held on the following dates and times:

  • October 14, 1pm to 4pm
  • October 21, 1pm to 4pm
  • October 28, 1pm to 4pm  
  • November 18, 1pm to 4pm  
  • December 9, 1pm to 4pm

Workshops held at Hotel Zero Danbury will be held on the following dates and times:

  • November 11, 9am to 12pm
  • November 11, 2pm to 5pm
  • December 2, 9am to 12pm
  • December 2, 2pm to 5pm

Registration is required to attend a workshop. Register here

How did you come up with Ace the Essay, and how has your background led you here?

It all came to be when my niece asked me to help her with her college essay for med school. Everything I had done in marketing for the past 25 years for Fortune 250 companies married beautifully with the literary training I received during my undergraduate and graduate studies in Comparative Literature and Creative Non-Fiction. It was the perfect use of my talents. My niece couldn’t believe the journey I took her on, and the impact I made on her essay. And for me, oh my goodness…to see someone I love gain the insight, the words, and the confidence…it was like fireworks. I knew I had something very special that I wanted to share with others like her. 

Ace the Essay College Workshop Ridgefield CT

How is your approach different?

For one, I’m not coming at it like a professor or writing tutor, which from what I hear, can be boring. I designed the program to be more aligned with teens. There’s music, superhero origin stories, and fun personal brand exercises. I want them to feel empowered and energized.

The marketing aspects I include are there to help them learn more about themselves. Marketing is all about knowing your value, knowing how to stand out from others, and learning how to make an emotional connection with your audience. Three critical aspects I believe each applicant is trying to do with their essay.

The icing on the cake is that students who go through the Ace the Essay program will learn a lot about themselves, and will gain confidence, especially in how they speak about their goals and values. This can provide a significant boost to those interviewing as part of the college process, and frankly, well beyond.

What do parents need to know to help their kids navigate the essay process?

First and foremost, parents should understand how stressful and scary the entire college process is for their teenager. There is a very big weight on their shoulders. We all know that high school is already a place where students feel judged and criticized. Well, the college application process feels even more intense because they’re essentially waiting to hear whether or not the college deems them “good enough” or “not good enough”.

Having a parent weighing in on topics, voice, tone, etc. can feel too personal, which is why it’s a good idea to look for programs to give them the support they need. Plus, I think parents have too many jobs as it is and shouldn’t add “help with college essay” to their to-do list.  

How do the workshops differ from your one-on-one coaching services?

Both follow the Ace the Essay process for personal brand discovery, prompt brainstorming, and writing, but it really comes down to how much time is spent with the student, and the cost.

For the workshops, outside of questions during class, there’s no comprehensive essay reviews or one-on-one time with me. However, I do give any student who attends one of my workshops a $200 discount on my 2×2 Essay Package, should they decide they’d like to finalize their essays with me.

Are there any other ways parents can help their kids through the essay process?

Be aware of your limitations. The truth is parents are way too close to offer unbiased opinions. When possible, get a professional to help. I had a student send me an essay and she said, “I don’t want to brag or anything, but it made my dad cry.” Truth be told, the essay was rubbish. I could tell she spent very little time on it, she listed a ton of adjectives about herself like she would on a resume, and frankly, she sounded very full of herself. Three things colleges do not like to see.

Help them understand the perils of using AI or an essay writing service. College review boards are trained to tell when a student’s words are not coming from an authentic place, especially when they’re putting all the pieces of the application together. I would not suggest using them. Even if the student were to get away with it, having someone else or AI write a personal essay is such a disservice to the teen. It reinforces the mindset that they’re not enough or they’re not capable, which simply isn’t true. 

Keep building them up. It’s all about emotional support. This is a scary time. Failing to get into college is all they think about. Talking to them and letting them know that regardless of what acceptance letters come in the mail, they’re still loved, and they can still have a bright future ahead of them, can help them stay grounded, and make it a lot less scary.

Can you share a few college essay writing tips with our readers?

It is not an autobiography. It should be about a pivotal moment in time. It’s okay to feather in detail from your past, but it’s meant to demonstrate who you are presently. Also, make sure the story is about you – not grandma or someone else you love. Grandma may come in as an aspect of your story, but it’s critical that you are at the center of your essay. This is your chance to speak directly to the college about who you are outside of the data they see on your transcript.

Spend extra time on the opening. We all know the importance of first impressions – well, this is that but on steroids. College reviewers are reading thousands of essays. If the first statement doesn’t grab them, and give them a compelling reason to continue reading, they’re not going to. Your goal is to be memorable, so make every word count.  

Show don’t tell. This is really important. If you summarize and write, “I did this, then this, then this…” there’s no opportunity for the reader to experience your story. Showing is about using description, cadence, drama, language, and other techniques to convey emotion, and draw the reader into your story and into your personal experience.

Learn more

To learn more about the college essay writing workshops and consulting, visit AceTheEssay.com.

Thank you to our Sponsor!

We’d like to thank Ace the Essay for sponsoring this story and supporting the Ridgefield community.