Zapping Apathy with College Application Essays

If you want to see college-bound upper-grade students take a writing assignment seriously, help them with their college application essays! Writing college essays as a class assignment provides an authentic audience, extreme personal relevance, and an opportunity for introspection—in other words, all the makings of a meaningful writing experience. Students appreciate the advice and guidance, not to mention receiving academic credit for something they would otherwise be doing on their own.

Without guidance, many students approach college essays in a collaborative fashion, which isn’t a particularly good idea when they’re trying to set themselves apart from other applicants. They ask their friends, “What are you writing about?” Then the pressures of conformity set in, and they end up writing formulaic, predictable essays that echo themes and even the events discussed in the admission essays of their pals.

Although well-intentioned, parents are also not always the best advisers when it comes to these essays. It’s completely understandable, but parents tend to see these essays as the time to talk about the activities that they have been “sponsoring” since childhood: “I paid for all those years of ballet/riding/skating lessons, and you are going to by golly write about them!” Those activities might be good topics for the college essay, but it’s not automatic.

The first step in teaching college application essays is to focus on the concept of audience. Emphasize to your students that their essays need to be unique. Help them see college admission officers as actual human beings who might be reading their essay as the 49th file of the day, and the last one before lunch. How can they write engagingly with this audience in mind? This video From The College of William and Mary can be useful to help students shift their thinking about who will be reading their essays.

Many students do not feel like their lives have been exciting enough to generate a unique college application essay. Pshaw! One student told me, “My suburban life has been nothing but boring. I was smuggled out of Poland as a baby and nothing exciting has happened since!” Needless to say, she ended up writing a dramatic and important college essay.

I help students zero in on a unique, personal topic by asking them to consider their lives’ most meaningful moments and the broad themes of their lives’ narrative. For the meaningful moments, students can simply draw a line with an arrow on both ends to form a timeline. Then they add the dates and events that they consider formative. Be sure to suggest that some important events may have occurred before they were born. For example, events that affected their parents may have set in motion important influences on individual students. For the broader themes, I suggest playing around with 6-word memoirs. I wrote about that in a previous blog post.

After students have considered their lives from these macro and micro perspectives, it’s a good idea to share some successful models from previous students. Some excellent examples are available in Chapter 11 of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). If you haven’t already started a collection from your previous classes, be sure to start this year! These models can show students various ways of opening, organizing, and presenting college essays.

As students set off to create their individual, unique, personal college essays, please be sure they have these big ideas in mind:
• Use the essay as the opportunity to spotlight something that isn’t obvious from the other materials in a student’s application file.
• Show instead of tell, especially when writing about emotions. Describe the event and situations, but don’t tell readers how the writer felt. Show details, and the emotional impact will follow.
• Write in a sincere voice—not too understated and definitely not arrogant.
• The essay should reveal how the writer’s heart and mind work.

You may ask students to bring in drafts of their essays for peer review. This is a good idea, but consider asking students to practice thinking about their audience by looking at each other’s drafts through the eyes of a college admissions officer: Based on the essay, do you have a favorable opinion of the candidate? Why or why not? What concerns you about this candidate? Questions like these can then be followed by talking about the details that were most compelling, and any unclear sentences or phrases. As always, the writer should consider this feedback open-mindedly, but each writer has the right to accept or reject any suggestions as they craft subsequent drafts.

Students writing college application essays are frequently concerned about word count. Some colleges request essays of 250, 300, or 500 words. Here’s my advice to students about wrestling with word count: Write it big. Then revise to fit the word count. Students will frequently write a brief draft, check the word count, then add a little more, gradually sneaking up on the word count. This tends to result in weak, tentative writing.

If, on the other hand, a student writes the essay boldly, thoroughly describing everything and showing how his heart and mind works, without too much regard for length, the result is likely to be stronger writing with better verbs and description. Of course, it will be too long, but we can help with that!

Most writers have a hard time discarding words that they have labored to bring into existence. Students are no different. During this past week I’ve said to at least a dozen students, “I’m going to do some surgery here. I’m not making your writing better; I’m making it shorter.” They understand.

When editing student writing for word count, look for repeated ideas, extra adjectives, passages that can be easily lifted without affecting the overall structure or message, and any use of very or really. (I tell students that if they are using very or really, the next word probably needs to be stronger.)

For example, here is Jenny D.’s first draft that came in a little too long:

Out of all my extracurricular activities and clubs, Peer Ministry through my church has given me the greatest sense of fulfillment. I have loved building relationships with the kids by helping them with problems and answering any questions they may have. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will all be worth it.

The decision to become a peer minister myself was not a hard one because I had already gone through the two year program which prepares students to make the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. I felt by being in religion classes with older peers aiding the class that I was truly able to connect with the material and the rest of my classmates. Part of the reason why I chose to become a teen leader was to help other students get the most out of the class. When the students have questions about the Confirmation ceremony or about the sacrament in general, I am always there to help them as much as I can. I am very glad I have had great opportunities such as this one to show me that helping others is just as important as helping yourself.

By being there for the students and helping them it gave me a sense of accomplishment and was very gratifying. In return though, the students received advice from an experienced peer and felt comfortable talking to someone who could relate to them.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. One boy in my class started attending the class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is truly “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I finally saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class.

I hope that the students get the amazing experience that I did when I went through the program.

Jenny is obviously a good writer and a thoughtful person with relevant experiences. These facts come through pretty well in this draft. But at 514 words, it’s about 40% over the school’s required word count of 300. So we went to work on it, taking out any repetitive material, and focusing on one idea. We left in two specific situations emphasizing Jenny’s main idea that the most rewarding aspect of teaching is helping people. We cut the sentences that told about emotions and focused on the details that revealed those emotions. We made sure the beginning and ending were strong. This final version is exactly 300 words:

I love building relationships with people by helping them with problems and answering their questions. Out of all my extracurricular activities, my church’s peer ministry provides the greatest sense of fulfillment by allowing me to make a difference in the lives of my classes.

One day during school last year a girl from my peer ministry class looked distressed in the hallway, so I approached her and asked what was wrong and if I could do anything to help. She told me her grandmother had passed away unexpectedly and she just needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Listening to and supporting my student in that moment made our relationship grow. Another student started attending our class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class. I kept in touch with the kids in my class throughout the summer and now that it has started back up again we are closer than ever.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. Being there for the students and helping them gives me a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will be worth it. Serving my community by being a peer minister at my church has been a great form of service for learning, building relationships, and rediscovering what I love so much about teaching.

Helping students with college essays is one of my most gratifying activities of the school year. Students actually care about their writing. They think deeply and well and try their best to express their most important ideas. They see value in feedback, editing, and revision. The “reward” is not a grade but an intrinsically satisfying, powerful piece of writing and—hopefully–college admission.

If you’re working with younger students, plant the idea of college application essays early and often. If a student writes a piece that could morph into a college application essay, write a note saying, “This is a keeper! It could be a college essay in a couple of years!”

Your advice, stories, and input about helping students with college application essays are welcome ! And thanks to Jenny D. for permitting the use of her writing here!

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