“But my life is so boring!” “Nothing has ever happened to me!”
My students are less than thrilled when I tell them they’ll be writing college application-style essays—those short, personal narratives intended to give admissions and scholarship committees insight into students’ unique qualities.
Like many high school teachers, I help my students prepare for the arduous college admission process by having them write application essays during their junior year. Many students struggle when told to write about themselves, complaining that their lives are ordinary and boring. Without guidance, many will choose to write about the same worn-out subjects: recovering from an injury, winning the big game, or learning how to drive.
Students are surprised to hear that strong application essays often aren’t about universal big moments or extreme situations. Instead, an effective essay often depicts a small moment that offers a unique insight into the student’s experiences, personality, and values. A few simple exercises can help guide students to find novel essay topics.
One strategy to generate topics is to instruct students to label a paper A–Z, and for each letter, they write a word or phrase with which they feel a connection. The connection needs to be substantial; they shouldn’t put “apple” for A solely because they occasionally eat the fruit for lunch. However, if apple picking is a long-standing family tradition, then “apple” could be a good choice.
Most students gravitate toward tangible nouns: people (Amy, your boss at the sub shop), places (your camping trip in Arizona), and things (your first album). Encourage students to consider all parts of speech, including intangible nouns (adventure), adjectives (ambitious), and verbs (to attempt).
After they finish their lists, students pick the three items that are most meaningful, and I ask for volunteers to share their ideas with the class. A peer sharing about tagging along to her mom’s office often reminds other students about their unique first-job experiences; another referencing the value of his sister during their parents’ messy divorce may inspire a student to write about her aunt’s impact on her life.
Another topic-generating exercise is to ask students to imagine that a documentary filmmaker will be making a movie of their life. What unique scenes would appear in the film? They cannot list a scene that would appear in their classmates’ movies unless their scene would offer a unique point of view on the experience.
I encourage students to focus on scenes related to their relationships, such a story about their grandma teaching them how to make pierogis, or their passions, such as a narrative about writing their first Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
Examining Model Texts
The internet is full of sample college application essays, but these often aren’t useful to my students because either they’re written with a level of artistry my students can’t match or they focus on extreme events like climbing Mount Everest. Instead, many of the students’ best ideas are inspired by their peers.
I save excellent essays from previous years and, with the students’ permission, share them with my current classes. Reading a fantastic essay from a peer they can relate to often gives them encouragement in their own pursuit. In my classroom, there are two former students’ essays that I frequently share: one about donning a Speedo for the first time, and another about mulching a family member’s yard. I’ve had many students riff off these topics to create unique and engaging essays. Students are encouraged to write down any ideas inspired by reading models or hearing their friends’ ideas.
Clarifying the Topic
From the brainstorming activities, students should have six to eight ideas. For each idea, students should then ask three questions:
- Is this topic specific to me? Is it one that no one else could write?
- Is there a specific story I can tell?
- Would this story reveal a positive quality about me to a college?
If a student cannot answer yes for each question, that topic should be eliminated. This process helps students narrow their topics to two to three potential ideas. I then conduct a one-to-two-minute individual conference with each student to narrow his or her ideas down to one. During this conference, I focus primarily on whether the student’s topic has specific narrative elements (characters, setting, conflict) and can be told within the confines of a short essay. My final question is always, “What about you will this essay ‘sell’ to an admissions committee?” Our goal is a unique, story-driven essay that illustrates in what way the student would contribute to an academic community.
Picking a good topic doesn’t guarantee a successful college application essay, but it is a crucial first step, and often the most difficult to accomplish. Because of that, teachers can play an important role in setting students up for success.