College Readiness

Teaching the College Essay

Your students can write argumentative essays, but they need additional guidance to produce standout personal narratives.
October 23, 2017
A student and teacher discuss the student’s college essay.
©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

A college application is little more than names and numbers.

The numbers include SAT score, class rank, and GPA. The names include classes taken, sports, clubs, and activities, as well as awards and recognitions. While these elements may give a snapshot of a student’s academic background, there’s little to no soul to that snapshot.

That’s where the essay comes in. It’s an opportunity to humanize an application. It’s a chance for students to shine a light on who they are and what has shaped them. It allows them to show that they’re more than just a transcript—they have an identity.

That’s what makes it so intimidating. When you can write about anything, how do you know what to say? And how do you sum up who you are in one essay?

To complicate matters, most of the essay writing that students do in high school is argumentative writing. A college essay is a personal narrative, and introspection is not in most students’ wheelhouse.

I’ve taught seniors for nearly a decade and have read thousands of college essays. In that time, I’ve heard the same student fears over and over again:

  • “My life has been boring. I don’t have anything worth writing about.”
  • “I know what I want to say. I just don’t know how to say it.”
  • “My essay is a big, hot mess. It’s all over the place, and I don’t know what I’m doing with it.”

Our job is to guide students through the writing process in a way that gives them the courage and confidence to write a college essay they’re proud of.

Three Things to Tell Your Students

1. Just start: The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky believed that “everything starts with a dot.” So many students believe that they need to have the perfect idea and the most amazing first line before they even put pen to paper. Remind them that they don’t need to have a great idea—they just need that first dot. They can start with a bad idea, they can start with a sentence they don’t like, but if they just start, something positive will come out of it.

2. Good essays are often about the simplest things: Have you seen the essay about Costco that helped one student get into five Ivy League schools? It, like the best essays I’ve read over the years, is not about the most extraordinary accomplishments, written in a bombastic tone. It’s about something mundane. But it displays a perceptive and insightful mind in a captivating way. Reassure students that they need not have climbed Mount Everest or invented a water-filtering system for a remote South American village. They just need to share something meaningful and revelatory about their life in an interesting way.

As teachers, we can help them see that even the simplest experiences can matter and that they just need to be insightful about why such an experience was meaningful.

3. It’s all about them... and they’re unique: The three most common essay subjects I’ve seen over the years are the sports injury, the family divorce, and the death of a loved one. There are two potential pitfalls in these types of essays.

First, the primary focus isn’t the person writing the essay—it’s the parents fighting, the physical therapist that rehabbed them, or the grandfather, once strong but now decrepit and weak. Those people are not the ones applying to college. Let students know that if they talk about others, they must do so in the service of revealing something valuable about themselves.

Second, these topics, being frequently used, run the risk of being predictable and clichéd. The essays become generic. Instead of being particular, they are broad and universal because the experiences in them sounds like everyone else’s. If your students choose one of these topics, encourage them to write about it as only they can. Show them how to infuse dialogue, capture the imagery of the moment, and write in a voice that’s authentic to them.

Fear Management

Stephen King believes that the scariest moment for a writer is just before they start. If we can help students get that first dot on the page, assure them that their story is meaningful, and empower them to believe that they are unique, we can take away a lot of that fear.

As teachers, we need to approach the college essay with empathetic ears, listening to our students’ voices to help them capture the best of who they are.