Why is the college application essay so difficult?
Some common answers: the stakes are high, students haven't written many personal narratives, and they don't understand what admissions officers are looking for in their essays. However, there’s something else worth considering.
College application essays require students to have perspective on themselves and the ability to convey this perspective to others. Many students -- even the ones who've taken challenging classes, earned perfect grades, aced standardized tests, and made valuable extracurricular contributions -- have trouble getting beyond describing the details of their experiences.
The Beginning of Self-Reflection
This difficulty isn't too surprising if we consider what John Locke pointed out in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He described how children "growing up in a constant attention to outward Sensations, seldom make any considerable Reflection on what passes within them." They're immersed in their experiences, and it's not until they're older that their "Understanding turns inwards upon itself, reflects on its own Operations, and makes them the Object of its own Contemplation."
Many seniors are just starting to make this transition. In fact, for many, it's the application process itself that gets them to start turning inward in this way. It takes time to develop perspective, and if you're trying to do this when you feel like the next four years of your life are on the line, the anxiety only intensifies.
What can we do?
Let's start teaching our students -- even those in 9th, 10th and 11th grades -- how to create a curriculum vitae (CV).
Why a CV and not a resume?
Students can get preoccupied with the external form of resumes (e.g., finding a template and conforming to conventional strategies for organizing activities), and wind up creating documents that don't reflect the significance of their experiences.
Curriculum vitae -- which means "course of life" and conjures up images of a course, a path, a current, a direction -- seems like a more suitable option for them.
5 Phases for Developing a CV
It's important that students start with themselves and, instead of following a form, make a list of all their activities and accomplishments. The list needs no particular order and can include extracurriculars, interesting classes, special projects, self-study, internships, volunteering, work, hobbies, and anything else they would like to include.
They're immersed in what William James described as the "world of concrete personal experiences," which is "multitudinous beyond imagination, muddy . . . and perplexed." Our job is to support them in recording the full range of their experiences without forcing them into premature conclusions or structures.
Now it's time to move beyond the external, superficial details and start writing about what they found exciting, challenging, or significant about each of these experiences.
One of my students held leadership positions in Science Olympiad and Model UN. We discussed what he learned about persistence when he was trying to convince school administrators to keep a popular AP class, and what he discovered about the art of negotiation when making deals with delegates.
"Aha" moments that lead -- almost effortlessly -- to interesting topics for application essays often start happening in this phase, which makes sense because students are starting with themselves and writing "up" from their experiences instead of staring at the essay questions and starting "cold."
This next phase involves looking for connections between activities, developing categories, and deciding how to order experiences. Instead of conforming to the classifications found in resumes, students are creating a structure that emerges out of their own experiences. They're starting to discover how to find meaning and order for themselves.
Let's go back to my student. He created a leadership section, where he described his responsibilities and major projects as well as what he found most significant about them. Then he created a blurb at the top of the section that described how this wide range of leadership experience taught him how to adapt his method of communication to meet the needs of his teammates, delegates, and administrators.
This is a great time to discuss the provisional nature of CVs and how you can move categories around (and even omit some) depending on how you're positioning yourself. Getting students' experiences out on the page is an essential first step -- one which helps them start seeing the larger picture, illuminates their path, and guides them into discovering the connections between their experiences. Many times they don't feel as though they're on a path, but when they look at their experiences, they can see how they're heading in a certain way, and they can think about whether they really want to be on that path or going in a different direction.
Now it's time for students to focus on formatting their CVs, polishing the language they use to describe their experiences, and proofreading.
It's important to review students' CVs and talk with them about what they wish they'd done differently and what they wish they could say they accomplished. CVs are not just records of accomplishments -- they’re springboards for moving students forward into their empowered futures.
What strategies do you use to help students reflect on their experiences and accomplishments? Please share in the comments section below.