In this era of shameless teenage self-promotion through selfies, Instagram and Snapchat, it is remarkable how much difficulty many high school seniors experience in writing effective college application essays. For the past several months, I have mentored hundreds of high seniors throughout their college application preparation, especially in conceptualizing, writing and revising their college application essays. For the large majority of them, I have had to tell them: "You need to show up more in your essays."
College admissions officers read application essays because they want to know the applicants personally. They want the applicants to share, reflect and stand out. They are looking for what qualities these applicants offer their campuses through personal essays. This requires applicants to promote themselves by sharing unique stories that reveal what they can offer college campuses.
College application essays are often challenging for many teenagers to write because they have not been asked to brag about themselves in authentic autobiographical essays until senior year of high school. So, despite their proclivity for ongoing visual self-expression, they struggle while writing about themselves: The large majority of their first drafts are very vague. They often talk about situations so far in the past that they don't get to who they are today. In addition, they don't include any stories that visually show how they are making a difference in their own lives or in their communities.
In one essay I recently read, an applicant wrote four out of five paragraphs about her grandmother and never mentioned how the teenager had immigrated to the U.S. at age 13 and was involved in a major volunteer effort to benefit other immigrants from her home country. Another first draft focused on the applicant's passion for science but never mentioned how he had spent last summer doing original research at a local university. And yet another talked about his immigrant family's economic challenges, but never mentioned that he had spent last summer packaging meat in a local factory with his dad to help make money to pay for his college applications.
I didn't know any of these seniors personally when I read their drafts. But within a few minutes of questioning them about their recent lives, I learned enough to help them identify some possible stories to write about in their essays. How did I do this? Easy. I asked: "What did you do last summer?" That question always gets students started in telling recent, specific stories that they can incorporate into application essays.
- "If you want a college to accept you and even pay for you to attend, what do the admissions officers need to know about you that separates you from the other applicants?"
- "What are your top three activities in high school? How does each relate to what you can offer a college?"
- "If you're going to write about your background or family, can you show who you are now because of them for the majority of the essay?"
- "Can you tell me a specific story related to one of your experiences that can jumpstart your essay?"
So, please use the rest of December to help seniors finalize their college applications essays and apply for scholarships by helping them promote themselves powerfully. Use their selfies, tweets, and videos as starting points for powerful celebratory essays. Encourage English teachers in middle school and early high school to embed autobiographical essays into their ongoing teaching practices. Help students realize how amazing they really are. Ultimately, let's do whatever we can to help students prepare powerful college and scholarship application essays that communicate their unique stories to colleges.