As hyperbolic as it might sound, everything an English teacher teaches their students is in preparation of them writing their college admissions essays. While the stakes for all prior written works were just letter grades, a well written admissions essay could very well be the stepping stone for a student to achieve their goals and dreams. As such, it is our duty to prepare high school juniors and seniors for these pivotal prompts and give them every advantage for starting the next stage of their lives. Here are 4 ways to help your students write their college admissions essays.
1. Teach what colleges don’t want to read. Avoid the cliches!
Just like with a resume or a cover letter, a college admissions essay has to “sell” the student. As obvious as this may sound, too many students fail to promote themselves properly, which leads to the admissions officer being unable to differentiate them from the thousands of other “sales pitches” they read that week and subconsciously ignore them, just like how a tv watcher zones out when they see that commercial for car insurance for the umpteenth time.
The two major overused types of essays that almost always elicit a groan from admissions officers are the “Person I admire essay” and the “volunteer work” essay. The typical pitfall for students who write about someone they admire is that their writing tends to focus on their role model and they forget that they’re trying to promote themselves! And while volunteer work is admirable, it is not enough to impress anymore considering how popular it is amongst college bound students. Students need to write something only they could have written in order to stand apart from the competition.
2. Teach what colleges do want to read.
Colleges want to recruit students who will be successful, obviously. They want candidates who are motivated, love learning, and will be successful in their future field. This doesn’t mean the student has to have spectacular grades (although that certainly helps), but it does mean they have to be passionate about something and can portray how diligent they would be in working towards what drives that passion. That is the beauty of the admissions essay; It allows colleges to see the side of a student that a transcript doesn’t.
Probably the best advice you can give a student when writing a college admissions essay is to be unique; only write about experiences that he or she could have had. This is important because it sets them apart from the crowd and is more likely to incite passion in what they write. As a teacher, I think I speak for all of us when I say the indifference is apparent in a student’s writing when he or she doesn’t care about the topic. To summarize: Have students write about events unique to them that display their potential and capability to succeed in higher education.
3. Analyze essays that worked.
Once your students have an understanding of what colleges want to read, you can move on to examples of successful college admissions essays and analyze what made them effective. A lot of universities will gladly offer examples of successful essays. While reading through the examples provided by John Hopkins University, I was charmed by how unique and creative they all were. One man wrote his essay in the form of the game 20 Questions while a woman wrote about her perception problems due to having a glass eye which transitioned to a story about how her perception of the swastika changed after living with a foster family in India. Aside from being attention grabbers, these essays were effective because I felt like I came to know the writers as well as understand what would make them successful students.
For anyone who has been through the drudgery of a job hunt, you know what I mean when I say that college admissions officers treat admissions essays a lot like how recruiters treat resumes – they’re looking for any excuse to toss one out. Admissions officers receive thousands of essays each cycle and have a relatively short amount of time to read them. As such, they look for any reason to quickly narrow down their search. This means they will not hesitate to toss out an essay that has minor errors, is formatted wrong, or is written in an irregular font, regardless of how good the content is. That is why revision of their essays is so important!
Have students print out the college’s essay guidelines and make sure they are following them to the letter. It might even be worth a class to have the students highlight and annotate the guidelines in regards to font, word count, and structure as a homework assignment. Have them edit, re-edit, and then have someone they trust also edit for them, looking for both grammatical, factual, and structural errors. If the essay prompt is a specific question, comb the essay thoroughly to make sure everything in the essay builds up to answering that question without any tangents. Use natural vocabulary, not words you would expect to find in the SATs. Use action verbs and avoid “to be” verbs like “was.”
If your students find your revisions excessive, remind them that a few extra hours of editing is worth it to ensure their all their hard work doesn’t end up at the bottom of the recycling bin.