I have been working with students on college essays over the past few days, using shared Google docs and the telephone. It is always an interesting process and this year is no different.
Part of the fun of college essays is that we dig deep, looking for experiences that carry real heft. This is not particularly easy to get to and requires a lot of prompting:
“Have you had a particularly challenging experience?”
“How did you feel? Sad, defeated, frustrated, demoralized?”
“What did you do after you felt those feelings?”
Most students are very uncomfortable talking about themselves in this way, but this is one sure method to get down to a person’s core values.
“And then what?”
Deeper and deeper.
Many of my students laugh in the middle of this process and say, “I’m telling you things I don’t usually share with anybody.”
This is the key. The goal of the personal essay is to communicate in 650 words an essential truth about the writer’s life experience and that is never going to happen by focusing on surface experiences and emotions.
I have helped many students write their college essays over the past sixteen years. It is one of my favorite activities because it is so personal and ultimately so rewarding. I’ve watched kids with average grades and SAT scores gain admission to top schools primarily because of their superlative personal essays and I’ve seen others with excellent grades and top SAT scores get unexpected full ride merit scholarships to top universities greatly aided by their strong personal essays. More importantly, I’ve watched all of my students find that nugget of truth that sheds real light for them on their lives and their struggles and who they are deep down. That’s the best part, no matter where they end up in college.
I am lucky to have this job. I always come away with a sense that we have accomplished something that goes well beyond the college application process. We have connected on a personal level and I have witnessed a transformation as my students have pushed themselves to ask important questions about who and how they are and what they see as their purpose in this world. We would all do well to have someone from time to time asking us to probe into our psyches for those answers. I suspect we’d create a better world for others and ourselves if we did.