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College Essay Coaching

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

In the midst of first- and second-quarter planning and grading, an additional task presents itself: the student’s college essay. Somehow, I have actually started to enjoy reading these essays! I never thought I’d say this, but the extra work is not a burden—often it’s a nice break from the routine stack of papers. Suddenly a student is in front of me who isn’t thinking about what grade I will be giving him on this essay. That’s a gift!

Certain tips and suggestions can help draw a memorable essay out of a student. These are the directions I give to my students:

  • The reader needs to know you. – Though I’ve taught students literature and writing, it’s likely that I don’t know what they’re passionate about. If the essay I’m reading hasn’t come alive, I know the student is holding back; he’s not showing me the “‘real”’ person that he is.
  • Be authentic, use your own voice. I need to hear the authentic you in these two pages. I advise students to relax, write, then edit later.
  • Avoid writing what you think they want to hear. This is so often the problem that the first draft sounds like it is suffering from. I think fear of rejection, fear of doing this wrong, or fear that the “real” story isn’t going to be good enough might be at play.
  • Bring it home. Students might have a family story or a neighborhood story that may reveal a good deal about who they are and what is motivating them to pursue higher education.
  • Get specific. Have students try one of the specific questions if the “open” question hasn’t moved them beyond the “what I gained from high school football” essay. (This is usually the toughest essay to help a student improve upon.)
  • Find a moment to write about. Again, this is about being specific, putting the zoom lens on your camera. A moment can change someone, provide perspective, make a person see something he never noticed before about himself, others, life.
  • Write something different and write freely. Students don’t really like this advice, but it has worked. Once  a student has written a college essay, she usually wants to stay with it, and work on only that one. But there are times when the essay a student brought to me really doesn’t have enough that she can work with. So, I send them home to just write “the heart” of two other essays—no intro, no conclusion—just the body, the “thing that happened.” This seems to release students from the fear of just stating what occurred or what moved them about a moment; they then see that the form of the essay practically fills itself in later on.
  • Go back and add specific details. Replace the general with the specific to add real life to the writing. For example, recently one of my students was writing about working with two nurses in a burn center. The first draft was written from a broad, general view. He replaced the general with the specific and realized he brought the reader right to the moment to see, to hear, and to feel what he was describing.

There is almost too much online “help” for college essays, much of it very wordy. It’s really all the more confusing for a student already nervous about the task. Sound advice coming directly from someone on the receiving end of college essays is often the best.

Former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor discusses voice in her entry on the New York Times blog, The Choice. Dave Marcus, author of “Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves,” provides a few pointed anecdotes that illustrate the importance of audience awareness.

Newsweek’s feature on bad topics for college essays can work for student reading, and Time’s “do’s and don’ts” list is also direct and helpful.

Most helpful, though, is our response. A trusted teacher is the best reader because we ask questions that will help students have the confidence to move beyond cliché and to reveal themselves.