6 Ways to Help Seniors Write College Admissions Essays

The good news: by senior year, many teens ARE good writers who can crank out a thoughtful essay that answers the prompt.

The bad news: a majority of the rough drafts I see cross my desk (as a tutor) are really NOT submission ready. Not even close.

While I don't pretend to speak on behalf of admissions officers here, my inner English teacher is cringing while reading my students' work, the drafts that are supposed to not only gain admission for them but should ideally also win scholarships and/or admission to honors programs (and the like).

What's worse is that, at least in my area, my students are telling me three things:
1. My English teacher doesn't talk about admissions essays. We are on our own.2. Yeah, we wrote essays for school, but there was only one short comment on it. My teacher says that (he/she) doesn't want to grade or judge my life.3. I'm in an (AP/IB/honors) English class, so my teacher says we don't need help writing our essays. We are already good writers.

Here's my struggle. With all due respect to hardworking, overloaded, fantastic teachers of high school English, most of whom have limited freedom in their curriculums... this is arguably the most important essay that students will ever write.

Regardless of what they "should" be able to do by now (and the fact that it's not our job to be students' personal editors), this essay merits our attention. It's a special genre that most teens need help completing, and more importantly, this essay is an equality issue. Many students won't get help at all, or the right kind of help, to do it.

So, what reasonable steps can English teachers take, and why?

1. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

One of my biggest pet peeves is that so many essays sound the same. One year, I swore that if I read ONE MORE essay about why a volleyball or football coach was inspiring, I was going to quit tutoring forever.

Even when students have to answer a very specific prompt, they need to EITHER write unique content, have a unique answer, or put a unique spin on a common answer. Instead of telling me why your football coach is so wonderful, how about telling us that your football coach actually taught you more about academics than sports? (Just an example.)

Preach uniqueness to students. The readers need to see what is different and interesting about the applicant, or there will be nothing memorable about the essay.

2. Talk about blending genres.

Yes, this is (usually) an essay, but how about a narrative, storytelling hook? What about mixing informative and persuasive?

With some exceptions, a lot of colleges want to read essays with anecdotes, that flow more like a TED talk than a five-paragraph snooze fest. They want to be drawn into the story of who you are and see for themselves why you should be admitted. Bending genre is the new name of the essay game.

3. Discuss how to sell yourself appropriately.

Too much self-talk can sound arrogant, especially since admissions officers love honesty and humility... but not enough of it means that the essay may not reveal why the student is acceptance-worthy. 

Even if you don't have time for full lessons on tone and word choice, perhaps mention to these well-intentioned students that this IS a spectrum that they'll want to fall in the middle of.

4. Preach the RIGHT revision strategies.

Besides editing those essays to be grammatically PERFECT (obviously), I want students to actually revise their drafts.

But believe it or not, their biggest struggle isn't usually a lack of revision skills: it's knowing which friends and family members' feedback to listen to. Peers may or may not know what they're talking about, and parents sometimes have an outdated (sorry) vision of what this essay is supposed to be. (I once had a parent get angry with me because he was concerned that his son's essay structure wasn't traditional enough.)

Have an appropriate conversation with students, based on their skill level, about how to revise and who to ask for help. (You do NOT have to volunteer to be their reader; discuss who else is a good idea to ask!)

5. Ask if their draft makes a point.

This is a fun one. A lot of essays answer the prompted question... but do nothing else. No real thesis statement, no sneaky subplot, no revelation of their personality or uniqueness (see #1). Yes, students need to answer the question, but sometimes they answer it SO directly that the essay feels clinically impersonal and neutral.

The question I like to ask is: "If you forgot to put your name on this, would I be able to tell it's yours, or would it sound like everyone else's?" If the latter, then they need to weave  themselves in more somehow.

6. Check their organization.

We all know that some students are, um, "less organized" than others. Give them a hand by passing out this free graphic organizer to help them get their prompts, deadlines, word counts, and other details in order.