The College Admissions Essay: Helping Your Students Create Unique Essays

There are few things that engender more stress in students and parents than the dreaded college admissions essay. Students procrastinate and fear them, and parents want them to be done right.

So what can you do as a teacher to help students feel like they have successfully accomplished this challenge?

In my Senior English classes, parents are often relieved to find out that the first thing we do at the  beginning of the school year is write a college essay for class. Students may choose later to submit the essay they wrote for class as part of their college application process, while others may choose to  start from scratch. In either case, this assignment prepares them to write their essays by taking them  through the essay writing process and helping them understand what the overall purpose of the college essay is, which is to allow the college admissions official who is reading the essay to get to know who you are and what you care about as a person.

In this sense, it’s helpful to think about the college essay as a personal narrative in which the student relates and reflects upon a particular experience or challenge that changed, transformed or affected  them deeply as a person.  

It is important in the essay that students choose an anecdote from their life that is specific to them,  and is unique enough to be memorable. College admissions officials read thousands of essays about  students who succeed as athletes, musicians, debate team members, dancers and ice skaters. But  how many essays do they read about students who saved and nurtured a baby bird until it was well  enough to return to the wild? Or about a student’s discovery that human trafficking still exists while  on a church trip?

Students often get hung up on the idea that nothing has happened to them, that they aren’t  interesting in any way, and that they have nothing interesting to say.  

This guide will help students tap into the reservoir of unique experiences that are inside of them and find topics that accomplish the ultimate goal of the essay, which is to communicate who they are  through their own unique perspectives about.

As for assignment specifics, I spend around three weeks with this assignment. The first week is spent  explaining the assignment, looking at some online examples and brainstorming our topics. The second week  is spent developing first drafts and then peerJediting them.

Their final draft is due the third week, and this is the first time I will read their essay.

After I assess them (I use a sixJtraits model for  assessing written work), I hand them back and give them the option of rewriting them for a higher  grade. I also share a couple of examples from the class out loud (with students’ permission). As far as due dates and grading, I leave that to you as I trust you will have your own methodology for this.  Also, feel free to revise the handout to suit your own instructional needs.

Good luck and have fun! I love helping students discover insights about themselves by writing personal essays, and the college application essay is no different.