Why I Love Helping Students with the Application Essay
I help students with their application essays. I’ve worked with students applying to boarding school, university, even business and med school. I’ve done everything from test prep to admissions consulting to school tour planning. But these days I am fortunate enough to specialize in the the part of the admissions process I love the most: the personal essay.
What that means is that I help students to do three things:
- Brainstorm essay topics
- Decide on the right narrative structure
- Edit language and style as needed
The real work, I always say, is in the first two steps. Writing is a piece of cake once you have the first two.
It’s almost every other student who comes to me with their head down, mumbling the phrase “I have nothing to write about. I’m so boring.” I get excited when a student tells me this. Because I know with 100% certainty that by the time we’re done, they’ll have an essay that is definitely not boring.
The most enjoyable part of the process of helping a student with the college essay is getting to know them. If a student has no idea what to write about, my first job is to ask him leading questions and have him do exercises to break through the old ways he is thinking about himself to unearth the really unique and awesome things and moments in his life. Everyone is unique. I know that’s a cliche, but what’s cool is that it’s really true. And once we know what possible topics and angles the student can use for a great personal essay, we can move on to finding the best way to lay it out. Sometimes step 1 takes a while — a few meetings even. But it is the most important part. Figuring out potential topics and stories are the foundations upon which the essay can be built!
Will the essay be told chronologically start to finish? Will it be told backwards? Will it be told as an action tale, or will it have lots of exposition? How about a graphic novel-type essay? Will there be an overarching message depicted through multiple smaller ideas or stories? Will it utilize a frame narrative? There are endless choices for how one can organize and move meaning through an essay. Depending on the topic, the story involved, and the theme, the student and I will determine what narrative structure(s) might work best. After this phase, students may write a few essays with different topics, and they may even try a few different structures for each topic before deciding which works best. That leads us to phase 3.
Once the essay topic, theme, and structure are decided, the writing is the easy part! I don’t get too involved, since the student has to write out the essay drafts. I do some editing during revisions to enhance language, tension, momentum, etc. But I am very adamant that the student’s original style remain intact. That is a very important element to the essay as well, and I wouldn’t bulldoze over it for the world. The editing phase is the kind of editing your English teacher may give you on your essay. Except I will spend a lot more time and detail on it. This phase is fun for me since I get to do some more traditional writing coaching, helping students understand why word choice, flow, and sentence structure are so important.
I’ve been doing this work for 6 years, and it never gets old. Each young person comes to me with a wealth of interesting experiences, ideas, habits, preferences, and hobbies. I get to hear about those things, and then I get to help shape them into a piece of wonderful creative non-fiction. I am a writer at heart, and this process is really fun for me.
But the best part about working on the personal essay is that it’s really an uplifting, positive process. The essay asks what is special about you? and the student and I meet to discuss and work on that question, sometimes for weeks or months on end. The admissions rat race is rigorous, tough, and riddled with challenges and expectations that often produce insecurities and doubts. The essay is really a chance for a student to take a good look at him or herself and feel pride and self-worth in who he or she has become. I get to help awesome human beings see the ways in which they are awesome, even ways they didn’t fully realize. And the student walks away feeling, hey, I’m pretty cool, and I’ve got a pretty cool way of expressing that. If that’s not something to enjoy, I don’t know what is.