The College Essay: What Students (and Teachers) Need to Know

A quick note before we begin! Today’s episode is special. It’s not just for teachers, it’s also for students.

If you work with juniors or seniors, you can play this show for your class as a guest workshop when you prepare to tackle the college essay together.

With that in mind, I’ve made you a curriculum set you can use with this podcast as a kick-off workshop for your classes.

Here’s what’s inside:

  • Sketchnotes templates your students can use to write down their takeaways as they listen to today’s experts weigh in
  • A poster reminding students to write what they really care about (complete with quirky examples)
  • A brainstorming guide for topic selection that gets students mining their camera roll for ideas
  • A practice activity to help students spot the weak spots in an essay excerpt (generalities? lame topics? We’ve got ’em.)
  • Draft checklist that references the key points these expert speakers bring up

You can sign up for this free curriculum set here, and you’ll also get my Friday emails stuffed with teaching ideas.

OK, now that you’ve got the curriculum to match, let’s dive in!

You can listen in below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Kind Cotton, a small family-run business changing the world one book at a time. When you purchase one of their lovely teacher tees or sweatshirts, they donate one inclusive children’s book (and they’re almost up to 75,000!). You can use my affiliate code “BETSY” for 10% off your next purchase right here.

OK, creative teacher, as we move into the show notes, the “you” I’ll be addressing now is your student! This show is really about sharing help directly with your students for writing better essays, and since the guests are mostly speaking directly to the kids, I’m going to follow suit. If you choose not to play the show for your students, of course you can just gather the info for them yourself.

Guest #1: Colleen Davis from The George School

Colleen kicks off a theme you’ll hear throughout: “Show us YOURSELF, and don’t buy into trying to be perfect.” Though it’s tempting to try to summarize yourself as the perfect leader, student, athlete, and volunteer in your essay, Colleen recommends trying to avoid attempting to write exactly what you imagine an admissions officer wants to read about the perfect student, and write about who you really are instead.

She recommends trying to choose a specific moment in your experience to narrow in on, rather than painting your life with broad brushstrokes. Don’t be general, she recommends, be memorable. Trying to cram all the lessons of your life, or your full resume, into five hundred words, will only weaken your essay. Instead, be as specific as you can. Find that moment and then tell the story of how it represents you and your evolution as a person.

Colleen shares one bonus tip, which is to be really careful about writing an essay about a service trip. It’s easy to fall into stereotypes about other people when writing about a service trip, and you don’t want to do that.

Guest #2: Rhemi Abrams-Fuller from Occidental College

Rhemi’s favorite essay of all time was about a student’s experience of discovering their immigration status, which was not what she expected it to be. The essay was profound, vulnerable, and emotional, though the writing was imperfect. Rhemi’s core advice is to “Pick a topic that you care about… I want to dispel the myth that there are topics that are better than others.”

Rhemi suggests you should be funny if you’re funny, thoughtful if you’re thoughtful, serious if you’re serious. Echoing the continuing theme, she reminds all students not to try to present what you think admissions wants to read.

Guest #3: Hector Martinez (The Webb Schools)

Hector begins by sharing his favorite essay of all time, about a student’s love for the piano. He knows what you’re thinking… what a boring topic, a million people have probably written about that (you ARE thinking that, right?).

But he describes the way the essay painted a beautiful vivid picture for him, and how it made him feel like he knew the student and wanted to be friends with her.

Which brought him to his core advice: “The more genuine their voice is, in that essay, the more real, the more vivid, the better the essay tends to be.” He makes the comparison of a Polaroid picture, recommending that you try to create an essay that is as vivid as a photograph for your reader.

Guest #4: Thyra Briggs (Harvey Mudd College)

Thyra reiterates that the essay does not need to be about something like world peace or diversity – you should write about something that matters to you (noticing the trend? This is essential!).

She shares one of her favorite essays of all time, which was about a student’s experience working at a craft store. The student told the story of one shift at work, and what she learned from each of the customers she encountered that she would be bringing with her to college. She wrapped up her story with the line, “Everything’s better with glitter,” which Thyra still remembers all these years later.

Thyra recommends you work on writing in YOUR OWN VOICE, so it really sounds like you. Then you can read it aloud to check that it feels natural, and share it with people in your life that know you to help make sure.

Students, as you approach the college essay, I think it’s clear that all the experts agree – be genuine and vivid, don’t try to affect a fake personality to impress someone, tell a specific and meaningful part of your own unique life experience. You can do it!

OK, teachers, that’s a wrap! Remember to grab the free curriculum set as a companion to this episode right here. Give students the sketchnotes templates as they listen to this episode, then move on to the other activities.

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