Recently, I have traveled to schools, college fairs, libraries, and many homes to help kids with their college applications, including their college application essays and/or personal statements. While I brainstorm essay topics with them and provide some guiding questions for their drafts, I do not write or rewrite the essays for students. I view the brainstorming, drafting, and revising process as a part of essential self-awareness development for sixteen to eighteen year olds. This process truly works, and the non-ghostwritten essays that result are truly reflective of their capabilities as thinkers, writers, and ultimately successful college students.
All students, regardless of socioeconomic status, struggle with this process. It is not natural, and it is often the first time they have had to advocate for themselves in writing. For many students, rather than accept the necessity of the drafting process and their parents desire for the “perfect essay,” they often turn to tutors, parents, or older siblings.
These essays stand out — but for the wrong reasons. They not only reveal language unnatural to today’s teenagers but also indicate a thought process, writing structure, and self-awareness that come only with adulthood. These essays put admissions officers on alert, as they can immediately identify ghostwritten essays.
So here is my plea to those working with teenagers on college application essays.
- Their discomfort in writing college application essays is a natural part of the application process. They have rarely if ever been asked in or out of school to write first person narratives advocating for themselves. This process is initially awkward for many kids, especially since they live in an increasingly superficial world, where they share every surface moment with pictures, videos, or group chats. We need to help them understand the application process is a way to explore their deep unique passions, accomplishments, and goals. Learning how to write these essays is challenging, yet powerful.
- Application essays are part of a larger process. The essays alone will not get an applicant admitted to colleges and/or scholarships. They are part of a larger process that requires applicants to present a full picture of who they are and what they offer a college. These essays should complement their applications. They should share and reflect stories about their unique qualities and experiences that will help colleges learn even more reasons why they belong on their campuses. Any non-applicant who writes or re-writes an applicant’s essays needs to realize that the essays must match their applicants’ grades, activities, recommendations, other application essays, and yes, test scores.
- Colleges want authentic essays or personal statements. Several times a year I present with college admissions officers on college application essays. Time after time, they share their desire for student-written pieces. They often share ineffective pieces — the majority are written by an adult. Colleges have worded their prompts to help guide students. Many post sample essays and tips on their websites to help students and families understand what they are seeking. What you see is a plea for applicants to write their own essays that share unique stories.
- Rather than write or re-write essays, spend your time helping to prepare resumes and brainstorming. Students need more help with realizing what they have accomplished and the different kinds of stories they have to share. Every applicant needs a resume as they never know when someone will ask for one. Often preparing these resumes leads to great essay topics. In addition, conversations about their leadership and impact help students identify their own power and potential.
- Great essays are specific, not general. As kids write the essays, they need to realize most prompts ask for specific stories and examples and then reflect on them. Please ask kids to make sure their essays are so specific that only they could have written it. Students need to include specific examples and to focus on the major implications–specific, recent, and positive.
- Great essays take time and drafting. We need to allow the kids to learn how drafting is essential to great writing. Each draft, which I now term layers, helps them increase the clarity of their story and its implications.
- These essays are not formal analytic essays. College application essays are personal narratives, not the typical analytic papers they write in high school. They need to explore this process and learn that application essays use specific visual examples to reveal universal themes about the applicants. While they should have a beginning, middle, and end, they do not need formal introductions or conclusions. Rather they often can start in the middle, and then work their way to the bigger picture, in a process, I term: Into, Through, and Beyond. Students need to learn this writing form as they will be asked to write this way in college, often in freshman writing classes.
- Use essays as an opportunity to teach students how to advocate for themselves. Essays and personal statements need to show specific ways college applicants have made a difference already in their lives and in their communities. Applicants need to “humble brag” about themselves. Often these essays are the only written texts an applicant may present to a college. They need to learn to advocate for themselves, and what better way through these essays.
Ghostwriting application essays devalues the entire process. College application essays offer a great process for seniors, especially those who are vey busy, to learn more about themselves, what they offer colleges, and ultimately what colleges offer them. Let them draft and re-draft. Let them layer in key qualities and reflections. Then watch as great authentic essays emerge.
By Rebecca Joseph