So many college essays in my brain right now. Ugh, words. More writing. No.
What a surreal process, for everyone involved. For many families, this seems like the point in the process where they’re expecting to see the product that they feel like they paid for. It doesn’t really matter that they signed an agreement. Mentioning “SPGP” elicits stares that seem to growl, “Just help my kid do this, okay?” If the writing that they see isn’t amazing, then evidently I haven’t been doing my job.
It’s the most compressed process of teaching that I’ve ever been through. Everyone comes in at a different place—level of writing proficiency, number of ideas and/or experiences they can write about, degree of willingness to push outside their comfort zone—and each year, most of my energy goes into calibrating my coaching style for each student: some mix of the encouraging storyteller and ruthless editor. Both have to be restrained on my part; I can’t encourage kids to get so grandiose in their vision that they’ve ultimately bitten off more than they can chew, and I have to bite my tongue when it comes to the mechanics of the language, really only pointing out the clear, ringing errors.
It’s appalling to me that kids have no formal training by the time they’re 17 or 18 in personal, reflective writing, and that writing college essays (and supplemental short responses, and artist statements) are their trial-by-fire initiation into this style. It’s shocking that so few school systems—including the independent ones charging each family tens of thousands of tuition dollars each year—have designated part of their curriculum to arming students with the skills necessary to accurately portray themselves through their writing. (Have I been on this rant before?)
The college essay and/or personal statement should be a culmination of that type of writing. Students should—by this time, with some reasonable degree of clarity—be able to articulate their strengths and areas of concern, their dreams and desires, their intentions and their preliminary questions about the course of their studies and of their life as an adult. They should know something about how to cast themselves in an authentic, non-clichéd, polished light. They should understand that the things that they put out into the world—their words, their images, their work—particularly in this digital age, reflect directly back on how others will perceive their intellect, their character, their maturity, and their integrity.
Writing with the kind of economy that it takes to pack all the most salient points about oneself into 650 words should be standard fare in the classroom. It should be understood already by teenagers that using concrete images, sensory details, actual dialogue is the way to show rather than tell and therefore achieve more impact in less space. But they should understand why: because we can all relate; that we as readers can all feel present in a scene if it is vividly realized. Because all of us, for the rest of our lives, will at times have to persuade or coax or convince or simply MOVE others with our words, whether it’s an admissions official or potential employer or parent or teacher or friend or partner or student of yours.
By Nick Soper