By Rebecca Joseph

Many high school seniors are busy writing college application essays. Through these essays, seniors can share unique stories that help admissions officers picture them on their campuses. Yet many applicants miss the mark. They think admissions officers want to know about dramas or other stories from their pasts.

After speaking with two admissions officers from top colleges last week, I left with this message: colleges don’t want essays that are set exclusively in the past. Colleges want to know who applicants are now, especially about their leadership, initiative, resilience, and passions. Colleges do not award admissions decisions or scholarships to kids who only look backward.

Here are five guiding questions to help seniors look forward in their essays.

  1. What did you do last summer? Often student jobs, internships, or service projects during the summer between junior and senior years lead to great essays. Applicants can connect these experiences to their current day lives. They can think of the metaphor about what their summer experience(s) meant AND imply that throughout the essay.

Example 1: Mike went to China where he got lost and had to rely purely on his intermediate Chinese to get back to his internship. This helped him remember what it must be like for the Chinese immigrants he teaches English back home. 

 Example 2: Darcy was a waitress. Her first day was a disaster but it got better. She then connects to why she got the job and how it changed her perspective on the service industry she wants to enter. 

  1. What leadership roles do you hold this year? Most seniors hold top positions both in and out of school. Describing one and its implications can show a college what kind of contribution seniors can make there.

 Example 1: Henry is captain of his debate team. He also coaches the middle school team. He is always amazed at how much harder it is to debate a middle school student than some of his peers.

 Example 2: Gaby was a camp counselor last summer. Someone told her never to write about camp experiences. But what better example of leadership can a senior demonstrate? In fact one of her campers was being bullied, and Gaby had to do an intervention. This made her want to get involved at her school as a mentor to younger kids to prevent bullying. 

  1. What service act are you most proud of? Many service acts reveal how teens realize they are not alone in this world and how any service act can matter. All acts of service connect to who teens are. They should connect to themselves and how the service has changed them.

Example 1: Theresa is very proud of her work at a non-profit. When she started she envisioned her work one-way. It changed over the course of two years leading to a new initiative this year. 

 Example 2: Robby volunteers for a community crisis line. Thinking about his own identity development and how he found support makes his work there even more meaningful. 

  1. If you overcame some kind of challenge, how can you connect it to something you do now? Many students have encountered family or life challenges. I always say colleges want happy and engaged students. I ask students to find a recent activity or accomplishment that showcases their grit and resilience in overcoming this struggle. They can then weave in stories from the past to show how far they have come.

Example 1:  Abigail wanted to write about her mother’s abandonment of her when she was young. I saw on her resume that Abigail had volunteered at an orphanage and at a local elementary school. She didn’t realize how she was being a mother to others. That took her essay forward not backward. Colleges want these kind of resilient kids. 

 Example 2: Ricardo ran the LA marathon last year. Throughout his training, he lost more than 50 pounds. He suffered bullying throughout middle school and most of high school. This year he is running the marathon with some younger kids he is mentoring. The examples of training for the marathon itself, building up his self-confidence as he lost weight, and mentoring younger kids are just some possible takeaways that he can discuss while mentioning overcoming the horrific bullying.

  1. What is the most out-of-box thing you’ve done this year? Why? Each and every teenager has stories. These make for great essays.

Examples: Tomas became an EMT. Loren worked as a parking attendant. Jenna filmed a homeless veteran. Brett had back surgery and wants to become a surgeon. Paul trained a therapy dog. 

Concluding Recommendations:
Please recognize that college applicants often will get stuck during this process; it is challenging for them to humbly brag about what they offer a college. Ask them questions. Look at their resumes and help them see what they have accomplished. Push them to write about who they are right now. Help them understand that multiple drafts are part of the process of writing better and better essays.

Colleges want kids who look towards their futures. Let’s help them get there through proactive college application essays.