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Help Your Students Write A Killer College Essay

Not every child is fortunate enough to have a personal tutor to help them get into college.

Although these services can really help students get into the school of their choosing, finances often make this superfluous but helpful tool unavailable to many.

So the duty falls upon the senior English teachers to help students rock their college applications. After gathering the necessary information: transcripts, common app essentials, and resume, students need to tell the right story that will differentiate them from the numbers.

Although many students have endured hardships and failures, focusing on these tremendous life events may not be the answer. Truthfully, it's all in angle and the writing.

Here are some helpful tips for writing a great college essay that admission officers want to read:

  • Select an appropriate topic that best shows something unique about the student - although many situations in themselves are not unique, the way students persevere through them probably are. 

  • Know the message you are trying to send the admission officers. Remember that a college essay, coupled with recommendation letters and the application all work together to complete a profile on every student. The transcript offers academic achievement. The recommendation offers an outsider's perspective on the student's abilities and the essay gives voice and personality to what otherwise can be very flat. Students must take the opportunity with the essay to allow their unique voices to be heard.

  • Although we want to go unique, don't mistake this for completely informal. Writing should still demonstrate a level of craft and consideration that shows readers how deliberate the writer is. Diction often speaks to a level of knowing and any child whose vocabulary naturally shows itself through the piece offers added sophistication.

  • Creativity is not lost on the reader. Don't be afraid to take risks. You want to stand out, so show don't tell. If sharing a story that exemplifies a quality essential to proving what you say, take the reader there, don't just "remember".

  • Vary your sentence structure in a way that lends itself for an easy flow, avoiding the first person in every sentence. This essay is about the writer, this is evident. Try to avoid "I" this or "I" that as much as possible.

  • The introductory paragraph is key to engaging the reader, so don't just answer a prompt. Consider how best to surprise the reader.

  • The essay should be mostly what you learned from an experience and how it will apply to future success. Avoid the doom and gloom. No one wants to read an essay of woe. Usually, students will spend their entire 500 words building up to what they learned. Instead, spend 350 on how what you learned will make you an integral part of a school community and only one paragraph on what part of the problem got you there.

  • Most of the time one really well-told story makes for a better essay than a laundry list of accomplishments that can be listed on the application separately.

  • If there is a dip in a transcript, consider explaining why and what you learned from the experience.

  • Try not to focus too much on grades. Instead, focus on the learning experience and how perseverance helped you apply learning in new situations.

  • Conclusions like introductions need to have a punch, so avoid cliches throughout the essay and remind readers at the end why you should be at their school.

These essays are essential to college applications. They have the potential of putting a borderline student into the school of his/her choosing. Time must be spent with students to ensure the best versions of themselves are displayed for potential colleges. Take the time to help your students develop their voices for this important step in their lives.

We want their essays to be memorable, appropriate, and exquisitely written, so instead of rewriting the essay for them, make time to talk to them about their choices and leave it up to them to make the decisions.

What have you learned to help students write awesome college essays? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in September 2015


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