Right now, around the world and certainly throughout the United States, high school seniors are really feeling it. Beyond taking advanced coursework in many subject areas, leading teams and clubs in their schools, navigating the roads as new drivers, trying to earn money in their free time, and keeping up with their complex social and family lives, they are staying up late at night writing – or thinking about writing – their college essays. And although there may be a few who are already done and satisfied with their work, many more are on edge as they attempt to capture in 1000 words or less their particular readiness for college, their special potential as future professionals, and their unique characteristics as people.
Finding the right words and topics for an essay of this nature is extremely challenging. Stating (and somehow showing and not telling) who we are is difficult under any circumstance – but doing so in a pressured situation where our future hangs in the balance is truly difficult. Not to mention the fact that it isn’t enough to reveal ourselves as we are today when we are applying for something – we have to also have to reflect on who we were, how we changed, what contributed to those changes, and what we hope to do and become in the future if we are given the opportunity we are asking for.
When I applied to college, I did so without any assistance and refused to let anyone help me – not because I was afraid that my work was bad, but because I was certain that it was good. I wrote loosely organized essays about topics that I was interested in at the time. In one essay, I wrote about how Ella Fitzgerald’s songs inspired me to study voice. This makes me laugh/cringe today because I actually only listened to Ella Fitzgerald a handful of times and never with any of the requisite focus or attention that would have justified an essay on this topic. In another essay, I wrote about a time when I had to care for a flock of turkeys and witnessed the vicious way they turned against a sick turkey and essentially pecked him to death. In my essay, I highlighted the way that this impacted me – I stopped eating turkey for a few months – and concluded without any further exploration of the experience.
It’s a wonder I got into any college, not to mention a few. Then again, I like to think that my sub-par essays were read with the appropriately sized grain of salt by admissions counselors. After all, what did I know at that age? Isn’t the point of college, graduate school, work and life to help young people become critical thinking, passionately engaged adults?
I thought about this in recent weeks as I helped several high school seniors to refine their college essays and reflected on the thousands of student essays I’ve read and helped to revise. What makes an essay – a personal statement about oneself, one’s past, one’s challenges, one’s hopes, one’s dreams – good enough, and good enough for what?
To start, it does matter that the writing be crisp and grammatically correct and I’m glad about that, although I worry a lot about the students who are for different reasons not strong readers and who do not get enough direct instruction and practice as writers. They need and should get support. Beyond mechanics, though, the topic, examples, and student’s voice are what really matter. I’ve talked with students for years about watching out for tone in these and other types of essays – at the end of the day, the way we say things is often more important than what we say. Are we communicating empathy, thoughtfulness, and honesty, or are we communicating insensitivity, privilege, cluelessness?
Recently, I’ve read some wonderful essays about the impact of illness on young people’s experiences and future plans. I’ve read about service projects, collaboration, innovation and research. But my favorite essays are always – always – the ones where a person I don’t know well paints a picture, in words, of the unique experiences, people, sights and sounds that distinguish that person’s experience of life thus far. In that sense, although they definitely wouldn’t be good enough by today’s standards, I think my mediocre essays from the early 1990’s on Ella Fitz and the turkeys were good enough to get the job done. If there is one thing I want seniors stressed about their essays to rest easy about it’s this: whatever you write today is good enough, and will likely surprise you in 25 years because while it will not have changed, you most definitely will have.