Sunday, November 13, 2016

Conquering the College Essay

It's November, and that means anxiety is rising for the high achieving and aspirational high school seniors who are completing college applications and stressing about getting into their dream school. November 1 marks the early decision deadlines, while most schools will be accepting college apps through the winter. It's all such a game - and one that most students and parents have figured out that you just can't really play. Yet, they will continue to try, and there is a multi-million dollar business of prep classes and private college counselors who have convinced anxious parents there are shortcuts and insider info available to anyone who's willing to pay. Depending on the high school a kid attends, the assistance offered by these college planners may be of some to absolutely no value. The key support they generally provide is working with kids on the dreaded college essay. Now, any senior English teacher or high school counselor ought to be able to give all the necessary help, and the essay really should be written by the kid. But there are certainly tips any high schooler could benefit from.

One of the best - and most succinct - pieces I've seen recently on the college essay was featured in the Denver Post this morning by high school English teacher Emmet Rosenfeld. The piece was originally submitted to and published as a special submission to the Washington Post, and it leads by example. Rosenfeld simply discusses the parameters of the assignment, and then she reprints with commentary two drafts of a college essay submitted by one of her students. This piece is definitely worth reading - though it won't magically reveal how to write a winning college essay. The best advice in these examples is how the use of narrative and specific "telling details" enhance an adequate piece of writing into an engaging and memorable essay.

The essay that follows was written by a current senior at a Washington-area high school. She is a strong student in the top quarter of her class who is planning to apply to a range of schools, including George Mason University and Notre Dame. The first draft was her best attempt before any coaching. The second one was the product after about an hour of discussion with me, a high school English teacher and a writing consultant. My comments are in italics.
Science and religion have been battling it out for centuries, or so many seem to think. Between the notorious arrest of Galileo in 1633 and the frequently debated theory of evolution, many have come to the conclusion that religion in general, but specifically the Catholic Church, is opposed to the idea of science.
–First impressions: (A) The author can write pretty well, without errors in spelling or grammar. (B) Am I reading an introduction to a research paper about Galileo or a personal essay?
I am seated at a long hardwood table in the magnificent South Dining Hall of the University of Notre Dame. As a rising junior among other hungry high schoolers, I cannot help but think this looks like a scene out of Harry Potter. A scrawny, blond boy of fifteen sits across from me wearing a Star Trek tee shirt. Sam is one of the kids I recognize from the camp I am attending, “Physics of Atomic Nuclei.” Over burgers, light conversation about the decomposition of radioactive isotopes in bananas is made heavy by the mention of a certain characteristic of the institution: its Catholicism. Someone comments how interesting it is that a school like this would hold a space camp. I offer that it is not so strange, and Sam pipes up.
–Now that makes me want to keep reading. Why? It’s the beginning of a story! A few key mechanics help it work: first-person narration, present tense, both external details and internal thoughts are included. And, best of all, it has voice.