Writing a College Essay That Stands Out

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

Writing a College Essay That Stands Out

With heightened pressure around the college essay, students need more experience and confidence in narrative writing.

By Janelle Milanes     Dec 8, 2023

Writing a College Essay That Stands Out

As the college essay program manager for Write the World, a nonprofit writing organization for teens, I oversee a group of advisers who guide students through the essay writing process. I have seen firsthand the anxiety that students experience when it comes to writing their college essays.

Many of the students we serve say they lack confidence in writing their college essay, sharing that they feel uneasy and unprepared. We commonly hear from students that they have much more experience with academic writing.

This increased anxiety and lack of confidence is understandable. The college essay is more important than ever, with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action and the move toward test-optional and test-blind admissions. The essay is, after all, a student's primary opportunity to connect with admissions officers on a personal level and highlight their unique identity, values and voice. Unfortunately, too many students feel unprepared to tackle this task.

We regularly poll our students and one question we ask is for them to identify what feels most daunting about the college essay writing process. The top factors that have surfaced are pressure to write an excellent essay, difficulty explaining themselves and an unfamiliarity with narrative writing.

Our students also reported feeling immense pressure to craft an essay that stands out. That’s understandable — the growing competitiveness of college admissions has heightened the expectations for these essays.

Many students now perceive the college essay as a key opportunity to convey their racial identity, which is not surprising given that after the court ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.” The reliance on narrative writing to convey the complexity of a student’s identity adds even more weight to the essay's importance in the application process.

In response, some colleges have adapted by incorporating supplemental questions designed to allow students to share more about themselves and their lived experiences in essay form. Duke University, for example, added an additional supplemental essay prompt that reads, “We believe a wide range of personal perspectives, beliefs, and lived experiences are essential to making Duke a vibrant and meaningful living and learning community,” and invites students to share more in this context. Johns Hopkins University updated its supplemental essay prompt to more explicitly invite students to discuss elements of their identity. The prompt asks applicants to, “Tell us about an aspect of your identity (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, religion, community, etc.) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual.” The prompt is followed by a note with additional context on the shift.

Class of 2028 supplemental essay prompt. Source: Johns Hopkins University.

Similar to the personal statement, these supplemental essay questions require students to write about themselves in an authentic, meaningful way. Personal narrative writing has become the main vehicle that sets students apart in the college admissions process. Yet many students, even those who perform well in high school English classes and those who enjoy writing, struggle to express themselves effectively through personal essays. They are unclear on the distinction between academic writing and the personal narrative style required for college essays.

The challenge lies in the fact that while the college essay is essentially a personal narrative, this is a genre in which students receive little experience in traditional high school curricula. Most of the writing taught in high schools focuses on analytical or evidence-based writing, but creative writing, in particular the personal narrative genre, underpins the college essay.

Some teachers also lack the confidence and experience as writers to adequately teach their students elements of the craft. A 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers across the country found that less than half had taken a college class focused on teaching writing, while fewer than a third had received training on specifically teaching children how to write. This lack of education among teachers has contributed to a gap in students’ writing proficiency and their ability to convey their life experiences in written form.

The dismal student-to-counselor ratio in American high schools is another challenge. Counselors can be instrumental in guiding students through brainstorming topics, honing their writing abilities and refining their essays. They also play a crucial role in delivering in-depth, constructive feedback to students on their college essays. Yet, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of no more than 250-to-1, the national average in public schools is 415-to-1, almost double the recommended rate.

So, how can schools help students overcome these challenges? First, schools should invest in professional development and training opportunities for teachers to enhance their own writing skills and deepen their understanding of how to effectively teach writing to students. Additionally, weaving more creative and narrative writing opportunities into the curriculum from a young age and nurturing this practice throughout high school can help students develop the skills and confidence they need to express themselves in written form. Students should learn the basics of narrative writing, including how to develop an essay theme, demonstrate growth and self-reflection, and use storytelling elements such as sensory description and dialogue.

With a foundation of personal narrative writing in place, increasing access to counselors or advisers who can provide students with individualized guidance on the college essay writing process is key.

It is important to note that these solutions require significant investments. Many schools lack the resources and budget to implement these changes. In the absence of systemic change, students, particularly those in schools that lack a robust writing curriculum or access to counselors, will continue to face barriers to writing a strong college essay. Students without the means to pay for private college essay tutors or workshops are left to learn the basics of narrative writing on their own, and often too late.

Investing in our students' creative writing education is essential for their lifelong success. Creative writing helps students develop the skills and confidence they need to write effectively, not only in the college admissions essay, but also in all aspects of their academic and professional careers. Beyond that, creative writing fosters critical thinking skills, helps students generate diverse ideas, and improves mental health. By addressing this gap in schools, we can empower students to excel in this vital aspect of their college applications and beyond.

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