Lately, I have been working with many students to organize, write, and perfect the dreaded College Essay. I'll be honest--while my degree is in teaching students to read and comprehend, one of my absolute favorite things to do is to develop college essays with students. This is for a few reasons: first, I majored in creative writing at Denison University. I love using a poetic license and inspiring my students to find their voice. I love the fact that students are free to write about whatever they choose. Second, by helping students to find their voice and write about what makes them who they are, I am able to get to know each student on a deep level. Third, it is a great avenue to practice outlining and developing flow. Basically, I love the college essay.
Now, there are many resources available to students to help point them in the right direction. However, this post is not for students. Rather, it is for the parents who are wondering how to best help their high school seniors write one of the most important essays of their lives.
One of the first things that I do when I sit down with a student for the first time when working on this, is to explain something that they probably haven't heard from many, if any, teachers. I tell them that if, at any point during our brainstorming, writing, or editing process, they feel that the direction it is going or the words we are choosing do not reflect who they are, they need to speak up. It is important to remember that as much as I, or you as the parent, would like to help, in the end, this is the student's essay. It is a personal reflection of who they are in their own eyes, not who they are in your eyes. That is not to say that I do not guide them in the proper direction, but rather provide reasons for all my suggestions and constantly ask if that matches what they are trying to convey.
Especially for students who are not natural writers, help them to develop an outline for what they are going to talk about. Due to the nature of the Common App essay, there are so many avenues for a student to travel down, which can cause students to ramble if they don't have a focus. For example, I had one student who had begun with an in-depth story about his best friend's struggles with bullying, only to end with how much he loved traveling. While either of those ideas would have made a great essay, together it seemed disorganized and cluttered. An outline will help students to develop a cohesive essay.
It is also important to keep in mind the writing capabilities of your student, especially when it comes to setting expectations for what a writing tutor can do in a matter of a few hours. At a certain tutoring center, I have had a student write an essay that he was incredibly proud of with help from multiple tutors. But after six hours over a few weeks, his father called angrily saying that it was not what he had been expecting. He had forgotten that a tutor will not write for your student, but rather guide their ideas, content, and grammar in the right direction. On that note, it is also important to keep in mind that critiques of this essay can be tricky, as students become very emotionally attached to their words. I felt terribly after that phone call, not because of the terse nature of the call, but also because I knew the son, who had worked so hard, would have been crushed. Don't expect your student to perform above their abilities.
Encourage your student to seek out the help of their college counselor and English teacher. Many classes senior year have the college essay as an assignment, which is a fantastic method to obtain lots of feedback without much work. Offer yourself as a proofreader as well, but remember to allow them to reject your suggestions if your ideas go against their vision (this does not apply to grammar--always correct the grammar).
Like I said, I love helping students with college essays, and am currently tutoring while I continue to build this business. Feel free to reach out to me with questions, concerns about topics, or even to read a sentence or two to check on iffy word choice. You can contact me with questions or schedule a session by reaching out to me at LROgden@thereadeasy.com.
So, to sum up:
1. Do not expect your student to write the next great american essay!
2. Allow them to find their voice.
3. Encourage them to seek help themselves.
4. Be compassionate when editing - always end on a positive note!