‘Tis the season! While that statement inevitably makes many people think of holiday lights, or dreidels and menorahs, and gift buying, for thousands of high school seniors and their parents, December is the advent of college application deadlines, and one of the most stressful times of their lives. Many students apply Early Decision or Early Action these days, and deal with this mountain of anxiety in the early fall, but with most final school deadlines on January 1st, winter break is the quintessential time for stressed out seniors and nagging parents.
I believe both are entitled to their angst. Looking at colleges, deciding where you want to go — with the looming question: what do you want to do, and then writing numerous essays, to convince those schools that you deserve (more than the thousands of other angsty teens) to be chosen, is enough to make any high school senior feel like a deer in the headlights. Add in the pressures of maintaining GPAs, senior projects, sports, theater, band … the list is endless, and anyone can see why it’s tough to be a student applying to college.
Parents are facing the imminent departure of a child they’ve raised, love, and have grown accustomed to having around. It’s a time of excitement and loss. They’re facing enormous fees and tuitions, which for many families means loans, scholarship applications and serious considerations. Parents are tasked with nudging kids to be timely and get all of the application material in, while still respecting boundaries and not adding to their teen’s stress. All of this while keeping homes running, managing other siblings, dealing with the holidays, and calibrating their own rising sense of loss. Tis the season and all! Anyone can see why it’s tough to be a parent of a student applying to college.
For 10 years I’ve been tutoring high school seniors on their college application essays — generally five to eight per year. I don’t help fill out the applications; I don’t help organize the application process or decide which colleges will interest them; I help them write the best essays they can write, to help them get in to the college of their choice. I love doing it and I’m really good at it, and that’s as much about the kids themselves and what they have to write, as it’s about anything I have to offer. I’m not their parents; so the stakes are not nearly as high for me. But I make a promise to every high school senior I work with, that I’ll have their back; we’re in this together. I take that promise very seriously, and the weight of what we’re doing together is heavy for both of us. In a way, each fall, for the past ten years, I’ve found myself in my own little tornado of timelines and pressures, school prompts, and some measure of stress about what will work, and what will not.
And yet I love this thing I do each September through early January. As a trained social worker, I find that this work is as much counseling as it is writing with kids. Because I’m not their parent I don’t have preconceived ideas about who they are, nor do I have the same expectations. While I nudge them to get the work done, I am not personally invested in that, the way parents are. The work is intense and driven. I’m not just looking at punctuation. My goal is to get their essence down in an essay, so we are digging in some deep places. I tell every kid: the only thing that each essay prompt is asking is “Who are you?” Yes, it may say: “You have been invited to give a TED talk. What will you talk about and why did you choose that topic?” Or, “Tell us about a time you experienced failure.” Or the perennial: “Why (insert school name)?” Whatever creative wording they use, the only thing that any of these questions is really asking is, “Who are you?” Who are you that you would choose that TED talk? Who are you that you failed at x, y, or z, and how did you respond… who are you? Who are you that you want to attend this, that, or the other school?
In my experience, by senior year, many kids have had much of their individuality squashed, when it comes to expressing themselves in writing. They have learned how to write to state guidelines; they know how to get the best grade, without investing their self in it and with as little time as possible. There are several other classes to worry about too, and all of those extracurriculars to maintain. No doubt that sounds cynical and discouraging, and of course it’s not true of every school district or every student — your student, your school district, is probably different, right? However, I’ve worked with about eighty students, formally, and far more informally, over those ten years and the bulk of my work is digging down, to figure out who they are and get it on a page. Most of them are trying to figure that out too! They are months away from leaving home, and taking a giant leap. They are looking at all of those prompts, and how to answer can feel like a minefield. The stakes feel huge!
Most think that the best approach is to bulk up their essays with GPAs, PRs, SATs, ACTs, medals and titles. They are used to bullshitting, and they start out trying to do that with their essays to. I tell every kid I work with that they should expect at least six drafts of every essay we work on together. Many will require more than that. They always smirk, or try to cover their smirk, sure that I just haven’t seen what they can do yet. But this is something I know more about. I joke that I have a nearly 100 percent success rate in making kids cry. I cry too. They cry because someone is really asking them to express themselves; someone wants to really hear what they have to say, and they are digging deep to uncover who they are — outside of their persona at school and within their families and communities. They cry because I hand the bullshit back and tell them to get real. They cry because it’s hard work, and they are learning about themselves, in a very real way. There will be at least six drafts. I cry because their struggle is so raw and amazing. I cry because I’m proud of the work they do. I cry because it touches something inside me, that isn’t accessed often. I cry because I have their backs.
When we’re not crying, they all know I make killer milkshakes. Milkshakes help soften the edges. We are talking, and talking some more. We are circling issues and looking for the “hook–” that magical combination of words and phrases that will bring them to life on a page, and make a college admissions officer want to read more. The hook, if successfully written will draw those readers in; the rest of the essay will convince them that their school would be a better place with this student there. The competition to get in to so many colleges is brutal. Schools are trying to fill quotas: grades, geography, cultural and racial identity play into it; grades, SATs, ACTs, PRs, and grades play in. They want to know if you’ve done anything: band, sports, drama, mock U.N. , etc. consistently. Did you stick with it? All of that matters.
But, I believe that the college essay, for many schools, is a singular determining factor in who gets in and who does not. There’s reality: if you are that golden boy or girl who did everything perfectly, you may have a ticket to ride, that many others won’t have. Schools may seek you out. But, there are a lot of golden kids out there. There are a lot of them applying to the same schools. If you’re that kid who is talented and smart, but you didn’t really make your mark in high school, the essay can be a game changer. What you say in an essay tells a school something different than the grades and accolades tell them. It’s important, and should be taken seriously. There are smart people reading those essays and if you bullshit, they will recognize it. You aren’t the first person applying. The college essay is where you get real, and say something that has meaning.
It’s not just about whether you played football, it’s about what it brought out in you; lots of other kids were part of a team too. Admissions offices are sick of mission trips where privileged kids learned from the people they went to help. It’s not much of a failure to not make varsity; how did you grow? Did it take you in a new direction? What’s it like to doubt yourself? Do you like your hair, and why? What makes you different, or the same? If you’re doing this right, and you want that essay to really matter, you’re going to uncover some things, and dig in some places that you might not have gone for a while. I’m holding a shovel and digging with them. I’m looking at what we find and helping them figure out what counts on the page. I don’t write an essay for anyone, ever, but it’s a collaborative process, and I’ve got their back. When they hit send, at the end of all this, I want that student to feel really good about the work they’ve done.
Every fall I start this all over, and as my time is eaten up and I start getting those first rough drafts — some of which remind me that there’s a lot of creativity and talent out there, others which remind me that not everyone can write, I am ultimately reminded that I love working with high school seniors. I love being in this with them. I love the struggle and the moments of clarity that make it all so rewarding. I listen when they are struggling with their parents; I help them focus when they are panicking about deadlines and getting this right; I reassure them when they doubt their worth, and sometimes I have to remind them that they are not so special, if they don’t dig in and get in the page. Each year, I am tugged as I realize that they are all just starting out — a big, exciting world open to them, while I am not. I’m working on starting a writing career, in my early fifties. I’m leaping too, but the possibilities are not as limitless. We are both digging in.
So many high school students put all of their energies into preparing for the SAT, keeping their GPAs up, and padding their records with things they’ve been told are important; they are important. But the college essay is critical, and I think too many kids overlook this. They figure they can cram and write it last minute, when it may in fact be the very thing that will determine where they end up for four years. Each fall I’m reminded that there are some really amazing young people out there, who we will all rest our futures on. They are starting out, heading to college, with the hope of finding what sets their souls on fire. They are on the brink of such a big leap, and I am so honored to stand on the ledge with them.
Are you going through college applications? Share your thoughts; leave a comment.
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