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Good Writing About Bad Things: Irony and College Essays

It's funny how college essay prompts that ask about bad experiences--from struggle and pain to perseverance and identity--often make for really good reading for admission counselors!

My husband’s favorite undergraduate class was taught by a crusty, old-school rhetoric professor. He scrawled withering (but brilliant) comments in red on papers and delivered erudite lectures that justified tuition costs. His type barely exists anymore. As he handed back papers, he would famously lament to his class that “I went into this profession because I loved reading good writing. And all I ever get to read is really bad writing.”

To some extent, this is the irony every English professor faces. English professors become more adept at guiding and nurturing student writing over the semesters of their careers, but inexperienced student writing begins at relatively the same level at the start of each new term. It adds up to reading a lot of writing that’s not very good.

After this college application season, I was struck by another irony. You’d expect less experienced writers (i.e., high school writers) would produce more bad writing than college writers. And yet, college application essays provide some of the most refreshing reading I’ve done in a long time. Everyone out there who worries about Gen Z’s values or gets depressed listening to the news every day should read a bunch of these essays. They’d feel a lot better.

All fall, when I sat down with students to review the Common or Coalition Application options with them, listen to their ideas, help them brainstorm, and edit draft after draft of their admission essays, I was never disappointed. No matter what stage the essay was in, no matter how strong a writer the student was or was not—I wasn’t discouraged. And it’s not because I’ve spent my career reading student writing and teasing out main ideas from teens’ pens and keyboards. It’s because these essays are usually brimming with optimism, hope, and the desire to work hard to achieve results.

Related: The Top 10 Ways You Can Help Your Students Stand Out to Colleges

Students I worked with during this admission cycle want to be physical therapists, pilots, psychologists, biochemical engineers—any kind of engineer but a biochemical engineer—and, of course, some aren’t sure yet. They’re not writing about becoming YouTube stars or professional gamers or instant billionaires. They’re writing about becoming real grown-ups who want to accomplish admirable goals. One student hopes to impact the rate of heart disease in the United States; another wants to counsel young women; another would like to help young athletes continue their sports dreams after injuries; and still another intends to work with elderly stroke patients.

The thing about advising kids without being their parent or teacher is that you get to be dazzled by their personalities, by their ideas and creativity and aspirations. Your time with them is short, and you have a task that requires them to divulge potentially personal information to you. And you’re helping them craft that raw material, their unformed experiences and half-formed hopes into language and a structure that means something more than it did before they wrote their essay.

After slogging through the frustrating places—generating ideas, cutting out whole sections that were painstakingly hammered out, getting the words just right and within word count—I’ve had kids love their essays. And that’s the goal. As an English professor and a humanist, I’m committed to the belief that writing articulates what it means to be a person in the world and that writing transforms lives. In their essays, I see young people experimenting with that exercise as they describe challenges, growth, values, frustrations, and plans.

Related: 15 Mind-Blowing College Essay Tips

Look at the essay prompts: notice that they ask about struggle, pain, perseverance, difference, and identity. These inevitably lead students to confront instances of divorce, illness, bullying, failure, disappointment, loss, fear—you name it. The ultimate triumph is that their writing gives them the chance to pull a larger, positive purpose out of that scary stuff, thereby rendering it less scary. No wonder they love their essays. No wonder their essays—often written about bad experiences—make for really good reading that reminds me why I do what I do.

Find more advice for students on how to write the perfect college essay in our College Admission section.

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About Keaghan Turner, PhD

Keaghan Turner, PhD

Keaghan Turner, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Humanistic Studies at Coastal Carolina University. She has taught writing and literature at small liberal arts colleges and state flagship universities for the past 20 years. As a managing partner of Turner+Turner College Consulting, LLC, Dr. Turner also counsels high school students on all aspects of their college admission portfolios, leads writing workshops, and generally tries to encourage students to believe in the power of their own writing voices. You can contact Dr. Turner on Instagram @consultingprofessors or by email at tntcollegeconsulting@gmail.com


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