Getting teens to prep for college during the summer is a hard sell. But it’s worth it, considering that family schedules usually amp up once school starts again and fitting in college application tasks will only be tougher. For me, the most fun piece of the college application is the essay. Coincidentally, this is often the most daunting piece for students and what they actively avoid working on when they might want to be doing anything else this summer. With the right strategy, writing the college essay during the dog days of summer doesn’t have to be completely awful. If you’re trying to motivate your high school student to put some time into their college applications before school starts, zero in on the essay and make the writing process all about them—which, after all, it is.
Why the college essay is hard
Inside and outside the college classroom, I encounter students all the time who profess to love writing but hate writing for school. Students who are strong writers say they hate English. Students who are talented writers say they stink at writing. This is often not only because of grade anxiety but also because they’re not excited about assigned topics. Most traditional high school writing assignments don’t invite students to unload their deeply personal rants, raves, or meditations onto the page. Without a doubt, it’s much easier (i.e., more straightforward) to build critical writing skills without all that drama attached.
For that reason, many—though certainly not all—high school classrooms efficiently set to work taking the “I, me, and my” out of student writing in the interest of mastering college-level analytical prose. This is necessary; believe me, I’m not trying to argue that first-year college writing classrooms need more “all about me” narratives when the assignment calls for an objective and researched analysis of the crushing cultural epidemic of teen so-called boredom. But it also tends to translate into low writing confidence and a vanilla product that misses exactly what many teens enjoy about writing, which is precisely the “I, me, and my” bits.
Making it personal
Poised between high school writing and emerging college writing, the college essay presents the perfect transitional occasion for practicing the power of a balance: a personalized frame around a larger issue or point—or, conversely, a big issue framing a personalized experience of it. Either way, the end product should be an essay that no one else would’ve written. This balance between the subjective and the objective, the personal and political, and the narrative and analytical is where most relevant writing lives in the world, after all. The good news is this means your student can write about what they want this summer and all the “I, me, and my” about it. Broadening it out to something bigger will come later.
Writing takes practice
I’ve met very few young writers—in the college English classroom or in high school writing workshops—who are super confident in their writing abilities. Most young people, even the ones who have no plans to pursue writing-heavy fields of study, wish they could “become better writers.” Along with most everything else in grown-up life, there’s not a lot of becoming involved; it’s all about practice. Here’s one pretty painless way to get that practice in while getting a jump on the admission process this summer.
Breaking the essay task down for college-bound teens is critical. Maybe don’t even mention “The Essay” at all; just open a conversation about your student’s hobby, passion, or area of special interest. Just talk about it. Ask leading questions, jot down notes on the responses. Question, answer, question, answer. The conversation will unfold naturally. No one’s talking about 750 words that might determine the next four years of a kid’s life or what they want to do when they grows up. It’s just a conversation—about duck hunting, about surfing, about mobile dry bars. In my own practice, this works with kids who aren’t my own, so they know I’m often legitimately clueless about their topic (building a duck blind, for instance). If you get the hang of asking questions that keep the explanations rolling, this should be as effective for parents to try with their own kids regardless of how much knowledge they have about the topic. It’s also a helpful strategy for peer workshops.
Guiding the conversation
In my head and my jottings, me and the student are building the essay list by note, sentence by paragraph, image by keyword. But the student is just talking. And the more I ask, the more they have to tell me. Their hands start flying around. I’m talking less and they’re talking more, explaining, defining, describing. I’m keeping track with keywords that stand out to me, specifics that might shade in details later. It’s low stakes and low stress; it’s just a conversation. I’m the one who’s done the writing this time. But the student feels productive, seeing a page covered in notes, ideas, their own words. They feel like they can do this. All students have something to say! The college essay isn’t so bad. Next time, we’ll connect those notes to attributes, challenges, personal characteristics, values that match—fitting together how those notes translate into who the student is, who the student wants to be, and how they’re getting there.
Building skills for the future
Okay, so the student hasn’t touched a pen or key, but they have participated in some important prewriting. And that counts! Plus, now they’ll have an easier time expanding those ideas into messy sentences. Begin by asking leading questions again, building one paragraph at a time. This kind of critical thinking and writing in stages prepares students well for the expository writing assignments they will encounter as first-year students at many colleges and universities, where professors are eager to draw out students’ own ideas—no matter how nascent, emergent, or exploratory they might be.
Writing skills at the college level are put in service of honing students’ abilities to make connections, find the bigger picture and broader significance, recognize the overarching themes in cultural texts and discourses—and then say something about what they’ve discovered. A prewriting warm-up like this taps into student creativity but also sparks confidence that the student does have something to say that matters and that others are interested in reading it.
It can be hard to motivate your student to do anything this summer, so do your best to encourage without pushing and make the process fun for them. A healthy reminder of all this will do for the future couldn’t hurt either. Your student can get the hang of this and produce an amazing, acceptance-worthy college essay.
Is your student interested in taking college essays into their own hands? They can find even more application essay advice in our College Admission section.