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A College Essay Starter Plan for the Dog Days of Summer

Getting students to work on their college applications during the summer is a hard sell. Here's how to talk to your kids and get them thinking about writing their college essay.

Getting kids 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 the piece they actively avoid working on when they might want to be doing, well, anything else during the summer. With the right strategy, however, writing the college essay during the dog days of summer can actually be not 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.

Making it personal

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 (leaving it to college English professors like me to try to put it back—judiciously) 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, say, the crushing cultural epidemic of teen so-called boredom. But it also tends to translate into low writing confidence and a really vanilla product that misses exactly what many teens enjoy about writing, which is precisely the “I, me, and my” bits.

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—even if they could’ve—written. This balance between the subjective and the objective, the personal and the 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 he or she wants this summer and all “I, me, and my” about it. Broadening it out to something bigger will come later.

Related: How to Write a Great Admission Essay, Step-by-Step

Writing takes practice

I’ve met very few (if any) young writers—in the college English classroom or in high school writing workshops—who are super confident about their writing abilities. Most kids, even the ones who have no plans to pursue fields of study that place a premium on writing, 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.

Related: 4 Ways to Improve Your Writing This Summer

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 she wants to do when she 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). As long as 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.

Related: 15 Mind-Blowing College Essay Tips

Guiding the conversation

In my head, and in my jottings, we’re 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 he has to tell me. His hands start flying around; he starts smiling. I’m talking less and he’s 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, his own words. He feels like he can do this. He does have something to say! The college essay thing is not so bad. Suddenly, there’s hope.

Next time, we’ll connect up 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 he’s getting there.

Related: College Essay Brainstorming Techniques

Building skills for the future

Okay, so the student hasn’t touched a pen or key (again, this time), but he has participated in some important prewriting. And that counts! Plus, now he’ll have an easier time getting to the pen or the keys to expand those ideas into messy sentences. And I’ll begin by asking leading questions again, building one paragraph at a time.

This kind of critical thinking and writing in stages actually 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.

Find more college essay advice 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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