There are many pieces to the college application puzzle – not quite 1000, but enough pieces required to provide a college admissions team a picture of who a student is, share what they value, and the direction in which they are headed. Approaching this coming year's application season might seem impossible to make sense of how all of the pieces will fit, but one piece of the puzzle that may have even greater importance is the opportunity to tell your story.
With the "flattening of grades" as some high schools have moved to pass/fail models, a student who was having a strong second semester will want an opportunity to share their progress and triumphs. There is a place for this, and it is likely that colleges and the Common App will help provide additional opportunities for students to write about what they have achieved. An upward trend in grades and success in the classroom is important to convey, but does not need to be the overarching theme of essays. Students are multi-dimensional, and painting a clear and multi-colored image for your reader will be more compelling and keep them engaged. Yes, providing academic details to give a broader context of improvement is essential, but just as school is not a student's only interest, the essay should not be one dimensional.
At the very heart of any college essay is -- well, the heart of the student. This does not mean the essay should aim to be a "sob story" as one of my students called it a few years back. What it does mean is that each student needs to write about things that are so central to what defines them, using their words, syntax, and sentence rhythms so that when read it is as if they were sitting across the room telling it to you. Some of the most successful stories often start with something small, and even seemingly impersonal. The trick can be in the telling. Sometimes a story weaves lessons learned, aspirations, or observations that emphasize the depth of character that might not easily be seen in a student's daily life. Some students can access a well of language that is robust, while other students will rely on words that are spare and clear. Helping students stitch together an essay that shouts, or sings quietly, a statement of "I am here," is part of the work that makes the application process transformative.
It will be tempting to write about what it was like to be a high school student during this historical moment, especially if you're a student that faced significant challenges, whether they are economic, health, or impacts on family as a result of COVID-19. Before committing to that essay, keep in mind the world of rising seniors also experiencing COVID-19. While it is true that each student's story will be unique, take the time to ask if this is truly the most unique experience of your life. It will also be tempting for parents or family members to want to help, but this is the time for everyone to sit on their hands. Let the writing process take over. Writing essays can take weeks and sometimes months to form into a draft that will find its final form. Telling the story that makes sense, is built on details, heart, and reveals a student's character and aspirations that will bring all the pieces together - and put who the student is at the center of what's most important in the application puzzle.
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