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How to Write or Teach the College Application Essay or Personal Narrative

Updated: Jun 5

The time has come for rising seniors to start thinking about their college application essay - the application process takes so much time that it’s smart to get an early start before the stress of the fall rolls around. I recently created a course about how to write an honest, authentic story that conveys personality and perspective. I talk to my students about what I call "The 4 T's" of the college essay - topic, tone, theme, and time. The short unit I’ve taught for years has been one of my favorite things about teaching seniors. After a short time together, I get to read stories where students try to extract meaning from their experiences and make sense of their place in the world. I laugh, I cry, and I’m often blown away by the wisdom of children on the brink of independence. There are so many stories that I’ll never forget – stories of triumph, mistakes, regrets, struggles, travel, sports, music, death, illness, injuries, blunders, siblings, immigration, school, and moving. I’ve encountered every topic imaginable, but the topics never matter – the voice is what sticks.

The way the writer sees and describes their reality is the essential piece to the college essay puzzle. What moment from their life do they pick to put under the microscope? Picking the moment that represents who they are is one challenge and presenting that moment to the reader is the other challenge. When I read a college essay, I want to hear the sound of the writer’s voice, like I’m sitting right next to them, listening to the details and explanations of what happened.

I remember conferencing with one student about what to write. He said he didn’t know what to write about, so I asked about his activities and hobbies. He said he didn’t join any groups or have time for any hobbies. So I asked why. He proceeded to tell me how he had to watch his younger brother after school because his single father would often get home late after taking the train home from New York City. You could imagine my shock. No story? I said. No story? How is that not a story? To him, his life was routine, boring, normal. No winning touchdown or buzzer beater. No world travels or extraordinary performances to brag about. But to me, it was a life of responsibility, sacrifice, leadership, kindness, love, and patience. He made me realize that the conversation before the essay is often more important and useful than the conversation after the student writes the essay. From that point on, I decided to focus not on revision but on the most difficult part of the writing process, brainstorming.

The college essay or personal narrative is a great unit to start senior year, because all great fiction comes from making sense of a real experience. Before writing fiction, they get to practice using literary techniques that show their perspective and wit, in a way that imitates their speaking voice and avoids the academic, analytical tone they’ve learned over the years. Once they establish their own voice, they can then move on to the imaginary voices of fictional characters.

It’s essential that students be themselves, and not the epic person they think they need to be to get into college. Colleges don’t want imaginary superheroes or intellectual powerhouses, they want a curious, humble, and open-minded person that wants to learn more about the world.

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