Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tell Us About Yourself: The College Essay

Writing about the self is the hardest thing to do. Whether this results from social pressures to put the self aside, from familial pressures to be part of the whole, from peer groups who often (unintentionally or not) supplant the individual with a group self constructed from the impressions of others, knowing the self is hard to do at any age. Whether we are five or seventy-five, the protean concept of who we are shifts and changes as our lives shift and change. We move our lives about, hoping to hold onto a sense of who we were in the last moment even as we grow into the next. No one has a harder time wrestling with identity than the very people we ask to define that self in 250 words annually: high school seniors. Just take a look at these Common App essay prompts:
  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? 
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Anecdotally, 40 percent of teachers who apply for National Board Certification will successfully complete the program and be certified. A large part of this process is the ability to reflect on one's own practice, to "discuss an accomplishment or event" to "recount" moments when a lesson fell apart and he or she "experienced failure." If 60 percent of grown teachers applying for an advanced certificate have a hard time writing about these things, how could we expect so much from 17- and 18-year-old teens?

And yet, the requirement is there. More so, these colleges need to know who they are letting in; their institutional capital rests on the quality of the people they admit. So, what is a young person to do?

They are to turn to their teachers. October's Engage Now from Lawrence Butti of the Secondary Section Steering Committee is here to help provide some very clear, stable structures for teaching seniors, or even juniors, about the college essay process. Of particular note is Lawrence Butti's college essay brainstorming sheet that helps students frame the narrative of self in clear, discrete pieces of information that can be hard to pull out of the fog of memory in the context of writing the college essay.

As with all really difficult tasks that students complete, teachers are there to help guide students to be their best. In this case, we get the privilege to be there for our students at a time when stress is high and futures are on the line. What a great part of the ever-changing self known as teacher.

6 comments:

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