College Essays

With "speed dating" interviews, students gather information for their college essays.
With “speed dating” interviews, students gather information for their college essays.

Write a college entrance essay. You will design the essay yourself, based loosely around one of these two questions:

  1. What has made you who you are?
  2. What do you care most deeply about?

College Essay assignment 2015

I’m in the library today, getting in the squats demanded by the pregnancy gurus as I bounce up and down between students, troubleshooting the intricacies of college essays. The library used to be a more daunting place. Back when library days with ninth graders meant keeping thirty fourteen-year-olds focused on one task for almost an hour, I would whirl in busy circles, closing browsers, wheeling chairs back to their original spots and answering the occasional germane question in a computer lab where every giggle echoed across the room.

Today, I’m quite aware that I’m working in somewhat idealized conditions. I have only fourteen students, and they are in the eleventh grade. What’s more, today we’re working not on high-energy literary analysis or research writing, but on the college essay. The last essay of the year, I once dreaded teaching this topic. Nothing worse, I thought, than spending the last few weeks of the year writing pragmatic prose to be read by someone else. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I chat for a while with a student writing about light switches, the difference between American and German ones. He’d suggested it as a joke a few days ago, as a topic that wouldn’t work for the college essay. “Well, I’m not sure,” I’d replied, and the rest of the class nodded in support. Most of us are familiar with the oddity of searching for a differently-shaped light switch in a darkened room, finding instead of the giant square buttons of Europe the tiny levers we remember from childhood. Buoyed by my support, he’d continued, and now was wrestling with the idea, trying to make this light switch manifesto tell more truths about him than about how one turns on the light in various countries.

A few students later, I have a similar conversation with a young woman a little further into the process, who has found a perfect metaphor for her tri-passport existence in the three types of electrical plugs used in the three different countries she calls home. She is halfway through explaining how adaptors are critical, both for electricity and for cross-cultural life. I had no idea that intercontinental electricity could provide such a wealth of imagery for my international students.

I love this essay because of the opportunity for reflection that it gives my students. Though there is a wealth of admission essay questions available, for the purposes of this assignment I’ve distilled the more specific questions into the two broad ones above.

The students seem to prefer the first question, as it lends itself better to explaining their complicated international backgrounds, an acknowledged selling point with North American universities. Yet as soon as they start writing, they realize that for the purposes of introducing themselves they cannot simply explain where they come from; they must also understand how it has shaped them.

“So, what are you writing about?” I ask the next student in the row of computers. He replies with something between a grimace and a shrug. “No really,” I persevere. “What?”

“Um, moving.”

“How are you going to write about moving?”

“I’m going to rant for a few paragraphs about how much don’t like it. And then, I don’t know, come up with some kind of lesson at the end.”

I appreciate his candor, because sometimes that’s how this process feels. I’ve talked with students still so deeply embedded in their complex realities that they’re not ready to write about it, while for others the writing process itself is part of their healing. As I’m not sure what category he belongs to, I press on, learning in eleven grades he’s attended almost as many schools.

“As much as it would probably be good for you to write that essay—maybe you should write it sometime—it’s probably not going to work for this, right?”

He nods. We talk about how the transience of his prior education led to a moment of feeling that he could finally engage here, at the last of his many schools. I leave him thinking about how to express that sense of engagement, and what it might mean to him.

For some of them, this is the first time they’ve written reflectively about themselves. I place a somewhat higher value on writing than most people, so as I walk around I’m tempted to wonder if it’s the first time they’ve even thought this way. Who knows? What I am sure of is that we all need to be writing more college essays.

What if we considered these questions—What do you care about? What has made you who you are?—at every crossroads, not just this one that marks a rite of passage into adulthood? I imagine we’d discover that what we care about has grown up with us, has expanded as we’ve seen and lived more. We’d probably realize that yes, the factors that shaped us when we were eighteen are still important, but to that list we’ve added more. Entering college, I probably wrote about being a pastor’s daughter, attending public and private school, and growing up in rural and urban Washington. That’s not my college essay anymore.

If I were graduating from high school in eleven days with our seniors, I would write about learning what it means to live in community, about an expanded definition of “home,” about the identity formed by stumbling through life in another language. I would write, in short, what I’ve been writing here for the last five years, and for four years before that on another blog. We all need reflection, because we never stop growing.

What would be in your college essay?


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