Someone recently told me that every American teenager today knows his or her best camera angle because of all the selfies they take. It's an interesting observation because these are the same students I meet when they're struggling to write their college application essays and have no idea what their best angle is.
Consider the high school senior who wrote an essay about her grandmother's death. I had to gently point out that this didn't set her apart from the crowd. Another young woman planned to relate the story of her parents' divorce, not realizing this would say little about her own goals or college potential. A young man applying to pre-med programs drafted his essay about how he cheated his way through middle school. "I appreciate your honesty," I said, "but are you sure this is your best angle?"
How can these students who are so skilled at taking selfies be so unskilled when it comes to painting an attractive self-portrait in words? I have several theories, but the fact is, these essays matter. By senior year, a student's G.P.A. isn't likely to change much. Even SAT scores are hard to budge. But the essay is still in play, and colleges take this part of the application seriously.
"It's the one part of the process that can make a student real and likeable," says Lex Anne Seifert, a consultant and writing coach in Coppell, Texas. "The goal is for an admissions counselor to read the essay and say, 'I like this kid!'"
So how can we help these likeable kids write more likeable essays? A few ideas:
1. Take a hike. I've written before about how hiking can help with a writing project. It's especially useful in this context. You might want to outsource this first step in the process, just as driving instruction is often better left to an adult other than a parent. Find someone your teenager feels comfortable talking to about the future. Then send them off for an hour-long hike to discuss possible essay topics.
2. Rule out what the essay shouldn't do. The essay shouldn't pick a fight with the process. ("It's impossible to describe myself in one lousy essay.") It shouldn't portray the student as young or immature. ("I'll never forget my fifth Christmas.") The essay writer should not fall into the trap of describing something or someone else--a favorite book or a personal hero--so fully that the reader is left wondering who the college applicant is.
3. Remember what the essay should do. "The essay should give insight into your life that cannot be discerned from the high school transcript," says Sarah Langford, director of On the Quad Counseling, which provides independent college counseling in the Chicago area. "If your club activities, community service, and sports are addressed elsewhere, use this space to tell something new, maybe funny, even quirky about yourself and what you'll bring to the institution."
4. Find the small moment that tells the bigger story. Identify a high school experience that can serve as a metaphor for growing up, meeting a challenge, or discovering a hidden talent. One of the best essays I've seen in recent years was by a young woman who wrote about how being chosen to choreograph a high school musical forced her to assume a leadership role she wasn't sure she was ready for--but of course she was. Another student wrote a terrific essay about how he taught himself to program personalized games on his friends' school-issued calculators. He won the admiration of classmates and discovered a passion for computer programming.
5. Think like the Westin. The tagline at Westin hotels is that they strive to surprise and delight their guests. This is exactly what a college essay should do. The honor roll student who admits to smoking pot every morning before school might surprise, but this essay doesn't exactly delight the adult reader. Likewise, the student who writes about volunteering at a Guatemalan orphanage might delight without surprising. Two-thirds of the students I meet have taken a similar trip. Find the better story that's both surprising and delightful. It might be something as ordinary as a summer job at Taco Bell. If the experience brought unexpected wisdom, run with it. "Some students try too hard to write an English paper filled with literary elements," says Lex Anne Seifert. "A simple story written clearly is better."
6. Don't be satisfied with the first idea or the first draft. When I lead essay workshops, I ask students to come up with at least five topics, which they'll narrow down to one. The winning idea should be the story the student is most excited to tell because it honestly reflects his or her best self. Write a minimum of five drafts, paying special attention to the opening paragraph. "Admissions officers read thousands of essays," says Sarah Langford. "You want your first sentence to make the reader perk up and take notice after a long day."
7. Embed the compliments. Nobody likes to brag, but it's important to find a way to accentuate the positive. Weave the compliments into the narrative. One student wrote about how she was asked by a faculty advisor to serve as treasurer for the school's media club. Sharing this story tells the reader this is a responsible student who's earned the respect of teachers. It was also a perfect way for the student to talk about her interest in learning more about the business side of the communications industry. She didn't have to say she was focused or goal-oriented. Her story did it for her.
8. Allow time and space to write. Our job as friends, mentors, parents, and writing coaches is not to write anyone's college essay. That's cheating. Plus, it sends a discouraging message to the teenager that he or she can't be trusted with this important assignment. Trust the student to write the essay, but verify that it gets done. Gentle editing and proofreading are allowed.
The selfie generation is perfectly capable of writing their college essays. But we can help them find their best angle. In exchange, maybe they'll help us find our best camera angle when we pose with them for a photo next fall on the college campus of their dreams.
Kate Klise is an award-winning author of 30 books. When she's not busy writing, Kate leads workshops around the country for aspiring authors of all ages. Learn more about Kate Klise here.