As the new school year approaches, college essays are on high school seniors’ minds, and usually in the form of panic. As a college essay advisor for the past several years, I always have a sense of excitement during the college application season. Personal essays are a medium that can be liberating to high school students, almost all of whom take deep pride in their final products. As high school librarians, we have the skills and knowledge needed to guide seniors in this area. Because we are avid readers, we are experienced in noticing the nuances and flow of language, in addition to being able to spot grammatical errors.
Students often approach their English teachers for help with college essays. But with the responsibilities of grading papers, making daily lesson plans, communicating with parents, among many other tasks, their time is limited. That’s where we come in. Since students are not programmed to think of their librarian as someone to approach for college essay help, they need to be invited. Last fall, I advertised my services. Whenever I taught a library lesson to eleventh graders I announced to the class that I was available to help with college essays; I spoke to all of the English teachers and urged them to refer students to me; I put up a sign on my desk encouraging students to ask for assistance; and I communicated with the guidance counselors about my willingness to help. Some students have private college counselors who help them with the entire process. Many others, however, have no help and may have parents whose first language is not English. We can be a vital part of helping such students have a successful experience writing their college essays.
I had over a dozen students who took me up on my offer last year. They sent me their essays through Google Docs, and I was able to comment and work with them digitally throughout the entire process. Some students preferred the old-fashioned method–they printed out their essays and I marked them up with pencil and wrote a paragraph at the end summarizing my thoughts and suggestions. Either way, I went back and forth with each student until they were happy with the end result.
We librarians have busy schedules, but taking a few minutes to read students’ essays and give constructive comments will go a long way in helping them finish something that often seems insurmountable.
Here are a few tips to help students write a meaningful college essay:
Don’t try to impress. This is one of the most popular mistakes students make when writing their essays. They write in a way that they think will impress the admissions reader. Instead, they should be themselves and avoid words that they would not say in conversation. This doesn’t mean they should use contractions or slang words, but only that they should not sound like a 50-year-old college professor. Writing what students think colleges want to hear makes them seem insincere.
Embrace simplicity: A topic does not have to be complex. Most of the best college essays are about mundane topics. Students falsely assume that if they don’t have a life-altering experience like a community service trip to Peru or jumping out of an airplane, then they have nothing to write about. College admissions officers have repeatedly stressed that the essays that seem the most interesting are the ones that are based in real-life, everyday situations.
Avoid writing mainly about someone else. Many students fall into this trap if they’re writing about a parent, grandparent, or other mentor who has impacted their lives. It’s fine to use someone admired in an essay, as long as the essay is about how interactions with this person affected the student. Learning about relatives’ heroic adventures during WWII does not tell colleges anything about students unless they reflect on how stories of these adventures impacted them and helped them grow as people.
Reflect. No matter what students write about, their essay should include a paragraph reflecting on their topic. Admissions counselors are looking to see how these students learned and grew from their experiences.
Some valuable websites for college essay help:
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is one of the library media specialists at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal and Woodbury Magazine. She co-hosts Bookscreenz Podcast with her daughter, Annabelle. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, the beach, and spending time with her husband, three children, and dog.