At our local public high school in Laguna Beach, the English teachers assign juniors to write college application essays at the end of the year.
It’s a great idea.
For many students, this may be the only time they get any guidance on how to write these essays.
There’s only one problem. Many English teachers don’t know how to write these types of essays—and can actually give advice that could lead to inferior essays.
I’ve read many students’ rough drafts in recent years, and some of the worst ones received A’s.
That scared me.
These students believed their essays were perfect, ready to send in with their applications.
And these were the same students—with the highest GPAs, test scores and endless extracurriculars—applying to the most competitive schools where essays matter most.
It’s not their fault.
Or their well-meaning teacher’s.
The problem is that English teachers are mainly trained to understand and analyze literature and teach the mechanics of writing. I don’t mean to insult English teachers. (My dad was an English professor and I’m a certified high school English teacher.)
There are teachers who can write and teach writing.
But not enough of them.
Most are best at academic writing, which is formal, pedantic and not always inviting to read. You want the opposite in a college application essay.
An English teacher could certainly help students edit their essay to catch grammatical, spelling or syntax errors.
But I would be aware that some teachers could steer them wrong when it comes to picking unique topics and how to write a narrative essay.
One student at a recent workshop shared a terrific “out-of-the-box” topic idea, and told us that her English teacher advised her against using it. That’s so sad.
I believe English teachers (and administrators, college counselors and parents) need to spend more time learning what makes a powerful narrative essay, and find resources to help direct students on how to write them.
In the old days, it was called, and taught as, creative writing–now almost a dirty word in the myopic frenzy to raise test scores.
Teachers also need to have their students practice this type of creative writing long before college application essays are due.
I love that students in English classes are required to read great literature.
But instead of writing countless academic essays about the literature, why aren’t they taught how to tell their own stories?
I can’t say if the emphasis put on these essays is right or wrong, but the current reality is that they often make the difference in who gets in or not. It seems to me that if most of a student’s education is aimed at landing in a great college or university, more energy should be spent on teaching this style of writing.
I also think public schools especially should teach this type of writing to keep a level playing field.
Most private college admissions counselors now understand that narrative essays are the ticket, and the savvy ones advise and assist their students to write slice-of-life essays.
It’s only fair that all students have access to this knowledge and instruction.
For English Teachers: Some ideas on lesson plans to teach writing narrative style college application essays.
I have written a guide that is intended to help students learn how to write a narrative style essay, called Escape Essay Hell! Here are some other helpful resources on learning what makes great writing and how to do it yourself (all available on Amazon):
Ready to write your own narrative essay? Check out my Jumpstart Guide to help you get started.
This is a great post – one that I couldn’t agree with more. I’ve had several students in the last year or two tell me their essay was all set because their English teacher helped them with it. Of course, it never fails that the essay they wrote is way off base and will not help their chances of admission. These essays tend to be more about “everything else” than they are about the student, him- or herself.
Thank you for writing such a nice piece on this issue. I’ve thought about it several times but could never quite find the words to say it nicely. And I was an English major…
Bird by Bird (by Anne Lamott) is one of my favorite books. And i’m not normally a fan of authorial meta-reflection. I’ve told the title story to my students more times than they would care to remember!