college application essay


I’m not sure how many high schools require their English teachers to help students write college application essays, but those that do could give their juniors and seniors a huge advantage in the college admissions game.

For many students, an assignment to write one of these essays for English class will be the only outside help they get. 

But if a high school decides to have its English teachers include these essays in their curriculum, it’s important to get them right.

My understanding is that some overburdened English teachers don’t understand these essays or how to teach them.

I’ve heard stories of teachers giving high grades to essays that are bad, or not giving any direction on how to write an effective one.

Someone recently told me that a teacher at one of our local high schools was having students answer a prompt for the Common Application that is no longer used (the old Prompt 4 before it was changed this year).

I don’t even want to think how that could play out.

I’m not trying to point fingers, but believe high schools and English teachers should consider taking these more seriously, and put more energy into understanding why they matter and what makes a good one.

Beyond their value in the admissions game, I also believe learning to write one of these essays is perfect for teaching students to write better, especially in the real world.

And isn’t that the point of English class, at least when it comes to teaching writing?

college application essay

Here are my 6 reasons I think the college application essay is an ideal writing assignment for high school juniors and seniors:

1. This probably is the first time something they write could have a real and lasting effect on their lives.

Unlike a compare-and-contrast essay on Moby Dick, these essays are current and relevant.

They can affect where a students goes to college, and also how much scholarship money they get.

When something matters, it also motivates.

Take advantage of that.

2. It’s a true writing assignment.

Students get to write their own stories, instead of just analyze what others have written.

They also can test out the literary writing techniques used in all the great fiction they have read over the years. (I’m not saying studying literature does not have value, but to learn how to write, students need to do more of their own.)

3. When students care about what they are writing, they invest more emotional energy into the process—which produces better writing.

What can be more interesting to a teenager than themselves and their immediate future?

I have found that my tutoring students (despite the initial dread of dealing with these essays) end up enjoying the opportunity to take an analytical look at their past, and explore what shaped them and what they learned.

And the results often have been surprising and impressive.

4. This assignment teaches students how to write with a goal in mind.

These essays are really marketing pieces. Students are trying to sell themselves to their target schools.

It can be tricky to tout yourself and come across likable at the same time.

But learning to strike the right tone in writing is a valuable skill in itself. So many jobs involve marketing writing skills—from advertising to Internet content writing (blogging) to press releases and cover letters.

5. These essays are great practice to write for a real audience.

Up until this point, most students only had their English teachers in mind when they wrote papers.

Now they need to pitch them to a discerning and critical group of strangers.

6. These essays push students to get personal in their writing.

Many essay prompts ask students to dig deep and share their struggles, hardships and challenges.

These experiences and feeling can be tough topics to explore and write about—but what better time than right before they step out into the real world?

I could keep going past 6 reasons why these essays are a valuable exercise: Students learn to write in a different style, called narrative writing.

They can learn creative writing techniques, which they might not have used before, such as crafting anecdotes and applying other fiction-writing tools and strategies. They also learn to seek feedback outside the classroom and edit their own work.

They have to face word counts and deadlines; and to think out of the box and find original topics.

So that’s my case for embracing the college application essay as a serious writing assignment, worthy of spending time to figure out the best way to help students craft ones that are effective and meaningful.

Doing it halfway can do more harm than good.

No one likes these essays. They are loaded on many levels.

But as long as college application essays are required to get into most colleges, and can make a difference on where students end up, why not embrace them and empower students with real-world writing skills at the same time?