First-Gen Students Learn to Write
College Application Essays


Last month, I had the privilege to work with a group of teachers and students on their writing and college application essays from the Rio Grande Valley in the southernmost tip of Texas.

Almost all of the 50-some English teachers and 165 students were Hispanic, and most of the kids will be the first in their families to attend college.

The College Essay Writing Workshop, which is a four-part series of workshops for the most promising students from 30 high schools in the Valley, was sponsored by the Texas Graduate Center, which is an initiative of the Texas Valley Communities Foundation (a non-profit community organization), and the Region One GEAR UP Program, whose mission is to help create a college-bound culture in this part of the U.S.

Earlier in the year, their students toured top colleges and universities around the country, including Harvard, Princeton and other ivies.

During these visits, the admissions officers from the various schools told the sponsors one thing over and over: The college application essay played a huge part in who they accepted, and urged them to help their students write better ones.

So they got in touch with me.

This is me working with a student.

I’d never spent time in that part of Texas, where the Rio Grande river winds up along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s been in the news lately, mainly as ground zero in the U.S. for the flood of illegal immigrants, many children, fleeing unrest in Central America, and violence in Mexico due to drug-related activity.

On the flip side, this delta valley has a strong economy, rapid growth, world-famous wildlife sanctuaries and hard-working families and community leaders. The cities I visited were welcoming and safe, and I got to stay in a charming 1918 Mission-style hotel in downtown McAllen, Texas. 

My goal at the workshop was to help these students understand that they had compelling stories to tell prospective colleges, and how to use their college application essays as a way to showcase their personal qualities—especially their grit in the face of adversity.

In the past, I’ve mainly worked with privileged students. While working with these Rio Grande Valley students, I got a glimpse into some of the unique challenges of helping underrepresented students find and tell their stories.

Some of the teachers during the workshop.

The English teachers were super receptive to learning new ideas on how to teach narrative writing skills and eager to share what they learned in their classrooms.

(What a brilliant idea to teach their English teachers how to write these essays, so they can share that knowledge and writing skill set with hundreds of other students!)


One of the teachers talking with her students.


The students worked hard to brainstorm moments and events from their past to illustrate their qualities and characteristics. Some had ridden busses several hours from outlying schools, but no one complained and they all were attentive, humble, focused and whip-smart. They spent hours working on drafts.


A student writing a draft of her essay.


I hope to share some of their essays at the end of the workshop series next year.

Here’s my latest post where I featured some of my insights, tips and advice on what I learned during this workshop, in hopes that other first-gen or underrepresented students out there who have faced similar obstacles or hardships might find encouragement and help finding and telling their unique stories.

Here’s a clip from the local t.v. station interviewing some of the students about their experiences with me: CLICK HERE TO WATCH.

So stay tuned!