In Praise of the College Application Essay

Fall 2021

By Lucas Jacob

Excerpt from my narrative comments on a high school student’s essay:

[A] reader might feel like s/he is reading parts of several essays, not yet a single, overarching essay. So, the next step [is] to ask, “Of the ten color-coded component parts of what is here right now, which are the ones that matter the most to me?” A follow-up question [will] then be, “How can I organize the ones I’ve chosen into a structure that will allow for [the prioritizing of] depth over breadth, and [that will] contain clear and concise connections between/among the … parts?”

In other words, I was essentially saying to this first-semester 12th grader, “You need to restructure this entire essay from scratch, and you probably won’t be including most, or even much, of the content you currently have.” After all, I had identified and color-coded 10 separate items/ideas in the text, and the student was working with a word limit that would allow for exploration of maybe three or four of them.

I had no course credit or even letter grade to offer by way of extrinsic motivation. The student did not name any particular intrinsic desire to write. And yet, after reading my comments and questions, the student sat down with me for almost a half hour, talking through exactly which items in his draft mattered most to him in revision and in what possible ways he could order them so that a reader would be able to follow his thinking.

Within a few weeks, the student had sent me the link to a new Google Doc, containing a radically transformed essay with a clear organizational principle. There were now two clear through-lines tying elements of narrative to elements of analysis, and the next tasks for the young writer dealt with the kind of microstructural adjustments that suggest that an essay’s macrostructure is coherent. He now needed (a) to make the second of the two through-lines as clearly defined as the first, and (b) to retool a key transition passage so as to make clear a hierarchical cause/effect relationship between ideas (since the current version depended on the singularly unhelpful phrase “as well”). The student did both, before sending me the third iteration of the piece. Along the way, he asked questions that demonstrated clearly that he understood why he was doing what he was doing as he revised. He was not simply trying to enact someone else’s vision for his words.

A process almost identical to this one plays out every autumn, with dozens of high school seniors, who readily sit down to talk with me for 20-25 minutes at a time about their writing—every such appointment made by choice, with no external directive to meet—and who respond to my narrative comments with newly imagined versions of essays on which they have already worked hard in the first place.

I have been a teacher and administrator in independent schools for more than 25 years, and rarely have I encountered so much self-motivated learning with such clear results. What magic allows all of this to happen? No magic at all. Just the fact of a seemingly mundane task undertaken by hundreds of thousands of American teenagers every autumn: the writing of the Common Application and Coalition Application personal statement college-app essays.

In my roles as teacher, department chair, dean of learning and curriculum, and now director of writing, communication, and media literacy, I have worked in the English departments of four independent schools and taken part in curricular discussions with humanities and English teachers at dozens of other schools. It is fair to say that including college application essays in formal upper school curricula is controversial. In fact, little such formal work has been done at any school at which I have taught. The student consultations I have described here have all been done one-on-one, outside of the curriculum per se. Many, and perhaps most, independent schools use similar models.

I think that we as independent school teachers and academic administrators need to change that. The college application essay is a near-ideal vehicle for intensive writing-workshop instruction of the kind to be found in the most effective undergrad and grad school writing programs. There are at least four reasons for this: First, few school-based endeavors feel more “real world” to students than a college application essay. After all, such a task is often the first time a student’s work is going to be read, let alone evaluated, by people outside of school and family. The stakes, too, feel “real,” for better and for worse. (When we adults in school communities are not sufficiently careful, and sometimes even when we are, the stakes can feel all too high, as if the world will end if a student’s 650-word essay doesn’t somehow single-handedly ensure admission to one specific college or university.) Students like the one whose essay I have mentioned here often tell me bluntly that they want to talk about their work because “this time it matters.” This is almost never meant as a slight directed at teachers or at class assignments; it is usually a somewhat clumsy way of saying, “I have considered carefully the questions of why and how I need to communicate clearly in this context.”

A second reason, directly related to the one above, is that college application essays are elegant object lessons in the concept of audience. Any writing teacher will tell you that audience determines both what a writer says and how the writer says it. We don’t include the same information for all audiences, and we do not use the same diction or syntax, or even sentence structures, for all audiences. With college application essays, conversations about audience considerations, which can feel very abstract in other contexts, come sharply into focus. A student writing this kind of essay needs to know two seemingly contradictory things: that all members of college admissions committees are individuals, who read as individuals, and that most, if not all, college admissions committees are reading for some of the same things (clarity of expression, demonstration of personality, a discussion of the applicant’s values and/or mindset). This means that while a writer of such an essay can never know “what the reader wants” in a narrow sense—and there is comfort to be found in that—that same writer can confidently focus her metacognitive work on clarity and on questions related to exactly what she wishes to show about her values and/or mindset.

Third, with essay prompts that ask for both personal stories and discussions of huge abstract ideas, Common App and Coalition App essays make it nearly impossible not to consider and discuss genre. A student will want to know where exactly the line needs to be between her story and her analysis of that story. Such conversations raise related questions regarding what exactly the lines are in the first place, if any, between narrative and exposition or between analysis and persuasion. These are not mere exercises in semantics. Students can see in their own words the various ways in which descriptions using the five senses, re-creations of dialogue and actions, and representations of internal monologue do and do not interact with passages that might be categorized as philosophical, or argumentative, or persuasive. Questions of tone arise as natural outgrowths here, as do considerations of formal rhetoric.

Perhaps most important of all, the prompts, in combination with the word-count limits, lead to productive discussions of structure, at both a macro and a micro level: from how to order paragraphs, to evaluating exactly what a paragraph is supposed to do, to considering how sentence structures do and do not work, to working on various approaches to inter- and intra-paragraph transitions, and so on. I opened this piece with an excerpt from notes I’d made that included a color-code of the component parts of a student’s draft. At least three-quarters of the early drafts I read end up going back to their writers looking like proverbial (if digital) rainbows. Students need to be able to see an idea as abstract as structure. If a given concept is stated four separate times, in slightly different ways, in four separate paragraphs, it is easiest to see that if one is told, “Look for the bright-green highlighting.” If an idea from paragraph three would make the most sense if used as a companion to an anecdote from paragraph one, exactly which passages are in question can be easiest to see through a note like “What would happen if you put the red idea right after the blue story?” The student is presented with a visual key to structural elements that are determined, and sometimes even prescribed, by the very nature of the prompts used by admissions committees. By a third or fourth draft, I’m often back to color-coding but for entirely different kinds of structures. Maybe all sentences that coordinate when they could subordinate are now yellow, or all deviations from the established verb tense are marked in gold. Grammar doesn’t seem like an abstract set of worksheet problems in this context.

And as valuable as I find all of this work to be in one-on-one settings, full-class discussions, exercises shared among groups or pairs, and direct class instruction regarding key best practices are more effective and more efficient than working with dozens or hundreds of students one at a time. We all know how valuable it can be for students to encounter other students’ ideas in problem-solving and troubleshooting scenarios and how much there is to gain simply from hearing peers ask an instructor questions.

There are of course all manner of reasonable and not-trivial questions about how college application essays do and do not fit into course syllabi, overarching departmental goals, and always-overbooked school calendars. At least as important are questions about the ethical and practical considerations peculiar to providing feedback on college application essays (where all of the composition, down to every comma, must be done by the writer and where the time investment required of any teacher can grow very quickly). But these questions are answerable. I believe that we ought to answer them and to embrace the college application essay as one of the most useful tools we have as we teach young writers their craft.
Lucas Jacob

Lucas Jacob ([email protected]) is Director of Writing, Communication, and Media Literacy at La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego, California.