In all honesty, I don’t care what they get for a grade on this piece. After days, weeks, and months of toil, a number cannot and will not determine the actual value of this paper: the college essay.
I have a love-hate relationship with the college essay. I love that students have the opportunity to express themselves through writing and that they are encouraged to provide personal stories. I especially love the emphasis on creativity that draws them away from the rigidity and structure of standardized tests and check-box-surveys. What I hate is the overwhelming weight that accompanies telling “your story,” the crowning piece of one’s 17 years of life.
My first year of teaching, I fretted over college essay advice. I told students to steer clear of the three Ds—death, disease, and divorce—and to instead explore a wider variety of ideas that included mundane moments. I wanted them to beware the standard cliché essays of human suffering.
What I found was in restricting these three topics, I also restricted the very stories that shaped these students’ identities. After all, our students are still teenagers; they have many more stories to live and we mustn’t undermine those stories of death, disease, and divorce that have framed their present reality.
Sarah’s essay on her father’s death and her inability to hold his hand during his last moments tears at my heart every time I read it, and I have been working with Sarah on this piece for a year. She writes:
It is nearly two years after my father has passed, and my inability to hold my father’s hand on his deathbed still haunts my dreams and consumes my thoughts. I am sixteen years old, I have done regretful things in my life, but the singular moment I regret most in my life is not holding my dad’s hand during the one time he needed it to be held by me.
Sammie’s poetic piece on coping with her best friend’s severe eating disorder and eventual hospitalization and rehabilitation has a place in Sammie’s college folder. Maddie’s experience meeting her mother’s boyfriend for the first time after the shock of her parents’ divorce belongs filed alongside her SAT scores.
Instead of limiting their stories or categorizing them as cliche, we, as teachers, must help our students explore these experiences through expert narration and craft. After all, doesn’t the beauty in literature rest in its familiarity? Its common story? Its trumpeting of empathy, underdogs, and resilience?
How do you approach college essays, and how do you help students who are struggling with essay topics?