A recent New York Times article called, “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” author Jenny Anderson reported on many glamorous opportunities privileged students felt obligated to do in order to augment their college applications, and more specifically, their college essays. The comments on the article, as well as the Letters to the Editor that followed shared a number of opinions that seemed to feel that these high-powered summers might not always be in the best interests of students.
As we near the end of the summer, I start to eagerly anticipate seeing my students again. I always start our first lesson catching up learning about the student’s summer. This always delights me, because I love to hear about the new adventures and “aha” moments each child had over the summer. I also listen carefully to see if they have had some time to relax and recover from the previous school year. Children need rest too, and while I do encourage them to keep reading or practicing certain skills over the summer, I also want to know that they spent time with their friends and family and had some time just “to be.”
To be honest, most of the students returning to my office this September will not be college seniors. But for those who are, I really hope that they have not seen their summers in a mercenary or transactional light, but I fear that this is exactly what the New York Times article suggests may be happening. Indeed, a trip to China or the Amazon has the possibility of being a transformational experience. But we should not overlook that there are plenty of “transformational experiences,” right here at home.
Although one of the essay topics on the Common Application asks student to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you,” a fancy trip or internship will not necessarily make for the best essay. The temptation to write about the experience with the expectation that that alone is enough to make a student a good candidate is false. A good college essay requires deeper reflection—the expectation on the side of the reader is not to learn what you did, it is to learn WHO YOU ARE.
All of this leads me back to the importance of teaching students to understand their strengths. Strengths, rather than boarding passes or internship IDs, allow students to explain the “impact” something had on them. Using or developing a strength you know you have, or finding a new one, is a makes an essay a much more compelling story than a description of your itinerary or the highlights of all the events you attended during your internship. Even better, strengths manifest themselves all the time in all kinds of ways. A relationship with a family member, a scary test, a funny and or/embarrassing story with a friend has as much potential for a great essay as a trip to Nepal.
So with that off my chest, I promise to get to what I said I was going to do… talk about the strengths. Next up: COURAGE!
Letters – to the Editor or from your vacation? courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt
Reflect Deeply – over the summer and in your essays! courtesty of Lori Greig