Teachers at Work

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Writing the College Admissions Essay

As every high school senior - and parent of said senior - knows all too well, now is crunch time for college applications. In her latest column, teacher Shannon Reed wrote an excellent guide to choosing the right college. Now we want to zero in on the big, hairy challenge to getting into that school: The personal essay. What should you write about? What should you not write about? To get the inside scoop, we called Richard Ries, AP English teacher and College Counseling Office essay advisor at Ben Lipson Hillel Community High School in North Miami Beach, FL. Here's our conversation:

VT: What's the most important thing a student needs to know about writing the college essay?

Richard: The most important thing that I want them to communicate is: What can they bring to the college? In other words, how do they add to the student body at that college, rather than what they can get out of college. A bit of a JFK-type talk, if you will, in the college essay writing process.

VT: "Ask not what your college can do for you -- ask what you can do for your college," so to speak.

Richard: Exactly.

VT: Can you give us examples of how you encourage students to approach a college and say, "Hey, here's what I can contribute to the student body"?

Richard: Typically, an admissions question might be, for example, "How has your culture shaped you?" Students may at first logically contrast this with how they came to be who they are. But I always want to talk about who they are as someone who helps others at the school or someone who wants to better society in some way. The Judiasm, the phrase is tikkun olam, which means "repairing of the world." I want them to include at least some of this in a composition of who they are.

VT: What other things should students focus on in their essays?

Richard: A key word is "globalization." I think they should focus on the fact that they want to be part of the 21st century, that they see themselves as a citizen of the world, that they're looking to interact in the 21st century in a way that connects them with other countries and cultures, and that they understand that that is the world that we live in today.

VT: What kinds of things have your students written that help them stand out from the crowd?

Richard: There are all sorts of stories. Students will often write about big events in their lives, like a year abroad, a death in the family, a divorce, things of that nature. But I had a student, for example, who wrote about an internship he did with a State Senator. I thought that was very interesting. When I counsel students, I interview them to find out what makes them different, what makes them tick -- especially if they have writer's block and they're looking for some way to answer one of their college questions.

VT: Anything students should not write about?

Richard: Students sometimes want to write about the battles with such things as depression. I encourage them not to do that. I've had students who want to write about a battle with addiction. I've encouraged them not to do that, either. This said, however, I have had students who genuinely did want to write about, say, a battle with anorexia or bulimia which helped define who they are today. So I won't say that 100 percent of the time, I've counseled them away from such writing decisions.

I've also had students want to write about something very banal, like about a best friend and why that person is a good friend of them. I try to get them to write about a bigger, even global kind of issue.

VT: What about writing advice on a practical level?

Richard: I try to steer students away from humor because I think what's funny to one may not be funny to a college admissions officer. It's a risk that I don't recommend taking.

Also, I steer students away from specific "hot button" issues. For example, here in Florida, the Terri Schiavo euthanasia case was something students wanted to write about a few years back; I counseled them away from that. I prefer if they write on something hard to disagree with -- fighting hunger, fighting poverty, helping Africa, raising awareness of Darfur, going green, etc.

VT: Final thoughts?

Richard: As I mentioned, I really stress that students communicate how they can add to the student body, not just talk about what they can get out of it. I want a student to attend a college as a contributor, and not just a consumer.


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Tuesday November 13th 2007, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Mattie D.
As a retired college teacher and sometime counselor I find this article insightful and good advice for that first English essay as well.

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Teacher Shannon Reed's guide to choosing the right college.
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