Guest post by Patrick O’Connor

One of the most interesting parts of being a school administrator is how many people expect you to know everything, and know it off the top of your head. This happened all the time when I was an assistant principal. In one quick walk down the front hallway, a parent would ask me what time the ninth grade volleyball game was next Thursday (6:00), a teacher would ask me when supply orders were due (last week), and a student would ask me what English teacher they should take next year (nice try).

Now that I’m a school counselor, it doesn’t surprise me that students are turning to school administrators for advice about college, especially the college application essay. Our counseling department offers two workshops to students on how to write effective application essays, and we meet individually with students to review as many rough drafts of their essays as they can manage to write. Still, with all of that help (and we haven’t even included the help they get from our English teachers), they often turn to administrators for even more guidance.

Using your special position to support students’ college interests is an integral part of creating a college-going culture in your school, so this is no time to be shy. When my administrators ask me about how to respond to questions about college application essays, I tell them to offer these three responses:

“Tell me about an event in your life that means a lot to you.”
This puts the student in charge of discovering the answer to their own question, and it’s a powerful way for students to engage in the application process. They’re expecting you to give them a laundry list of key points to consider; instead, you’re asking them to practice the technique their counselors told them about—where they have to see the application essay as telling a story. This isn’t like a class essay, and it certainly isn’t a speech or a book report. Asking them to convey a meaningful event to you puts them in the right frame of mind to write their part of a conversation on paper—and that’s the goal of the college application essay.

“Wow, that changes every year. Better ask your counselor.”
This is the response to give when a student asks you if it would be better to get a letter from an English teacher who gave them an A, or a math teacher who knows them better and gave them a B. It’s also the answer if they ask if they could submit a letter from a coach as a third letter. The beauty of this answer is that you’re not shirking the question—this information really does change every year, so it’s best to send the student back to the counselor for a quick conversation.

“The colleges want to hear their voice and see the world through their eyes.”
This isn’t a response to a student question. Instead, this is the gentle reminder you give each year to that English teacher the seniors turn to for essay help—the one who has a tendency to review them like they’re term papers, and not college application essays. Grammar and form certainly have their place in college application essays, but many colleges are reporting that students are writing safe, well-constructed essays that say nothing about the student as a person. Once the English faculty members understand the many aspects of a good college application essay, they will review them and offer suggestions with a clearer, more humane, voice—the same kind of voice the colleges are looking for from the students.

Patrick O’Connor, PhD, is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, MI.

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