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Writing the College Essay

As a writing instructor, I hope to make the experience less painful and more enjoyable (for parents too!)

Among the memories from high school that still haunt me — right behind taking my cousin to the freshman cotillion and wearing stirrups and oversized sweaters — is writing my college essays.

I recall slammed doors and arguments involving not only what I was going to write about but also my wording. My father, who was from India, rewrote many of my sentences into proper English. British English, I might add (he grew up in India during the Imperial Occupation), therefore eradicating my “voice.”

I finally won the essay battle on a bitter cold Saturday night in January. I wanted to go out with my friends, but my mom wouldn’t let me until I finished an application essay for a full academic scholarship to Villanova. Our compromise: I would write it but dad couldn’t edit it.

She also kept telling me: “Write about your experience in the school musical.” But I had other ideas. I finished the prompt: “I’m forced to admit I’m just crazy about …” with “… potatoes.”

During my interview with a number of department heads at Villanova, we ended up discussing at length the best ways to eat potatoes (mashed, of course). Yes, I did get the scholarship, and it became a running joke with my friends that I went to college for free because of my love of potatoes.

That was in 1987. We all know the college application process is more competitive than ever. There are hundreds of kids vying for one coveted spot. And they come stacked with 4.5 GPAs, stellar scores on the SATs, and a slew of activities (deep and wide), thanks to early awareness and strategic planning that begins in middle school.

So what can set a student apart among throngs of comparable applicants?

The college essay.

Through their essay, students have a chance to reveal their character and personality, showing what they believe in or what they’ve been passionately involved in—be it football or animal rights or the school musical.

But how many essays can a college admissions officer read about throwing the winning touchdown, volunteering at a shelter, or singing “Do-Re-Mi” as Maria in The Sound of Music? Or essays about the 3 D’s: disease, death, and divorce?

That’s where writing style and voice come in.

Students can write about those topics, but through their style, they make it their own. I like to encourage students to share a personal story, rather than simply answering the question. It’s important for them to reflect on and articulate how they’ve been affected, how they’ve changed, what they’ve learned.

Most important, they need to write it in their own words, expressing an authentic voice. And of course, they should use such elements as structure, dialogue, and description to give it a narrative flair.

Their essay should not only be a compelling read but also provide insight—not found elsewhere in their application—into who they are and why their presence will be a positive asset to that school.

I recently opened a writing studio in Fair Haven and one of my goals is to make the college essay writing experience one students can enjoy, even one in which they discover something about themselves.

This summer, I will host two workshops, four Monday and Wednesday evenings in July and four in August. The classes will be small—about 6 to 8 students—to give students the personalized attention they need.

The workshops will be run similar to creative writing classes. Lots of writing prompts to respond to and storytelling to help them come up with a topic (I love this part—it’s amazing how they can find the most powerful subject in the simplest of experiences). We will then experiment with narrative techniques to organize and develop the essay, making sure their voice is honest and real.

Upon completion of the workshop, students will receive a complimentary private session, to tidy anything up and to edit for grammar and mechanics.

The essay will then be finished and ready to go.

My hope is that the skills they acquire in the workshop will be transferable to any writing they have to do, and their confidence as writers will grow.

Please visit www.jcwritingstudio.com for more information. This summer, I am also offering week-long creative writing workshops for students in grades 6 to 8 and evening workshops for students in grades 9 to 12.

And yes, my love of potatoes is as strong as ever.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Patrick Tapke July 01, 2012 at 05:02 PM
That was a nice article you wrote. I can tell you that my wife is a teacher and she does not do it for the money, or summers off. She loves to educate children and see them progress. Teachers have a hard job and they need to be respected for what they do. Hats off to all teachers and educators that watch out for our kids.

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