College essays challenge students to be individuals

Krt Campus and Krt Campus

SAN JOSE, Calif. –With her college application deadline sneaking up, Wilcox High School senior Monica Padron had finished everything but the essay. Now, all she had to do was define herself –in 500 words or less.

Her grades and test scores were recorded on the application form. But what meaningful family, cultural or personal tradition could she write about with enough force to guarantee admission to Dominican University?

“The hardest part was coming up with an idea and just getting started,” said Padron, a varsity tennis player and discus thrower who will be the first in her family to attend a four-year college. “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.”

Writing the college essay is an anxiety-ridden ritual for seniors, especially as November and December deadlines near. Many 17- and 18-year-olds have never reflected on themselves. Yet, the essays ask them to extract meaning from their lives, distinguish themselves from their peers and explain what they have to contribute, often in a page or less.

The day of reckoning for Padron was a Saturday. She retreated to her bedroom and turned everything off –the computer, the television, the radio. She closed the window, stuffed a towel under the door and spent two hours thinking.

Padron and her classmates have spent the fall researching colleges, preparing applications and applying for scholarships in Teddy Duffy’s AVID class, for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The elective helps students who are not performing to their full potential get and stay on the college track.

Duffy, a Spanish teacher at Wilcox High in Santa Clara, Calif., presses her students to think deeply about their own experiences so their essays will be original. She steers them away from what she calls “cry me a river” stories of hardship.

“You have to stand out” to the admissions officers, she tells them. “Let’s face it. They’ve read the same essay a million times.”

After talking with Duffy and others, Malini Prasad wrote essays on two topics she had not thought much about before –how her family celebrates Indian New Year and her participation in an abstinence club.

“I felt I had to write about something no one else knew,” Prasad said. In the process of writing, she said, she discovered how important those things are to her.

What is mostly on students’ minds, though, is whether they will be admitted to their top-choice colleges. For this is an acceptance/rejection proposition.

That is one reason the essay produces so much performance anxiety, said Scott Peterson, an English teacher at Willow Glen High School in San Jose. To help students get going, Peterson requires seniors in his AP literature class to write a personal statement and devotes several class sessions to it.

For Angela Nguyen, the issue was tone –“how to write in a way that you don’t sound pompous but make yourself sound like an eligible candidate.”

In some high schools, writing college essays is part of the curriculum. In addition, many counseling departments offer essay-writing workshops, and counselors and teachers spend hours advising students individually.