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High school seniors all over the state may be spending their Thanksgiving break chewing their nails to shreds as they race against the end-of-month deadline to apply for the fall 2021 semester at University of California schools.
One especially anxiety-producing section they may have left until the last minute: the personal insight questions. You know, “Tell us why you’re amazing in 350 words or less.” (You can read UC’s actual personal insight questions for this year here. Applicants have to answer four out of eight questions.)
This year, college essays may be more important to an application than ever, since high school grades, extracurriculars and standardized tests have largely been sabotaged by the pandemic.
And the reality is, most students are on their own when it comes to writing their application essays.
“There are absolutely going to be tens of thousands of kids who will sit down on November 28 here in the state of California with a deadline looming and just look at the prompts and have to start writing with no parent or sibling who’s going to be able to offer much guidance,” says Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer of the for-profit counseling service Collegewise.
The cost of tailored college prep offered by firms like Collegewise is beyond the financial reach of many families. (Collegewise also provides free resources for students and educators.)
High school guidance counselors, meanwhile, are often helping hundreds of students with their college applications. California has one counselor for every 612 public elementary and secondary students, the fifth highest ratio in the nation.
What about parents? Students whose parents don’t speak English well or didn’t go to college probably can’t get much help at home. According to the California Department of Education’s latest language survey, about 4 in 10 public school children speak a language other than English at home.
TEACHING STUDENTS TO FIND THEIR STORIES
Nonprofit and government-funded college prep programs are left to fill in the college application help gap as best they can.
One such program is Girls Inc. of Orange County’s College Bound: Virtual Grad Lab. The 90 12th grade girls accepted to the program this year get (virtual) hands-on help developing a list of prospective schools, navigating financial aid decisions, and filling out admissions and scholarship applications. Part of the program is a six-week virtual essay-writing workshop where two to three students are paired with a trained, volunteer writing coach.
At the final session, on a Thursday evening in early November, volunteer coach Russell Arons helped seniors Montserrat Garcia and Wen Le polish up a few of their essays. Arons read one of Le’s essays, about how her experience as a 1.5 generation Vietnamese immigrant drives her desire to become an immigration lawyer.
“I have little, minor adjustments in the first three paragraphs — wording, tenses. I do want to talk the most about your ending,” Arons tells Le.
Garcia and Le say it’s been hard writing these essays, digging into the heart of their own experiences and expressing their feelings about them on paper.
“I’ve never really told anyone about what I write in my essays because it’s very, like, personal,” says Garcia.
Le says: “For me it was really hard to get to know who I am … For most high school kids like us, we always have to constantly catch up with the material, learning from other people’s perspective, learning about other people’s lives, but not our lives.”
WHAT GOES INTO COACHING?
For these girls, turning their gaze inward took a little prodding. It’s the same skill that Richard Reyes aims to teach high school students — at scale — through his nonprofit Plus Me.
When Reyes launched the organization in 2013, the idea was to share inspiring stories with high schoolers in hopes of inspiring them. (Reyes’s own inspiring story is about how he overcame a major health scare and an initial rejection from his dream school, Occidental College, to become the first in his family to get a bachelor’s degree — from Oxy.)
But a few years ago, it hit him that it wasn’t enough just to share other people’s stories.
“I realized, like, all of these kids do not know what their stories are,” he said. “And then I thought to myself, ‘Did I know what my story was in middle school or high school? No, absolutely not!'”
Now, Plus Me teaches storytelling to students in dozens of Southern California middle and high schools. Its writing program targets high school juniors, so that when it comes time to apply for college, they’ve got a journal full of material to mine for college essays.
“I think when students are able to articulate who they are and showcase their journey, I think they have an upper hand because they’re able to really paint the picture to the university of what they’re going to bring to their campus and how they’re going to evolve,” Reyes said.
CAN ESSAYS ACTUALLY LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD?
As with other aspects of college admission, essays are, no doubt, vulnerable to cheating, like having someone else write your essay. But admissions officers are on alert for scams, including prose that seems unlikely to have flowed from the mind of a 17- or 18-year-old, says Ponnusamy, who worked in college admissions at UCLA, Caltech and the University of Chicago before joining Collegewise.
“The minute I see a John F. Kennedy quote and I see your dad’s a lawyer, I’m like, uh, yeah, someone else got involved with this,” Ponnusamy says. “That’s just not how a typical 17- or 18-year-old talks.”
Admissions officers say students will not be rewarded for trying to impress them. “Don’t use a bunch of language that isn’t you because it comes across as incredibly ungenuine,” says Dale Leaman, executive director of UC Irvine’s Office of Undergraduate Admission.
For students without stellar grades or test scores, or whose time spent outside of school doesn’t fit neatly into an extracurricular category, the college essay offers a space to explain who you are and what makes you tick.
But the exact purpose of essays and the weight they’re given in admissions decisions varies greatly from school to school, and even within schools, says Temple University assistant professor of higher education Joseph Paris. (Some, including the California State University system, don’t include essays in the admissions process at all.)
At elite institutions where applicants are likely to have similarly impressive grades and test scores, essays can help identify truly exceptional candidates. At other schools, essays may be used to determine whether a student who barely meets other admission criteria should get in.
Paris notes that in current discussions about how to make access to higher education more equitable, essays have not faced the same kind of scrutiny as, say, standardized tests. (The University of California system was recently forced to drop standardized tests as criteria for admission and is now working to develop a more equitable test for possible use in future admissions decisions.)
So, can application essays open doors for students with less privileged educational and social backgrounds? Maybe, Paris says, but it’s hard to control for differences in students’ access to college counselors or college-educated family members who can help.
“It is a way to capture information from an applicant that otherwise may be missing from the application entirely,” he says of essays. “Is it the best possible way? I’m not confident that it is.”
Video essays could be more revealing, he says, or possibly a series of pointed, multiple-choice questions, almost like a personality test, that could then be cross-referenced with other parts of a student’s application to control for privilege.
Collegewise’s Ponnusamy agrees that privilege is baked into essays just as it is in other aspects of college admissions.
“If you’ve gone to a school that just has lots of resources, chances are you’re going to have lots more resources to create a great essay,” he says. “But I will also say I think admissions officers recognize that and are on the lookout for kids who show potential.”
Ponnusamy remembers from his own days as an admissions officer that essays written by students who dream of going to college are often much more compelling than those written by applicants who assume they will.
“Which is why structure, grammar matter a lot less than the story being told,” he says. “And I think all teenagers have amazing stories to tell.”