It’s my first semester teaching English 100: Freshman Composition.
I launch into a carefully crafted lesson plan about writing personal narratives. I want my students to understand how stories make arguments just like more formal writing does. The course director has assured me that opening with a familiar genre will help my students transition easily into more formal college writing.
I pause when I see their foreheads knit together in puzzlement. A few raise their hands:
“Wait, I can use ‘I’ in an essay?”
“My teachers always told me not to use ‘I’ in an essay. We’re not supposed to share our opinion.”
“You’re sure I can use ‘I’ in an essay?”
My forehead knits together in puzzlement. Don’t they know how to write a personal essay? They wrote one to get into college!
Most teenagers only write one personal essay: the one they write for college applications
While I expected that my students had some training in how to write personal narratives, I’ve come to realize that most of them have only written one personal essay: the one that got them into college. And they were skeptical, almost universally, about the quality of that piece of narrative writing and trepidatious about repeating the experiment for a grade.
Writing in unfamiliar genres always feels impossible the first dozen times we try it. It’s becoming a cliché to allude to the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to master a task (and the veracity of the claim is suspect to begin with), but it’s unquestionably true that the beginning of any project is rough. Writing in an unfamiliar genre inspires bad writing — when we don’t know what to write, we turn to generalities, commonplaces, and banalities.
And what we write isn’t meaningful.
Here’s an experiment: tell me what you wrote your college admissions essay about. Yeah, I didn’t write anything particularly memorable either. Because, like you, I’d read very few personal essays and written none before I applied to college. And I actually never wrote another one until I applied to graduate school. It’s a little odd to ask students to acquire competency in an area that they will rarely be called upon to practice.
3 Strategies to Prepare Your Teenager for the College Admission Essay
But there are a few straightforward strategies any teenager can practice in the years (or months!) leading up to applying for college. These strategies introduce students to the personal essay genre and provide opportunities to practice its basic tenets so that they aren’t learning how to write a college essay at the very moment they’re called upon to master the genre.
While these strategies are specifically directed at writing a college admission essay, you’ll notice that they also echo my larger project of hacking education: viewing learning as a life-long experience, understanding that ‘academic’ learning is not the only type of valuable learning, and in general living an ‘examined life.’
Be Active & Involved
This is a piece of advice I find myself repeating a lot. Because it’s hard to lead an examined life in front of the computer or television. But it’s especially important for college admission essays because the Common Application essay questions ask about activities teenagers have been involved with: notable changes in belief or attitude, failures, accomplishments, and so forth. Students who are active in their schools and communities are more likely to have interesting stories that fit into such narrative categories.
But these interesting stories don’t have to be big ‘story-worthy’ events. For every story about a big trip to Japan that convinces John Hopkins University’s admissions committee to accept a student, they are also swayed by a story about someone’s height. The weightiness of the topic is not what makes these stories compelling; it’s the reflective qualities they reveal about their authors.
Model the examined life
The word essay didn’t originally mean a fully polished piece of writing; it meant an attempt to explain a topic. Writing a personal essay should be an activity of walking your reader through your thought process, of helping that reader to see why you believe what you believe.
Teenagers are very accustomed to analyzing books and movies, but if you ask them to apply those same skills to their own lives, they often struggle or fall back on generalities — I believe what I believe because I do.
Incorporating reflection into your everyday life is essential to training teenagers to articulate meaningful events in their life. Ask your teenager to explain their beliefs, annoyances, and experiences. Have them identify why their triumphs, failures, and discarded hobbies communicate who they are. Don’t just ask them to tell you that they enjoy or despise an activity, encourage them to explain why they have those feelings. Teenagers generally have strong opinions, but they are not often asked to analyze them or we often don’t communicate how those opinions reflect their larger world views or experiences.
If your teenager decides to become a vegan, you’ll probably ask her why. When she replies that she wants to save the animals or reduce industrial waste, push further on that. Ask what experiences in her life have brought her to that point.
The most successful personal essays don’t just answer a question in one way; they interrogate an issue, unwrapping layers and layers of thoughts, experiences, and assumptions.
But don’t just talk to your teenager. Have him start a journal, regularly writing not just about what happens, but what she thinks about what is happening. This only gives your teenager practice analyzing what happens to them, but it also helps them develop their own voice. Teenagers are more accustomed to speaking or texting their friends than they are to writing sustained prose; altering that balance will help them become more fluent and engaging writers.
Introduce them to a larger context
Most of us don’t read personal narratives or essays. But most teenagers are busy puzzling over the world they live in and experimenting with new ideas and approaches to the world. Reading essays can help them more clearly articulate their own positions because it helps them to see what others have already said and what makes their own approach unique.
I’ve read plenty of essays about mission trips, but the first drafts of these essays are always strikingly similar: I was shocked about how much we waste here in the US. Because this is such a revelation to most teenagers (it certainly was to me when I came back from studying abroad), they don’t realize that their startling recognition is a routine rite of passage. When they start reading essays about travel, they discover that their opinions exists within and connect to a larger conversation. That blend of universality and individuality is at the heart of what makes a personal essay vibrant and meaningful.
Here are my favorite resources for fantastic essays:
- The Best American series publishes an annual series of books about everything from sports to science and nature writing. Not all of their essays are personal narratives, but they will show how authors write meaningfully about even seemingly mundane topics.
- NPR’s This I Believe series asks individuals to explain one thing they believe in under 500 words. These essays are sometimes whimsical, serious, tragic, or folksy, and they capture the everyday voices of people who find meaning even in very small experiences.
Image credit: flickr/Julie Jordan Scott