Two years ago, I planned for a senior class which blended Honors Seniors and AP level seniors. The AP level seniors had elected not to take AP Lit, so they came to me. I figured that if they were willing to do a little extra work (1 mini project a quarter), then they deserved the extra quality points. We would design how that happened as we went along. I thought the college essay would be a great way to bond the blended class-ha! Unfortunately, I was taught by their unremitting insistence upon resting on their AP laurels that sometimes things do not go as expected, especially the college essay. I dragged them kicking and screaming through some innovative (my judgment) mini projects that I will assign to my Honors students this year, because they could have been fun. But I am going to try the college essay again this year, as I embark on the senior journey with another blended class. I have been reviewing college essays from students for whom I write recommendations since I began teaching at my school, and am always upset at the gap between what I knew about the student and how little of that showed up in the college essays. Students that I knew were going to win at the college game came across as uninvolved and boring. And those AP level essays read like laundry lists of what kids think adults needed to hear. Yawn.
To no one's surprise but my own, the best essays came from the students who were not afraid to think about themselves and their futures "outside the box." I admit that the Common App prompts are dicey--I would not know how to start with some of them! The Guidance Department tells them the essentials about the process, so I can take the indirect path to college essay genius. We will listen to a few of NPR's This I Believe segments, and use that prompt as a way to start. If you have not listened to This I Believe, you should. They are essentially 2-3 minute personal essays detailing what it is that the speaker feels defines them as a person. We always start with Jackie Robinson's. Yes, Jackie Robinson. This I Believe has been around that long, and is still that good. So, the first time we did this, the higher level students had a tough time letting go of their high grades being the defining trait of their personalities last time, but we got through it. This I Believe confounded most of them at the beginning. The college application process is, to an extent, about how well you did in school, but the best essays came from the interesting kids, no matter their level.
And my only job in this redo of the assignment? I will tell them to write about themselves and what THEY judge to be most important about their experiences: write about yourself, remembering what you believe. This year, we will be sharing our essays with each other, after the trauma of college admissions letters arriving February through April. Revisiting their September essays in April will be a good exercise in self-reflection: another critical skill for a successful adult. Wish me luck.