Catie helping her student

Empowering Students to Share Their Stories: A College Essay Writing Journey

As an educational consultant for over twenty years, I have been invited to witness the intimate journey from the student experience. I have kept sight of the excitement and commitment to launching this process with juniors as they plan for fall admissions this winter and spring. The writing process is a personal discovery, unlike an English analysis or a biology lab report; this magical space allows college-bound students to share who they are and what they wish to do or become in their lives. 


Teenagers have brilliant thoughts and ideas, freshly reorganizing their goals and dreams as quickly as their weekend social plans. They can make mature connections beyond their years, especially when we (the adults) can create a caring and nonjudgmental space for them to be free and to share, express and explore their processing of ideas, opinions, and values as they define their path forward. 


When teenagers can trust a nurturing adult who believes in them and their contributions, like us adults, they are more likely to connect, cultivating possibilities toward their dreams. Students are more likely to engage with personal insight and passion, be more open to collaboration and feedback as they know a caring adult is committed to their dreams, and thrive knowing they can be themselves. 


In reflection of seniors’ from last fall, personal college essays were bold and brave. In hearing their stories all year, I was so proud of who they had seen themselves as, from sharing their love for people, skateboarding, and entrepreneurship, to identifying their learning difference as an asset and using it toward their goals, to becoming a Lacrosse student-athlete who managed the pandemic as a Captain, and another about a poignant essay illustrating the correlation between generational trauma from her grandmother, a survivor of WWII, and how the stigma of mental health for generations can impact a person’s genes today. I am in awe of the many stories shared between the lines each year as students share their stories. All were motivating, moving, and magical, sharing a piece of the student’s journey that reflects who they are with an admissions committee. 


I am privileged to be present in these moments of realization and new self-discovery. To hear an individual’s educational journey from the student experience is often delicate and vulnerable, and to acknowledge their incredible resilience and transformation toward filling their dreams with desires that capture the magic of purpose and possibility.  


For college and graduate school applications, preparing for a career path, and as a professional, learning how to share who you are by sharing your story and how to write about yourself are necessary skills for achieving one’s goals and dreams. 


One activity I find helpful when I engage with teens is setting the stage for the college writing process by encouraging them to talk freely in a session with me before they even consider choosing a prompt or writing in the Google Doc. Opening the conversation allows the student to be present and prepared with personal reflection from within, different from what they think their audience of admission officers wants to hear. 


This healthy approach supports personal writing with processing, specifically with one’s executive functioning skills that impact working memory and shifting perspective between topics of interest and their desire to share. All learners benefit from this educational therapy strategy when it comes to developing one’s writing skills, and even more effective when we are asked to write about our personal lives. 


In this exercise, I often create a situation for the student to ease into the conversation as they look for the many possibilities to create their story. For example, I will often say to fill in the blank by asking, “…if you were invited to dinner with your parents and their good friends whom you have not met yet, but they have heard about you, what would you share with them? Remember, they know about your interests and strength as a student and community member, what high school you attend, the grades you have earned, and they even know how much you love to work on your art during your free time. So, what would you share with them about who you are? In other words, use this time to share with your audience what they don’t know about you in your own words.

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