For most Bethpage High School students, senior year is the culmination of their educational career so far. A large portion of their time is devoted to one arduous process that they feel symbolizes all their hard work: college applications. From as early as the summer of junior year to the month before graduation, many seniors devote themselves to preparing for their future and entering into the world as independent adults. Though BHS offers many fantastic resources through its classes, counselors, and teachers, students still find this time in their life to be stressful and confusing.
College applications are multi-faceted to showcase who applicants are as a whole so universities can get a strong grasp of the next class they are attempting to build. This is done through receiving grades, a list of previous and current enrolled classes. When college admissions counselors receive applications, they already see your grades and know who you are as a student on paper. They can easily assume your passions through extracurricular activities and your ambitions from your indicated major of interest. But one of the most important pieces they need to know when admitting someone can’t be answered from a drop-down menu: who YOU are. Colleges receive hundreds of thousands of applications each year and many students look the same until they tell their story and that’s what differentiates the good from the excellent and accepted. In reality, college essays are just about writing an honest story that shows heart and will make colleges want you on their campuses.
Students are so conditioned to write about classic literature, rhetorical devices in speeches, and the impact of historical events with the goal of being objective so that when they’re faced with prompts of describing their most meaningful life lessons, they’re left clueless.
Mrs. Whalen, an English teacher currently teaching juniors, explains that “most students do not write about their own lives often [which] contributes to the challenge.” Applicants are expected to answer extensive questions, writing multiple essays based on their personal experiences: an area not commonly focused on in academic settings. This leaves students even more burdened with the reality that the first time they tell their own story and go outside their comfort zone will factor into whether or not they get into college.
Coming from a pretty normal town with nothing too extraordinary, brainstorming can be the biggest obstacle in the process. Oftentimes, students don’t think anything in their life is worth writing about as they have the notion that the perfect college essay entails a journey riddled with devastation and great triumph.
BHS senior Raechel Park states, “the difficult part [is] being able to make yourself distinct from other students because you lived your whole life but you don’t know [what] makes you different from others.“ So if not everyone is writing about their exotic trip to a new country and immersing themselves in the culture of working in a lab to cure cancer, what are people writing to get into colleges?
The most common essay responses have to do with overcoming a challenging experience like the loss of a loved one, entering into a major competition and not yielding the desired results, or someone who made a deep impact in their life. Although these topics aren’t necessarily bad to write about, they often lead applicants in the wrong direction as they are inclined to place the focus on the wrong aspect of the story. A trap many applicants fall into is focusing most of their word count on the cause rather than the effect it had on them and who they are going forward.
While this process may sound even scarier than before, BHS has a wonderful support network of teachers who are more than willing to help through all steps of the process. After surveying a handful of current seniors, many of them credit their junior year English teachers for getting them started on their personal statements with brainstorming sessions at the end of the year.
Senior Maya Maciel-Seidman credits her preparation to Mrs. Whalen’s assistance and support, even during the pandemic. “It was stressful at first… but I had many virtual conferences with [Mrs. Whalen] and she really helped me… to write the best personal statement I could,” says Maciel-Seidman.
Once students get a start on their essay, the words usually flow. The next biggest step comes in polishing the statement off and making sure it not only fully answers the prompt, but also leaves admissions counselors with a better sense of who they read about. During this time, it can be helpful to ask past and present English teachers to proofread for quality and grammar. In addition, it can also be useful to utilize private essay tutors like Mr. Malossi, the AP Seminar and Journalism teacher.
To further assist students, it may be worthwhile for BHS to begin a new English elective where students can focus on narrative writing. Similar to the Reading/Writing Lab elective most freshmen take, BHS could create a new course for juniors and seniors to practice writing personal pieces, even if they aren’t specifically geared towards the college essay as prompts do change. However, the simple practice of exposing students to different personal writing prompts can get them used to brainstorming and telling their own stories.
At the end of the day, the personal statement should be exactly that: personal. With or without a new writing class, seniors can still rely on their teachers and their own experiences to take them far in their writing. No matter who you are or what you do, there’s something that separates you from the rest of the crowd! Be honest and put your best self forward as you see all your hard work finally pay off.
More words of wisdom:
“Be yourself. Don’t try too hard to impress readers with language you would never use in real life or ideas that aren’t actually important to you. Write honestly and naturally and your essay will showcase who you really are to the admissions committee.” Ms. Corson, AP Literature Teacher
“Write something unique to you, about a moment when you realized something that helped you mature. Those are the best essays… At the end of the day, if you enjoy reading it, someone else will, too.” Mr. Malossi, English Teacher/Private Essay Tutor
“If you’re writing your essay and you feel as if you’re at a dead-end, that topic might not be the one for you. Try to come up with different ideas, and when you have your topic, you’ll know because the words will just flow onto the page.” Alexa Alaimo, BHS Senior