Acceptance into college is the holy grail of school opportunity. But the path toward that grail is more clearly marked for some seekers than others. Underserved students who want to attend college but receive no guidance in high-stakes, gatekeeping tasks—such as writing a strong college admission essay—start out at a disadvantage. Yet few schools devote time to this kind of activity. Even English language learners or students who are the first in their families to aim for college must manage on their own or rely on support from family members (Early, 2006).
Teachers committed to closing opportunity gaps should demystify the process of writing college admission essays. This essay is the only opportunity most colleges and universities have to learn about applicants on a personal level. Colleges place high value on that opportunity: The two largest public higher education systems in the United States—the State University of New York and the University of California—require a personal essay as part of their application process. More than 750 colleges and universities have opted not to require standardized test scores as part of their application process; instead, they place greater value on the admission essay (National Association for College Admissions Counseling, 2008).
As former high school teachers committed to addressing issues of equity, we created, with the help of two high school English teachers, a six-week writing workshop to teach secondary students to write college admission essays. Besides giving high schoolers the writing skills necessary to gain access to postsecondary institutions, we wanted to bridge the gap between high schools and colleges and to assist underserved students and their communities.
In fall 2008, we piloted this workshop with 41 high school seniors at an urban public school in the southwest U. S., focusing on low-income students whose grades were high enough to make college reachable but who were struggling and needed a nudge to apply (Early De Costa-Smith, & Valdespino, in press).
Our results were promising, and we plan to bring this workshop to secondary schools on Arizona's American Indian reservations and to establish a Saturday institute to train interested high school teachers to implement the workshop.
A Look Inside a Workshop
For our pilot workshop at Vista High School, we identified two senior English classes in which the majority of students were from low-income households and were the first in their families to graduate from high school or pursue college. Most students were Latino English language learners. Students in these two classes participated in the workshop two to three days a week for six weeks during their regularly scheduled English classes.
We cotaught the workshop with the teachers of both English classes and focused on the kind of essay writing colleges value. Admissions offices typically want application essays to provide information about students' academic and personal interests, important work experience, and family background. For the essay he or she would refine over these six weeks, each workshop participant chose one of three open-ended questions we created. We worded these questions similarly to the typical essay prompt used with the Common Application, a template that 400 universities around the United States accept (Common Application, 2010): Example prompts might read, "Evaluate a significant experience, achievement risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you" or "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence."
Workshop teachers guided students through the steps of writing admission essays from invention to drafting to revising. To bring a potentially intimidating task down to earth, we identified eight skills needed to craft a powerful personal essay: selecting a strong topic; writing for the appropriate audience; writing an effective introduction; adding dialogue; using description; stepping outside the narrative to emphasize the significance of the topic and lessons learned; making connections with outside texts, events, or ideas; and writing effective conclusions.
In each 55-minute session, we first gave a lesson to introduce the day's essay element or skill, showed exemplars, and then gave students the chance to practice that writing skill, sometimes in combination with others. We had students practice the targeted skill(s)—this time embedding the writing within their admission essays in progress—and then receive feedback from a peer or instructor. Students also had time within each session to revise and type their essays and conference with teachers. (See "Finding Your 'So What?'" for a sample skill activity.)
Shaping the Plan to Support Students' Needs
We continually revised our curriculum to address students' questions, strengths, and concerns and to make the workshop as meaningful as possible. For example, early on, we noticed that many students struggled to select an essay topic. They felt frustrated and stuck. We realized we needed to teach students how to brainstorm and narrow down a topic for this kind of essay. We also found that, because some of our students were relatively new English speakers, encouraging native Spanish speakers to first write their thoughts in Spanish then have a teacher help translate that initial draft into English helped free up ideas and voice.
During the first week of the workshop, we experienced resistance. A few students grumbled about being forced to write a college admission essay when they didn't have the money to attend college. Other students seemed hesitant to begin writing. The English teachers suggested we address students' concerns and acknowledge their fears about applying for and attending college before proceeding. So all the students wrote personal reflections about their questions, worries, and goals related to college admission. We also invited a diverse panel of college undergraduates to visit and answer students' questions about the admission process and about paying for and attending a four-year school.
A majority of students relayed fears about sharing their life stories with unknown admissions officers. Students felt anxious about writing "at the college level" for a distant audience. They worried about sounding "unprofessional"; many felt their life experiences were "not impressive enough for college admissions officers."
Jaime, for example, lingered after class the first week to share with me that he didn't know how to "turn his resume into an essay" or "write what colleges want to hear." Jasmine worried that a description of her life experiences might sound too self-revelatory or be too challenging to admissions personnel.
All the students wanted to go to college but were concerned about balancing their studies with working to support their families financially. Undocumented students were terrified that their status would get in the way of receiving a postsecondary education. Gathering this information helped us define steps to make students feel more comfortable with the college admission process, steps we now incorporate into our essay-writing workshop. (See "Tips for Allaying Fears About Applying to College.")
Honoring Students' Stories
Many students wrote about overcoming obstacles and hardships. The majority of participants were first-generation immigrants and chose to tell their family's immigration stories or to recount living with extended families and caring full-time for younger siblings and cousins. Other students described immense pride in their cultures, despite the prejudice they faced. Ani noted that her greatest goal is to attend college and "live life as a Diñe [Navajo]." She described "learning so much from how my kinship clan system works: customs, stories, prayers, language, and [about] livestock and nature" and said she hoped to balance the two cultures in her life.
Another common topic was the positive influence of mothers and how mothers sacrificed so their children could go to school. Hector wrote about his childhood in Mexico:
For eight months we lived in a hollow house [a house built into a cavity in the earth or a hole in the ground], eating beans and tortillas every day. My mother went to work at a jalapeno processing factory nearby. She left at six in the morning and returned at eight at night, with her delicate hands swollen; you could not distinguish her nails from her fingers.
Other topics included caring for grandparents or disabled parents, dealing with painful parental divorce, overcoming abuse, and following a spiritual path.
As we read the first drafts, we considered telling many of the students to change their topics to more traditional ones, conforming to what we thought college admissions officers wanted. However, after reflection, we realized we had preconceived notions—drawn from our subjectivities and backgrounds—about what administrators value in an admission essay. We reminded ourselves of the importance of honoring the different funds of knowledge young people draw from as they write (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). We decided to honor students' lived experiences and do all we could to help students apply writing strategies that would turn these stories into powerful essays. School leaders, teachers, curriculum specialists, and college admissions officers need to understand the rich resources and cultural capital that students from underserved communities bring from their home lives.
For example, a lesson in how to use the introduction to immediately engage a reader helped Lizzy communicate how her mother had shaped her life. Lizzy initially wrote this summary:
My mom has had a positive influence on me. I am the youngest of three children and probably the one who spends the most time with our mom. I am the only one to have lived with her after she and my father got divorced. I appreciate every moment I spend with my mom because I know when it is time to move out on my own, I will never find as much love and care as she has given me.
After getting guidance on writing an effective introduction—which included examining model introductions and giving and receiving feedback—Lizzy revised her paragraph to reveal how her resilience grew out of her mother's support:
Most homes have a father, a mother, and children living under one roof. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case for me. After my mom and dad got a divorce, I lived only with my mom. … For the first nine years, my dad never tried contacting us. At first I [wondered] why, but as I got older I didn't care anymore. I was happy just having my mom around. Many people think I need a father figure in my life, but that wasn't necessary for me. My mom filled both sets of shoes.
Students learned that an admission essay differs from a typical personal story because it requires the writer to step back from lived experience and make a persuasive argument about how that experience has contributed to his or her potential as a college student. Workshop members also gained overall writing skills that will help them succeed once they reach college: maintaining audience awareness, including details and anecdotes, and making a clear argument.
Making a Difference
Every student who participated in the 2008 workshop at Vista High was accepted at a postsecondary institution. All the students applied to at least one four-year college or university, and the majority used the essays generated in our workshop as part of their application. Many used these essays to apply for scholarships. After a number of students won a scholarship and shared the news, a positive cycle started; the group as a whole got excited about applying to schools.
Sample student responses to a survey about the workshop reflect the difference it made:
"I feel more comfortable in my writing abilities–much better than I felt before the workshop." — Raymundo
"You guys made me feel confident about my writing, and that I am able to go on in life to accomplish anything!" — Jacqueline
We don't see this workshop as a quick fix for getting youth from underserved communities into college or erasing their fears about postsecondary schooling. Rather, we believe the success of our pilot workshop points to the importance of making the college admission essay part of the secondary curriculum as a way to address opportunity gaps.
Historically, secondary writing curriculum has focused on teaching literature, literary response, and grammar rather than real-world writing (Hillocks, 2008). When tasks like the college admission essay are included in the high school curriculum, they are generally only taught in advanced placement or college-preparatory courses. We believe it's necessary to provide access to authentic writing tasks for all students. Teaching students how to write college admission essays will not only prepare them not only for the college admission process, but also to be writers beyond high school.
Finding Your "So What?"
Step 1: Spend five minutes reviewing all your notes, outlines, and brainstorming on your topic. Let your head swim with information.
Step 2: Clear your desk of everything but a piece of paper. Remove all your notes and sources. Trust that you'll remember what's important.
Step 3: Now fast-write about your essay topic for eight minutes. Tell how your thinking about this topic has evolved. When you started, what did you think? Then what happened, and what happened after that? How have your ideas about your topic changed?
Step 4: Write out the phrase "Moments, Stories, People, and Scenes." Now fast-write under that heading for another five minutes, this time focusing on more specific situations, people, experiences, observations, and so on that stand out in your mind about this essay topic.
Step 5: For 10 minutes, write a dialogue between you and someone else about your essay topic–such as a friend, a professor, or someone with an opposing perspective. Don't plan the dialogue. Just begin with a question that someone might ordinarily ask you about your topic and take the conversation from there.
Step 6: Write in your notebook the phrase "So What?" Spend a few minutes trying to summarize the most important thing people should understand about your topic, drawing on what you've learned so far. What can you tell your reader about yourself in connection to this topic that will help the reader understand the person you are? Distill these comments into a paragraph.
Tips for Allaying Fears about College Applications
- Encourage students to ask questions about the college admission essay and the admissions process.
- Provide time and resources for students to research postsecondary institutions that match their goals and interests.
- Distribute pamphlets describing undergraduate scholarships and sample financial aid packages.
- Give students models of successful college admission essays (see
- Have students engage in individual writing conferences with peers and the teacher to receive feedback and revision suggestions on their essays.
- Give students time in class to draft, revise, and polish college admission essays
- Invite diverse undergraduates into the classroom to answer students' questions, read students' essays, and address their fears about college.
- Have school counselors talk with the class about the admissions process, explain how to fill out financial aid forms, and describe requirements for admission.
Common Application. (2010). History. Retrieved from
Early, J. S. (2006). Stirring up Justice: Writing and reading to change the world. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Early, J. S., DeCosta-Smith, M., & Valdespino, A. (in press). Write your ticket to college: A genre-based college admission essay workshop for underserved students. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.
Hillocks, G., Jr. (2008). Writing in secondary schools. In C. Bazerman (Ed.), Handbook of research on writing: History, society, school, and text (pp. 311–329). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.
National Association for College Admissions Counseling. (2008). Report of the commission on the use of standardized tests in undergraduate admission. Retrieved from
Authors' note: All names are pseudonyms.
Jessica Singer Early is assistant professor of English education (480-965-0742;
Jessica.email@example.com) and Meredith DeCosta-Smith is a doctoral student (502-741-3196;
firstname.lastname@example.org) at Arizona State University in Tempe.
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