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Great College Essays Start With Resilience

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Dec 17, 2012 1:00:00 PM

Two weeks ago Jack Scotti and I had the opportunity to lead a Story To College Essay Development Course for 24 seniors from Scholars Academy, a vibrant, high-achieving NYC public school in Rockaway, Queens that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Listen to their stories on CNN.

Scholars Academy is thriving on the fifth floor of W.H. Maxwell Vocational and Educational High School in Brooklyn. There’s a storeroom with clothes and food for families who need them; a parent who runs a rental company donated tables and chairs; the assistant principal’s husband sends in hot cooked lunch for all the staff. 

On the elevator we ran into a girl who was just getting back to Scholars Academy. In the two weeks since her home and school were destroyed, she attended another school and kept up on course work. “How is that possible?” I asked Michelle Villa, the head of College Counseling. “We were committed to keep the school going for the students. We used our online tools to send out lessons and review students’ work; we gave students a lot more responsibility for their own learning.”

The students learned that school is much more than classes and assignments. As one of the students said to me, “It was such a relief to get back to school. Just to be with my friends, to go to class. To go to school means that things will be fine. We’re students. School is what we do.”

The students said that the storm had changed them; that they looked at their college applications differently. They didn’t want to write about the storm directly—for most of them it was just too close—but it had changed their perspective, and they wanted their essays to reflect that change.

Whatever they are writing about—a Miss Teen India contest, working in a soup kitchen, or a lifelong devotion to the Yankees—their essays have a sense of focus, purpose, and clarity. Here are three lessons about successful college application essays every senior can learn from their resilient peers at Scholars Academy:

Write about doing something: As Sabrina says in her interview with CNN, “You can’t just sit around…and look at the destruction. You have to get up and do stuff’: Take the time to explore the times when you learned tough lessons. What you did after that learning reveals your character. 

Get out of your thoughts: The worst college application essays are abstract and general. For instance: “I’m passionate about the environment, and I realized that I could be a leader in sustainability. We all need to do the little things that will reverse climate change.” Unpack these general ideas into specific moments that show your commitments in action.

Bring your moment to life with details: To share your unique perspective with other people, show them what the moment looked like to you. Go back into the moment and paint a picture for your reader with actions, sensory descriptions, and the actual words that people said. 

The best college application essays show who you are as a human being; we’ve had a lot of opportunities to see what that looks like lately. 

Want more tips? Check out our guides, college admission essay tips and webinars that provide college essay help and enable you to successfully bridge the gap from high school to college, and life.

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