College Essay Conferences: The 3 Questions I Ask First

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If you teach seniors right now, all of first quarter probably felt like a dumpster fire in a lot of ways. The culprit: The deadline for early action applications was a couple weeks ago on November 1st, so obviously students were tripping over themselves to keep up with course work, finish their apps, and have lives outside of school.

I teach freshmen and junior SAT prep, but even I’ve been able to sense the friction and stress in the air (and the number of borderline panic attacks in our common area). My colleague who teaches the seniors has been swimming in college essays for weeks now, so one of our guidance counselors asked if I could conference with a student who was just totally lost in the process.

For the record, I love teaching the college essay maybe more than any other piece of writing. It’s a laborious task for students who usually start off trying to tell their whole life story and who they are in 650 words or fewer. Their work tends to fluctuate between saying too little about the right things and saying way too much about more trivial details, and all their background knowledge about style seems to disappear into the mental abyss. So when I sit down to conference with a student, I always ask these three questions to get us going in a direction that’ll uncover their individuality, focus on specificity, and ensure clarity in their message.

If a student already has a draft, I ask these 3 questions:

  1. “What was this writing process like for you?” Their answers reveal how emotionally attached they are to their work which I take into consideration when giving feedback.

2. “What’s something about your essay you feel proud of right now?” A lot of the time I take notes. Their pride is usually in where they think they’re being honest and vulnerable, likely because the topic they chose is personal. This is where I can start feedback and guidance around specificity and clarity.

3. “If I didn’t know you and I read this essay, what are a few things I would learn about you?” I do this as an exercise where the student and I both write 3 things we learned about him or her after reading. I usually pair my ideas with evidence from their work. We compare notes and while sometimes there’s alignment in our interpretations, a lot of times, not so much. So we spend a decent amount of time talking about our takeaways and I have the student decide which takeaways are the most valuable to them. Those become the anchors of the essay.

By this point in their high school careers, students are familiar with strategies like flashbacks. Most early draft college essays I read are in this massive block of text where they’re retelling an event and why its important to them.

At our next conference we:

  1. Try out flashbacks by looking at an example first
  2. For their own work, outline two flashback moments and two present-day moments
  3. Write a purpose statement for the end of each paragraph (4 total)

I’m always trying to evolve as a teacher during this type of writing process, and I’d love to hear what approaches and go-to resources you like to use when you’re helping your students tackle the college essay. Thanks so much for reading!

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