Oh, the college essay, that beautiful and terrifying opportunity to actually give a voice to your college application, to add a personality to all those numbers and lists. And yet, there is also something so disingenuous about the college essay, because, without fail, the question that follows the discussion of the essay, or any other standardized essay for that matter is, "What are they looking for?" Because, in truth, the object isn't necessarily to write the manifesto that so perfectly encompasses who the student is as a person; it's to please this mysterious admissions board member, that nameless, faceless, person who seems to hold all the power regarding your future.
So, what are colleges looking for? The difficulty in assessing writing, especially writing of a more personal and creative nature, is that it is, to some degree, subjective. Assessing creative and personal writing, no matter how in-depth or detailed the grading rubric you have is, is a very difficult task.
Additionally, asking a teenager to write a personal statement that will demonstrate "who you are" is a loaded request. You simply may not know yet. In the case of college essays, the task is challenging, the results unsure, and all you can do is your honest-to-goodness best. Here are a few recommendations to help you do just that.
First, there are some ways in which grading creative writing is not subjective, so focus on those. Look at some models. Teen Ink is a website that has some good ones. Henry Bauld's book, On Writing the College Application Essay also has some. But in general, simply read more of the personal essay genre, something which our current social media world offers us much of. There are websites and blogs started and run by teens (RookieMag is one of my favorites), all of which display work created by teens, much of which is personal essay. In any event, it will give you a sense for the genre - what is effective and what is not.
My second piece of advice is to control what you can in the piece from a mechanics standpoint. That is to say, of course, look at spelling and grammar, but also things like varied syntax or sentence structure, which is the mark of more sophisticated writing. Make sure to ask someone who's opinion you trust to read it and give feedback.
Lastly, every website, college counselor, and advice book will tell you that the best approach is to "be yourself." This is true, but it's also incredibly abstract advice, and very hard to do if writing is not your strength. I recommend asking yourself two useful questions. The first question can work as an entry or jumping-off point into writing: "What do I like most about me?" The second question is "So, what?" With any good piece of writing, from novels to poetry to rap songs, after reading it you should be able ask yourself, "So, what?" and provide some kind of answer. A beautiful essay about that one time at summer camp can be great, so long as you have written about the impact - the "so what." Maybe the first draft is a lengthy description of your role as lacrosse captain - fantastic, wonderful - but, so what? Make sure the essay gets to the heart of the matter, the meat in the enchilada. Make sure it's saying something, make sure it sounds like you, and make sure to use spell check.
About the Author: Margaret is a 10th grade English teacher at a charter school in New York City. She earned her M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University. Margaret lives in Hoboken, New Jersey and loves teaching, yoga, and internet cat videos.