Styling Your College Essay: Advice from a High School Language Arts Teacher

Lary Kleeman, language arts teacher at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colorado

Note from Katie: Lary Kleeman was my AP Language Arts teacher at Arapahoe High School, and one of my favorite teachers during my time there. He has been a high school language arts teacher for over twenty years, and served in the Peace Corps in Estonia in the early 90's. His advice on crafting a college essay comes from these many years of helping high school students prepare for college, from the logistics of applications to the skills and knowledge to make their way successfully.

Crafting Your College Essay

The autobiographical narrative is no easy write especially when done under duress for a faceless audience.

Welcome to what is often referred to as the college essay. In 500 words describe a significant event/important influence/turning point/who you once were, who you are nowYikes!

Focused description is at the heart of the college essay. Focused description which unfolds in a story-like fashion.

In other words, to write a short-short story about yourself so that it convinces the reader you ought to be walking the campus of said university (and because of the exceptional fit, will continue to pay said university for a good four or five yearsno transfer, no dropout).

As a high school English teacher of twenty years, one bit of advice that Ive derived from my gut is that the college essay is partially about you but mostly about how you can write. Are you able to get beyond voiceless reporting to an engaging description which makes use of various stylistic devices so as to persuade?

Engaging description, to my mind, means a memorable re-enactment, an in-scene writing.

Some stylistic moves that help create the above-mentioned description include:

  • Beginning in media res (in the middle of things)
  • Dialogue, internal monologue
  • Parallel structures
  • One word sentences
  • Questions
  • Illustrative lists
  • Lingo/jargon
  • Backstory and foreshadowing

But before all of this, you need to find a focus.

Pre-writing is an essential element of writing this essay. Allow yourself a few different occasions to sit down and free-write upon various subjects concerning your life. One exercise I have my students do is that of a random autobiographical poem. This is a list poem that starts with something to do with your beginning as a person (I was the first boy in a family of girls…”) and then, with short lines, moves by associational thinking to what is both big and little in your life. One way to keep this poem rolling is to think in terms of once, twice, never. That is, make it an inventory of your life thus far: Twice, I have touched a hot stove/And once, the inside of a hot oven./ I once cut /my own hair. I often think/About what my wedding day/ Will be like

This poem is fun to create as well as an excellent resource for a possible story-focus for your college essay. Because this is your life and because you can write well, no experience is too small.

Once you have found the focus event in which you are the protagonist, take some time to plan the essay as you would if writing a short story. At this point, I usually give my students a graphic organizer that has a big box in the middle of the page with six smaller surrounding boxes attached. This is the same graphic organizer I give my creative writing students after they have done some pre-writing on developing a character. The idea of the organizer is to put a single word in HUGE letters in the big box which is labeled Overall Impression of Character. Each of the six boxes represents a narrative strategy that helps develop character (they are labeled Characters Name/Background/What Others Say About the Character/Actions/Physical Appearance/What Character Says or Thinks). The idea here is that whatever details go into those smaller boxes, they need to contribute to the big-lettered overall impression. So, after determining your focus-event, you need to decide on what attribute of yourself you wish to convey through your college essay. Is the big-lettered word CURIOUS or HUMBLE or PATIENT or DETERMINED?

This kind of pre-writing will help your college essay imitate literary fiction, the best of which is character-centered as opposed to plot-driven.

One twist you might consider is writing your short-short story about yourself in the third person with a revelation (switch to first person) near its end. This, if done well, would catch the eye of an admissions officer who is otherwise speed-reading through the first person on just about every essay.

My last bit of advice is to try to frame your essaywhen ending it, attempt to go back to the opening scenerevisit some aspect of your opening in your conclusion.

 The hardest part, of course, is what comes next: getting started. Turn down/turn off your internal editor by pulling on a favorite winter hat over your eyes as you keyboard your story (or, for those without a favorite winter hat, push your laptop's screen back so it's not easily read or tape a piece of paper over your computer screen). Not only will you not see this first draft (while composing), but no one else will as well--so be creative in your focused description--write to discover and best of luck to you!

If you enjoyed this post, you should also check out  "Essay Writing Basics: The Fast First Draft," "How High School AP Classes Got Me a Job," "The Transition from High School to College: Guest Post by 'Professor X,'" and "The 5 Books All Students Should Read Before Freshman Year."

Please feel free to comment: any and all questions, advice, feedback, and college essay anecdotes would be appreciated!