“What the #%@!& should I write about in my college essay?”
By: Connie Matthiessen
October 4, 2017
“It’s college essay time: a season of sighs, false starts, revisions, tears — and many late nights. Few students breeze through this part of the college application process because writing a good college essay is no easy task. It can be particularly challenging for first-generation college students, who tend to dismiss the real-life circumstances that make their experience unique. Here, first-generation students and experts who work with them offer valuable insights and advice.
Sharing who you really are
One of the most challenging aspects of the essay-writing process is identifying a topic to write about. Many first-to-college applicants think their experiences and accomplishments aren’t impressive enough to wow college admissions officers, so they get discouraged before they even begin. But first-generation college applicants have typically overcome obstacles that other students haven’t — and it’s a story worth sharing.
“It is hard for anyone at any age to reflect on their lives,” says Marisa Urrutia Gedney, Director of In-School Programs and College Access at 826LA, a nonprofit that helps students improve their writing skills and promotes access to college for low-income and first-generation college students. “That is what the essay process is asking students to do. And they are just 17 years old!”
Many students think that the essay is primarily about proving how accomplished they are academically, according to Urrutia Gedney. “Kids will say, ‘Colleges want really smart people!’ And of course that is intimidating.”
In fact, the purpose of the college essay is to give college admissions officers a glimpse of a student that they can’t glean from their high school transcript or other questions on their application. “We tell students, ‘Colleges really want to get to know you,” says Urrutia Gedney. “It isn’t just about GPAs and test scores. They want students who are well-rounded, who show character and resilience in difficult circumstances. We tell them, ‘Colleges aren’t looking for superheroes. You’ve accomplished a lot. You don’t have to make things up.’”
“I tell kids that the essay is important because it allows you to tell a different story from the basic demographic information that you provide in your application,” says Nick Watson, Director of College Access at ScholarMatch, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps kids navigate the college process. The essay can — and should — help kids “come alive” for admissions officers, he says, and be more than a GPA and SAT score.
Choosing which story to tell
Experts like Watson and Urrutia Gedney agree that the everyday challenges students face often make the most compelling essay topics of all. “The thing I see most often with first-generation kids is that they think they don’t have a story to tell,” says Watson, “but most have had rich experiences that colleges are going to want to hear.”
These experiences might include taking care of younger siblings every day after school, for example, or picking up groceries for a grandparent, or working an after-school job to help the family cover rent. In rapidly gentrifying urban areas across the country, low-income families are often displaced, which means that students must leave neighborhoods they’ve known all their lives and start over at a new school or endure a long commute. Such experiences demonstrate qualities that colleges are looking for, including courage, grit, responsibility, leadership, and resilience.
“By asking deeper questions, we try to help students see that they do have a story to tell,” Watson says. “I ask kids, ‘What have you learned from helping your mom pay the bills? What has that weekend or after-school job taught you? How are you going to use that knowledge going forward?’ It often takes some digging to help them get there.”
For Ernesto Yelou, it took many drafts and a college rejection to help him get there. Yelou lived in Panama until the age of 10, when his family moved to San Francisco. He says his original essay, which he submitted to Middlebury College in his early decision application, covered too many topics. “I talked about moving from Panama to San Francisco,” he recalls. “I talked about my life in Panama. I talked about summer programs I’d done. Nick and the other writing coaches at ScholarMatch told me to focus on just one topic, but I guess I didn’t understand what they meant. My essay was all over the place.”
Yelou wasn’t accepted at Middlebury and he was devastated. Looking back, he thinks he may have been rejected, at least in part, because his essay was so scattered. He went back to ScholarMatch, and this time he wrote about his family’s move from Panama, and the challenges he faced starting over in a new country where he didn’t speak the language.
Yelou had a compelling story to tell. As a Chinese person in Panama, he never felt that he fit in. But in the US, he felt just as out of place. “Kids made fun of me because I was a Chinese kid who could only speak Spanish,” he says. His family was very poor and lived in a cramped, one-room apartment. They shared a bathroom and kitchen with other tenants. Yelou became withdrawn and discouraged, and he was failing in school.
His parents helped him turn things around. His family is Hakka, a Chinese ethnic group that has always faced discrimination. His parents told him, “We Hakka people move everywhere around China and around the world, and we adapt to new environments all the time. That is our history.”
Yelou says that their words gave him a sense of pride and determination to succeed. “It was the first time I really looked at myself,” he recalls. “I started to work hard in school. Up until then, I wasn’t trying. I tried to adapt socially and academically.” Yelou enjoyed high school far more than middle school, he made friends, joined the wrestling team, and took his GPA from a 1.9 to a 4.0.
After Yelou rewrote his essay with a narrower, deeper focus, he was accepted by a number of colleges, including Wesleyan University, where he is now a freshman. He hasn’t yet declared a major, but he’s studying Chinese in Wesleyan’s College of East Asian Studies.
What colleges want to know
At ScholarMatch, Watson uses freewriting exercises to help students start their essays. Students come to ScholarMatch workshops feeling nervous about the process. Freewriting helps kids relax and simply write; it also usually helps elicit an essay topic. For the exercises, Watson asks students to write whatever comes into their minds. From the freewriting, he and other writing coaches help students identify points they can develop into an essay.
At 826LA, Urrutia Gedney and volunteer coaches help students identify essay topics by asking questions like the following:
- What responsibilities do you have at home and in your family?
- What do you enjoy doing that makes you feel happy?
- What do you consider your greatest joy?
- What are you proud of?
- Do you have a greatest accomplishment?
- What do you do when you don’t have enough (money, time, help, etc.) to do the things you have to do/wish to do/dream of doing?
“We listen to their experiences and give them feedback,” says Urrutia Gedney. “Like, ‘I learned x, y, and z about you. These are the kinds of things colleges want to know,’” says Urrutia Gedney.
Not your typical high school essay
Many kids get overwhelmed by the format of the college essay. They’re used to writing five-paragraph essays for high school, and it is difficult for them to ditch that structure to tell a better story. “They’re thinking in terms of introduction, body, and conclusion,” says Urrutia Gedney. “I tell them, ‘Don’t think of this as a writing assignment. Instead, think about what you would say if the person was standing right in front of you.’ This seems to help kids write in their own voice.”
Students’ first drafts are often overly general, and Urrutia Gedney and Watson both encourage students to use details. “If you take care of your siblings after school, what does that care look like?” says Urrutia Gedney. “Do you pour them a bowl of cereal or do you make a meal? What do you make? Do you help them with their homework or go to their parent-teacher conferences? These kinds of details will take your essay from the general to the personal.”
Watson often has to work with kids from immigrant backgrounds to tell their own stories. “Some of their essays have been among the best I’ve seen,” he says. “Their stories are about resiliency and persistence. The only thing is they often want to tell the story from the perspective of their parents. They see that their parents have had to work so hard to get where they are. They have such reverence for what their parents have been through that it is hard for them to think about themselves. I have to ask them, ‘What has it been like for you?’ They don’t realize that they have global experience, and can bring so much to the table.”
Watson marvels at some of the stories he’s heard from students. He recalls a high school senior who was homeless and lived for several months with his mother in their car. For Watson, it wasn’t just the student’s circumstances that were noteworthy, but the way he talked about them. “He described being homeless in just a few sentences,” says Watson. “What he focused on in his essay was lying in the car at night, and thinking about school, and why school brought him so much joy. He was just so grateful for the opportunity to learn.”
For Urrutia Gedney, the college essay has value beyond helping a student get into college. “Kids start out thinking that they just have to prove to colleges, ‘I am a good student,’ vs. ‘I help raise my brother,’ or, ‘I take care of my grandma.’ This is an eye-opener. It’s the first time they’ve been asked to talk about what they do, and they realize that they have handled responsibilities that many adults couldn’t handle. It’s an exciting moment, not just in terms of their essay, but for their own sense of pride in what they have accomplished.”
Interested in becoming a volunteer? Read more about 826LA’s In Schools program here.
826LA’s 8th Annual Great Los Angeles Personal Statement Weekend is also an upcoming opportunity to work one-on-one with high school students on their college personal statements for applying to their dream schools. Learn more here.
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Family is a social group of people in the society having one, two or more than two parents and their children. Each family member commit to each other to their mutual relationship.
Essay on My Family
Family is the most important need of everyone in this world to be secure and go ahead. There are many essential roles of family in the life. Students may get assigned to write essay on My Family topic in their school during exam or any competition. We have provided here variety of My Family essay under different words limit according to the student’s need of various classes.
My Family Essay 1 (100 words)
Family is a group of two, three or more persons living together in one home. Family can be small nuclear, big nuclear or joint family types according to the number of members in the family. Family relationships can be because of the variety of connections like blood, marriage, adoption, etc among members of the family. A new comer baby requires positive family relationships for his/her overall development and well-being in the society. Healthy family relationships help in promoting good habits, cultures and traditions in the children. A family plays great role in preparing the new generation child for whole life in the community. A healthy family is the need of everyone especially child and old people.
My Family Essay 2 (150 words)
A person without family is not complete in this world because family is an integral part of all of us. Human beings are considered as the social animals living in group called as family. Family plays many important roles throughout the life. A family can be small family, small nuclear, big nuclear or joint family. There are many relationships in the family such as grandparents, parents, wife, husband, brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, etc. A positive family provides lots of benefits to its all members where everyone shares equal responsibilities within the family. Every member of the family emotionally attaches to each other in their happiness and sadness. They help each other in their bad times which give the feeling of security. A family provides love, warmth and security to its all members throughout the life which makes it a complete family. A good and healthy family makes a good society and ultimately a good society involves in making a good country.
My Family Essay 3 (200 words)
My Family is a small nuclear family which belongs to a middle class family. My family contains four members, a father, a mother, me and a small sister. Like other Indian families, we are not a big family. We live in Ghaziabad, India however my grandparents live in countryside. Together with my grandparents, my family becomes a small joint family. My family is a complete, positive and happy family gives me and my sister lots of love, warmth and security. I feel so happy in my family as it care me and fulfill my all the needs. A happy family provides following benefits to its members:
- Family makes a man grow and develop into a complete human being.
- It provides security and a lovely environment which helps us to share our happiness and problems.
- It makes a man social and intellectual.
- Person living in family is happier than a person living alone.
- It provides security from the outside conflicts.
- A family provides happy, active, quick learner, smart and better new generations to the society and country.
- A family makes a person emotionally and physically powerful, honest, and confident.
My Family Essay 4 (250 words)
My family is a big joint family however a happy family. My whole family live in Varanasi. My family includes various members like grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, uncle, aunt, cousins. My joint family contains three big nuclear family in which a common grandparents and three parents with their many children. There are many advantages and disadvantages of the joint family which I have mentioned below.
Here are some advantages of the joint family:
- It provides a better pattern of living which highly contributes to the proper growth.
- Joint family follows principles of equitable economy and teaches quality discipline to respect and share burden of other members.
- Members of joint family have the understanding of mutual adjustment.
- In a big joint family, children gets happy environment and same age group friends forever thus new generation of the family goes better in the study, sports and other activities without any hesitation.
- Children developing in the joint family develop the feeling of camaraderie means become more sociable and free from any discrimination.
- Members of the joint family become responsible and disciplined as well as everyone follow the orders of head of the family.
There are some disadvantages too of the joint family which are mentioned below:
- Sometimes because of the lack of proper rules in the joint family, some members live as parasites and become habitual of feeding on other’s income. They start exploiting other good and innocent members of the family.
- In some cases, high status and money earning members of the joint family generally insult low status or low money earning members.
- Sometimes, members earning more money give higher and good study to their kids in the costly schools however never share the burden of study of kids of low income members so there may be feeling of discrimination among children of joint family.
- There is a big chance of separation in the joint families because of imbalance of feelings of generosity, brotherly love, and feeling of oneness.
My Family Essay 5 (300 words)
A small family having one set of parents with two children is called as small nuclear family. A family having one set of parents with three or more children is called as big nuclear family. A family having many set of parents with their children is called as joint family. My family type is a big nuclear family having six members, mother, father, two brothers and two sisters. I live with my family and be very happy. People in the family become very caring and give proper guidance from time to time. My grandparents live in the village in their home where we go in our summer vacations and enjoy a lot. Both, my grandfather and grandmother care me and my brother, sisters a lot. They generally tell us nice stories in the night which we really enjoy. We enjoy every moment with them and catch the moments into my mobile.
My parents love and care to my grandparents very much and always take care of their needs. They give lots of needed things to them whenever we go to village. My parents talk to my grandparents with mobile almost every day. I am so lucky and feel very happy to have such lovely and careful members in my family. I really miss my grandparents when I get returned to my home.
My mom is very sweet and love and care us a lot. She always gives us tasty breakfast and lunch every day. She cares a lot to my father and he too. She tells us about all the Indian culture and traditions in order to pass to next generation. We happily celebrate every festival with my grandparents in the village and give nice gifts to each other. We live an advanced lifestyle in the city however really enjoys a countryside lifestyle in the village. Both, my mom and dad help us all in doing home work. We enjoy a nice get together in the evening at dinner table and spend some time with each other in the ground.
My Family Essay 6 (400 words)
My Family is the lovely family of the world and an important unit of the society. A small or a big family become of great importance to its members and considered as the strongest unit of the society because various families together make a nice society. A family becomes first school to the children where they receive all the cultures, traditions and most importantly the basic values of life. A family plays great roles in teaching good manners and habits to the new comers in the family. It helps in nourishing a better character person in the society. I am really feeling my good fortunate to be born in a small nice family where I learnt everything in the early childhood.
Actually, I belong to the middle class family having six members (mother, father, grandparents, me and my younger sister). Every one of us follows the orders of my grandfather because he is the head of the family. We really respect and enjoy his commanding position in the family. He is the great person because he had performed various adventurous activities in his time. He always thinks about our wellness and takes right decision for us. His decision becomes final in all the family matters. He sits on the front chair on the dining table. He takes our class in the early morning and evening to teach us Indian cultures and traditions. He is a very cool personality and friendly person of the family however everyone of us do not have dare to go against him. He is very effective person and wins everyone’s heart through nice talk. He is very old however helps us in doing our home works because he was teacher. He teaches us about the tools of success in the life such as discipline, punctuality, cleanliness, moral, hard work and continuity.
My grandmother is also a nice woman and tells us nice stories every night. My father is a principal of the school and like discipline very much. He is very punctual, sincere and hardworking in nature. He teaches us also that when you eat time, time will really eat you one day so never waste time and use it in positive ways. My mom is a sweet and very simple housewife. She cares every member of the family and makes a happy environment in the family every day. She gives special care to the grandparents and kids as well as always helps poor and needy people in the society. We have always been taught from our childhood to love and respect elders and help needy people on the way. My sweet small family is really full of love, care, peace, prosperity, and discipline.