How students think about college writing admissions essays, and how teachers can support them

Each year, high school seniors in the U.S. thinking of attending post-secondary institutions submit admissions essays as part of their application process. For many, this high-stakes assignment might make the difference between being admitted to their school of choice, or not.

Admissions essays typically involve writing about personal experience, describing past challenges, accomplishments, or events that sparked personal growth. However, rather than simply presenting stories, there is an implicit expectation that students use these life events to make a case for themselves and demonstrate their potential to succeed in their studies.

Unlike writing essays for their teachers in high school, these essays also present numerous unknowns and a new context for their writing which these students may not be prepared to face. Despite its importance, students may or may not receive adequate assistance or instruction from teachers, counselors, or other support programs as they prepare their applications. Societal and economic disparities may also privilege or hinder different students as they seek to display their college readiness to their potential alma mater.

Conceptualizing…

Working with 51 grade 12 students, Dr. Maren Aukerman, along with the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Richard Beach, sought to understand how students conceptualize their admissions essays – such as the task, audience, and themselves as writers – and how they aimed to achieve their goals for their work. The study highlighted the variations in how students thought about their writing across three themes.

…Task

In their essays, students hoped to portray positive aspects of their identity that they thought would be associated with success in post-secondary learning. Students sought to present a unique account of their skills and traits – such as being disciplined, determined, curious, or passionate – which may help them cope with adversity.

However, some students struggled to find ways to make themselves stand out – particularly in selecting the right moment in their lives to portray. Others did not know how certain traits could help them be seen as a good fit for their school of choice, focusing on storytelling rather than forming an argument related to their past experience.

…Audience

Since applicants have little information about the people reading their essays, and the expectations that they might hold, the students varied considerably in how they pictured them. Many students saw their audience simply as looking for ‘good’ writing, relying on general writing features (e.g. organization, sophisticated language, clarity) rather than specific techniques or goals within their work. Nearly a quarter of the students were not thinking about their audience at all, focusing on making the account true to themselves and hoping it would be relatable.

Students expressed the difficult position of disclosing personal and sometimes sensitive stories to their unknown reader, in a way that could meet the ambiguous standards of their audience. Even those who saw themselves as skilled essay writers found sharing emotional moments to be challenging.

…Self

Students’ writing self-efficacy, or their belief in themselves, varied when asked about whether or not they thought they would be believed by their reader. Some students focused on their honest recounts and the authenticity of their writing, hoping this would sway admissions personnel, while others emphasized their writing quality. Self-efficacy is important to success as it may influence some students to underperform, limit their efforts, or disengage from the task.

Interestingly, those students who highlighted the importance of writing skill were less confident than those who focused on telling an important story. Yet, despite their higher sense of self-efficacy, students who highlighted honesty may have been less likely to have addressed what matters to college admissions officers, according to past research.

College-Worthy Writers

The insights from this study indicate that there are ways that teachers can better support students in tackling their admissions essays. Because these essays serve as a gatekeeping tool to post-secondary education, helping all students to succeed is key.

There is a need to listen to students’ voices, particularly as the task was not seen as straightforward or inviting. From a social justice perspective, addressing class differences and seeing students who may have different understandings of the college essay genre still as college-worthy writers can help those who may be discouraged by the current process to achieve their post-secondary goals.

For Teachers

Teachers looking to better prepare students for writing admissions essays might consider addressing the various facets of the tasks, such as:

  1. Familiarize students with making an argument in a narrative-genre
    • Making the need for a narrative argument explicit may help students see the importance of the genre in their writing
    • Teachers can also provide examples of effective argumentative writing and help students to analyze and connect these ideas in their own writing
  2. Build awareness of the admissions audience
    • Use role play in which students position themselves as admissions officers deciding among several sample essays to consider their thinking processes
    • Bring admissions office personnel in to share how they make admissions decisions to demystify the process
  3. Support students’ use of language to promote self-efficacy in their writing
    • Help students identify their existing strengths and areas for improvement through teacher feedback
    • Incorporate an admissions essay task into classroom content that students can use in applying for post-secondary entrance

See more from Dr. Maren Aukerman on her profile


Connected Citations

Aukerman, M., & Beach, R. (2018). Student conceptualizations of task, audience and self in writing college admissions essays. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. Online first.