College Essays in English Class

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My English Teacher Assigned My Class the College Essay – So I’m Good, Right?

Experience in both the English classroom and college admissions has given me unique insight that helps me work effectively with students on their college essays. My students often tell me that their English teachers assigned the Common App prompts for a graded essay, that they’ve already received feedback, and that they’re good to go.

I understand where they’re coming from – but do you really want to bank your college admissions on the perspective of your English teacher, who probably has no concrete admissions experience? As a former English teacher myself, I know a fair number of classroom teachers, and each understandably has classroom goals in primary view. Your English teacher is likely well-equipped to teach writing but probably does not have the specific background (or time) most useful for helping you craft an optimal college essay. 

Academic Writing Principles Differ from College Essay Writing Principles 

When it comes to essay writing, each teacher espouses the rules of the specific writing style he or she encourages students to adopt. Here are a few that may sound familiar:

  • Prepositions are not to end sentences with.
  • While you mean well, don’t use “while” when you mean “although.”
  • No fragments ever.
  • And never start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

See what I did there? Even I was a stickler for always using “more than” instead of “over” (e.g., more than 100 people, not over 100 people). However, these are more style preferences than hard-and-fast rules. Clearly your college essays should adhere to the rules of standard American English – so text speech and emoticons won’t do here – but remember that this is a chance to not only showcase your writing ability but also provide a glimpse of your unique voice. Take advantage of the flexibility you’re given as you write, but please don’t go off and write a haiku for your college essay. (Let’s be reasonable here.)

If you’re still seeking your voice, I suggest you read a few current non-fiction articles or well-respected short stories for examples of various literary styles. Find a style that matches yours (or what you want yours to be), and take note of specific elements like word choice, syntax, and punctuation. Then give yours a try. 

Choose Topics Based on Audience: Admission Committees  

Like your voice, your topic will also be a critical part of your essay. When choosing a topic, you should first ask yourself, “Who is my audience?” Is it your English teacher? No. Is it your classmate? No. It’s the admission committee. That can be hard to remember when you know your English teacher is the one grading your essay, but you have a lot more at stake than your grade on this assignment. Your topic should home in on the essential message you want to send to the admissions office. A good topic choice answers this question: “If I could tell them anything, what do I want the admission committee to know about me?”

The admissions committee will only know what you tell them in your essay. They won’t have the same advantage as your English teacher, who, having gotten to know you over time, may mentally fill in the parts you leave out to create the full context of what you convey in your essay. That’s why it’s important to have someone who doesn’t know your background read your essay and retell what they have learned about you from your writing. Your college essay will have to present a full picture to people who will likely spend no more than three minutes reading your masterpiece.

In addition, English teachers often attach their own lesson objectives to assigned college essays. They are looking for your ability to apply recently learned skills (e.g., embedded dialogue, the standard five-paragraph essay, no “to be” verbs – insert eye roll here). Although your English teachers have valid reasons to teach and test you on various writing skills, their requirements for a class assignment can needlessly limit the scope of what you want to accomplish in your college essay.

If you’re a rising senior, much of your application package is locked in by now. Your GPA and SAT/ACT scores are set, your coursework has been scheduled, and you probably (I hope) have already approached specific teachers about letters of recommendation. At this point, the part of your application you have the most control over is your essay. The admissions officers will glean only so much about you from your stats, letters, and activities list; it’s your job to fill them in on the rest through your writing.

English teachers are a great resource for advice on writing, and I encourage you to approach yours for answers to specific questions or for help with proofreading. But I caution you against relying solely on the feedback you get from your English teacher on a college essay assigned for class. Take advantage of their valuable input, but remember also to request feedback from an independent source.