The season of college applications is upon us. I’ve worked for several years coaching high school seniors as they write college application essays. I know the drill.
The season awakens in July, when a handful of applicants decide to get a jump-start. Tension builds. The process intensifies in August, when The Common App becomes available. Tension heightens. Students return to school, where lunch conversations revolve around SAT and ACT scores, GPAs and class rank. Tension skyrockets. Friends realize they are competing for the same Early Decision spot, at the same coveted university. Tension breaks the sound barrier.
As the students describe their experiences, my thoughts often turn to a cartoon snowball — rolling downhill, gathering velocity and size until it’s a burlesque monster, flattening its victims into two-dimensional versions of their former selves.
During the summer, emails trickle in, asking for my help as a writing coach. Once school starts, the emails multiply exponentially – from anxious parents, from students who are either too paralyzed to write a single letter, or who can’t stop foaming words and have passed the required word count by hundreds, in some cases thousands.
Adults advise the applicants to be creative, be smart, be confident. But writing is difficult under any circumstance. Try to pull it off when you’re crushed under a Monster-Burlesque-Cartoon-Stress-Snowball.
I’d like to offer a different approach. I believe that a large piece of this mega-stress comes from the uniquely personal internal growth which is inherent in the change from high school to college. Specifically — moving from being an adolescent living at home to a young adult living independently — moving from dependence to autonomy — realizing the parents will have exponentially decreasing amounts of control over their child — losing an adolescent child — gaining an adult child. Each aspect of this change involves adjustment, losing balance, regaining equilibrium. Each piece requires reworking definitions of family relationships, reworking definitions of one’s own self.
From this perspective, the hyper-tension surrounding the essay makes more sense. The essay is more than just an essay. It’s a metaphorical “bridge” connecting the end of childhood to the beginning of adulthood. If the stress from this personal piece can be lightened, the entire college application process can become more manageable.
Viewing the essay as an essential component of this bridge opens the door for applicants and parents to experience the process differently. Instead of being a monumental chore, the essay can become a potential arena for everyone to grow together, mutually supporting each other’s development. The result can be a closer bond, providing a strong foundation for parent and child to begin their new relationship as adults.
Bridges are tough to build. Engineers, seismologists, contractors, geologists – steel, girders, cement, beams. Like material bridges, emotional bridges require hard work and heavy lifting. Bridges are vital in connecting one place to another, both geographically and emotionally. The process of writing that essay is not only a vital part of that bridge, but also the first step in crossing that bridge.
So I coach my students: write from the heart, write strong and bold, write your mind, write your bridge.
Write your self.
Novels by Amy Kaufman Burk
Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable
Caroline Black, 15 years old, leaves her college prep academy for the local public high school, which opens her world. Written in reaction to witnessing gay students bullied in high school.
Caroline Black, a rookie psychology intern, goes through one year of training, working with her first patient – a young man who is stormy, seductive, complex and troubled. Written as a voice against the stigma of therapy, in support of same-sex parents, and as a voice against sexual assault.