Teachers helping with college essays: inequitable or unorganized?

Liann Keren

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High school seniors face immense levels of stress during application season, especially with the task of the college essay. For the past six years, the English department has neglected to pursue an organized strategy to help all seniors with this difficult task. It’s time to make a change.

Up until six years ago, the English department employed a structured strategy in assisting seniors with their college essays. Since then, due to concerns about inequity and teacher time, there has been no organized way to get help to everyone, leaving the choice of whether to help a student or not up to the individual teacher. It’s time to restore the structure.

The first semester of senior year is one of the most stressful times students will endure in their academic careers. On top of taking on heavy course loads, participating in extracurriculars, working jobs and maintaining vibrant social lives, seniors must now worry about studying the approach to writing the complex personal essay.

From every direction, so-called “college gurus” are spewing different tips and advice toward us about writing the essay, overwhelming us. It makes perfect sense to seek help from English teachers. They are experienced and will be likely to offer insightful feedback.

However, as the situation currently is, students who do not have a close relationship with their English teachers will probably not receive assistance. This is because teachers only have so much time outside of grading, teaching and planning, and can therefore only support a limited number of students. Those time slots would likely be saved for students with whom they have closer connections.

What about everyone else? Many students don’t have the financial means to hire a professional or lack the home support or language proficiency to get effective feedback from their parents. Where, then, are they to go for help on this vital passage of our education?

Our school provides countless resources for mental health and other aspects of the college process: slideshows, workshops, personal meetings, check-ins, class meetings and college visits. How is it that out of all these resources, we do not have a school-sponsored resource for in-depth essay feedback, especially when other schools around us have found sensible solutions?

Whitman’s English 12 students are asked to write their personal essays as an all-tasks assignment and receive feedback through that channel. This ensures seniors get feedback while refraining from adding an extra workload to teachers. In fact, this personal essay was once in the English 12 curriculum and MCPS is due to bring it back.

At BCC, AP Language and Composition classes are tasked with the personal essay assignment after the AP exam. These juniors get a head start on the essay in addition to feedback.

At Wootton, AP Literature and Composition teachers collect college essays as a practice and preparation completion grade. They also post sign-up sheets on each of their Canvas pages for seniors to select a time slot and receive feedback at that specific time. This ensures teachers only provide opportunities for help when they know they can and can intentionally set that time aside for college essays.

We could combine these strategies in our own English classes. Juniors could receive feedback after their AP Lang exams and seniors during the first quarter of the year would be assigned this personal essay. Senior English teachers could distribute time slots throughout the first two months of the year, ensuring that all their students get an equitable amount of feedback. Other English teachers, guidance counselors, composition assistants and even social studies teachers could set up time slots as well, minimizing the level of extra work on each staff member even more, while providing a greater array of opportunities for students to seek help.

It’s possible that some students may not want feedback on such a personal statement. If that is the case, this assignment should be graded in the practice/preparation category, so their grade doesn’t suffer tremendously against the majority who will want to get help.

Assuming one-on-one help isn’t attainable for a school our size, there is also an option to hire volunteers or pay teachers over the summer to teach a class to navigate the nuances of the personal essay and to provide individualized feedback. This could be structurally similar to the SAT preparation classes that happen over the summer, which have been taught by our own staff.

Students, moreover, are not the only ones affected by this decentralized offer of help. Let us consider the effect on our school. Many schools nationwide and in our own county have a general plan to get to each senior’s college essay. This gives them an advantage over schools like ours when it comes to getting into top schools. It inversely means we, and consequently MCPS, would suffer in national rankings because our students would get accepted at a lower rate compared to students in other schools.

I hope that in light of the new school year, the English department takes another look at the situation and its options and consequences listed above and that they will reconsider their stance and once and for all provide all students the help of their English teachers.