Wed, August 9, 2023

Growing Up New York: High School Admissions Essays

When I first moved to New York City from Austin, Texas, I found myself shocked by the rigorous high school admissions process. I’d long tutored students on college admissions essays—but the idea of similarly challenging, high-stakes high school admissions essays seemed unnecessarily daunting at such a young age. One of my first eighth grade clients in NYC sat on his parent’s lap as we introduced ourselves through Zoom. How could such young people write the kind of complex, reflective personal narratives that admissions essays demand of them?

Over the last several admissions seasons, though, I’ve come to believe in the value of these essays—and the unique process they require of students.

In part, my new perspective is a consequence of our changing educational climate. It stands to reason that the major factors causing college admissions to shift under our feet—the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of affirmative action; the rise of AI technology; and an increasing number of colleges doing away with standardized testing requirements—also impact the high school admissions process.

Moreover, NYC high school applicants navigate arguably more complex considerations than college applicants. There’s the DOE’s student lottery; priority admissions to students in the top 15% of middle school course grades; stringent essay scoring at highly sought-after consortium schools like Beacon High School; and confusing online portals in the private school arena. High school admissions essays now hold even more power to set students apart as unique applicants.

So what exactly are these essays—and how do middle school students, with their varying levels of maturity, write them with excellence?

It’s tempting to see these essays as opportunities to boast of student achievements and saintly behavior. In truth, though, high school admissions essays ask—either indirectly or directly—that students reflect meaningfully and authentically on their lived experiences. (In our world of rampant chatbot technology, and with the 2019 college admissions scandal still fresh in collective consciousness, authenticity is key.)

Essay prompts and required word counts vary, but the more substantial 250-600 word essays often include prompts like these:

  • Describe a challenge that had a meaningful impact on you. What did it take to overcome the challenge and what did you learn from that experience? (SAO) 
  • How do you think a school with [the consortium] approach to learning will help you grow academically, personally, and creatively? (Beacon)

Such prompts offer students the opportunity to respond with stories from their lives. Stories do what writing teachers have been trying to teach us for all of time: they show, and not tell. Details within these stories, such as description connected to our five senses, then invite readers’ empathy. Story details also establish the author’s unique voice—a critical component of most admissions essays.

Voice can be further established through a clear, specific point of view. Students must look back on the detailed experience they’ve shared in response to a given prompt, and connect that experience to the bigger picture of their lives. Here, they tell their audience what to take away from their stories.

As an example, let’s travel back in time to my own eighth grade year (approximately two centuries ago). In response to a prompt asking students to describe a personal challenge and its impact on my life, I might share the story of being so scared in my seventh grade theater audition that no sound would come from my mouth—though I was simply singing (or, trying to sing) the “Happy Birthday” song. For details, I’d describe how parched my mouth felt, how my knees were so weak that I thought I might actually crumple to the floor. I had a deep desire to act in plays, but no idea of how to summon the confidence required to do so.

To overcome this challenge, I immersed myself in children’s theater. I befriended the other kids and worked hard in rehearsals. I played silent background roles and eventually, small speaking roles. I worked on my singing (and if I didn’t nail every audition song, I at least formed actual sounds). Then, in eighth grade, I auditioned for the school play: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I got cast as the evil White Witch—a major role, and the highlight of my middle school years.

In a personal narrative essay, that’s the storytelling part—my lived experience, detailed enough that this story could only belong to me. It’s told with my own authentic voice.

The reflective part might be woven throughout my story, or perhaps offered all at the end. Either way, I’d connect with the bigger picture of how I overcame such paralyzing shyness—how with the support of the theater community, relentless practice, and courage, I grew from a girl with buckling knees and a parched mouth to a lion-slaying witch.

No matter a writer’s age, such self-discoveries often occur during the writing process—and so along with voice-driven storytelling and meaningful reflection, the process itself is also the key to admissions essay excellence. Powerful writing requires time and effort. It requires brainstorming and numerous drafts in which students not only edit on a sentence level, but deepen, expand, and even reorganize their ideas.

It’s this writing process that I have seen eighth graders, regardless of maturity levels, embrace with excellent results. It’s also this process that has convinced me, more than anything else, that the act of young people discovering and using their voice—whether at theater auditions, or in admissions essays—is of endless value.

Ashleigh Bell Pedersen is the founder of Write Well Brooklyn and the author of the novel The Crocodile Bride, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She is also a long-time educator with 17+ years of teaching experience. Ashleigh loves creating engaging 1-1 coaching experiences for young people, in which they can discover and express their unique voices.

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