Updated: May 19, 2020
My first favorite thing about working with our College Starter students is when I open my email in late spring to an excited message about where they’ve been accepted. The future is bright!
My second favorite thing about working with our College Starter students is getting to know them as we conference on college essays. I learn about their summer jobs, their exciting trips, the challenges they’ve overcome. Very often, a student will present a first draft all about someone very important to them: Grandma.
I have a theory that students with strong personal relationships and who seize up with writers’ block tend to write about Grandma. I suspect they look at the Common Application topics, freeze, and look for comfort. It makes sense that they turn to someone familiar who showers them with unconditional love.
As I’ve read in many essays, Grandmas take care of us while parents work; Grandmas risk uncertainty on a long journey to immigrate here for a better life for their children; Grandmas cook family dinners and give hugs as big, sweet, and warm as the pie they bake. Often, Grandmas (or Gram, Yiayia, MeeMa, Bubby, Abuelita, Mamie– your grandmother’s name is as special as she is) are women whose pride in us and love for us means more than anything. And so, students write about how much they want to succeed so they can make their Grandmother proud.
Your Grandmother is lovely. But she should not be the topic of your college application essay.
Often, when students write about a significant person in their essay, that essay becomes about that person. It’s easy to slide your essay in the direction of honoring your Grandmother without realizing it. Suddenly, this essay is no longer about you! However, college admissions folks look to your essay to personalize your application aside from your GPA, test scores, and transcript. It’s your way to humanize yourself and demonstrate what makes you unique in your perspectives, experiences, and values. When we make someone else the topic of our essay, we lose the chance to show what’s so awesome about us. And this goes for any special person in our lives whom we inadvertently make the star of our essay – I’ve often seen parents, grandparents, siblings, coaches, and even celebrities as the unintentional focus of a student’s essay.
This is not to say that Grandma (or any of these wonderful people) can’t make a cameo appearance. I love when students begin their essays with an anecdote before they dive into a reflection. This anecdote, or very short story, is the perfect place to bring in a special moment, conversation, or lesson you shared with her. Quote her. (If she spoke another language, you can even quote her in that language). Describe her appearance or actions in detail. Share what she taught you.
But then – this is important – shift the focus to you. Write about how you put her words into practice, or how that experience helped you overcome that challenge, changed that perspective, helped you solve that problem, or any of the other topics the Common Ap suggests. Now, your essay topic is how you’ve grown into yourself through that special experience with Grandma. This is how you can still honor Gram while also sharing with the admissions board what makes you shine. (And why shouldn’t you honor her? Your grandmother is lovely!)