Resources for Parents of College-Bound Students Challenges for the college-bound student



newsletter — july 27, 2019

Advocating for oneself, Part 2

College admissions essays & interviews

by Diane Speed

There's more to English grammar than correct or incorrect...

Two years ago I wrote a piece called Advocating for Oneself, Part 1 — if you don't recall it, it's worth revisiting.

It concerned our students' ability to fend for themselves in their dealings with adults — and especially adults with authority of some kind: teachers, college professors, college administrators, employers.

This is a much belated Part 2.

In Part 1, I described "advocating for oneself" as the challenge of communicating with adults — cultivating relationships with them, building credibility with them, even negotiating with them. I recommended that we coach our students to invest in their relationships with people in authority, suggesting that those relationships are like savings accounts: Make regular deposits, because some day you'll need to draw on them.

In this part, I'm going to describe a completely different aspect of "advocating for oneself":

  • telling your story;
  • giving an account of yourself;
  • making the case for yourself.

Our students must advocate in this manner for their college-entrance and scholarship applications — and primarily in two forms:

  • college or scholarship interviews;
  • college-admissions or scholarship essays.

In such interviews and essays, our students are expected to give an engaging and persuasive account of their interests, their passions, their lives so far. But has anything in their academic careers prepared them for that challenge? Take the college-admissions essay: Our students are ill prepared to write one if their English classes have taught them only to write literary analysis or the five-paragraph essay.

My husband began addressing this challenge some years ago with his writing courses1. He noted that we ask students to write essays before they've actually read any. So he has his students read dozens of fine essays, in which professional writers examine their own experiences, discerning patterns and extracting lessons about themselves and about life. Then, in their own essays, his students write about themselves, their experiences, their observations. — All this is warm-up, of course, for challenges like the college-admissions essay — and notice: it's not just about writing; it's equally about thinking deeply, both about the world and about themselves.

In the college-admissions essay, students must give an account of themselves and, in the process, advocate for themselves. Yet many of our teens — and even some adults — have a hard time talking about themselves. Left to their own devices, they're often hindered by an admirable modesty, an aversion to anything like "boasting." The same students may judge themselves or feel they've under-performed.

But there's another reason our teens may find this form of communication challenging: they're young. — Most have not yet mulled over their life experience, their victories and setbacks. They have not yet considered how they've dealt with setbacks. They've not yet examined their own character.

They need practice.

A mom and her student

Recently I was counselling a parent on her student's high school transcript and other documentation. She shared with me that her student had been struggling to write her college-admissions essay. The girl felt that she had led an ordinary life, that she hadn't much to say about herself.

Advocating for oneselfBut as her mom and I spoke further, I learned that this student had suffered a life-altering illness, one that it had taken years to recover from. The illness had affected her not only physically; it had affected her cognitive functions. She had spent months in bed, ill and feeling inadequate, depressed about her prospects, her future.

Miraculously, an effective treatment was found, and fortunately, the girl recovered. But looking back on her illness, she saw nothing extraordinary: "I was sick. I got better."

Only after talking with her mom did this student realize that her journey through her illness and its aftermath had given her a perspective rare among teens. For instance:

  • She appreciated her health — something many teens take for granted.
  • She appreciated being able to learn and study — things many teens see as burdensome chores.
  • Equally rare, she felt genuinely grateful to her family. (Isn't ingratitude a standard feature of adolescence?)

She also realized that since her illness, she had been more able — and more inclined — to take on leadership roles, both in her classes and in other groups.

As parents, we want to spare our children their pain. Yet it is precisely the painful experiences, when closely examined, that often teach the most profound lessons. Life's disappointments often give us perspective, give us insight into the real nature of things, and into our own nature.

In the case of this teen, revisiting and examining her own experience, her illness, meant to some extent re-experiencing the despair it brought on, so she naturally shied away from it. Yet self-knowledge begins with the practice of examining the hand life deals us and how we respond to it. The same practice may be the gateway to self-acceptance. It is also how we begin to figure out our own intentions, values, and goals.

On the Common App,
you'll notice that at the heart of each essay prompt is introspection.
And the writing challenge in each case is to give an account of oneself, of one's own
self-examination, and
of one's mettle.

College applicants

These days college admissions officers want to hear how applicants have overcome obstacles. Granted, they're looking for teens who know how to learn, who have proven themselves real students. But they also seek applicants who have met life's challenges.

They know that the key to success in achieving virtually any goal is perseverance — no matter the obstacles, no matter how long it takes.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has postulated that intelligence, skill, and even grades are not key determinants of a student's success. A much more important measure is what she calls grit.

For more than a decade Duckworth has been studying the role that character plays in determining success. She's followed adults, West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee champions, and students at elite universities, and in every case, she found that the most reliable predictor of success was not intelligence, or GPA, or SAT scores...

It was character — or what Duckworth was calling "grit." She defines it2 as a combination of two qualities:

  • passion for a long-term goal;
  • perseverance in pursuit of that goal.

According to Duckworth, "gritty" individuals not only finish the tasks at hand, but pursue a given aim over years. They never swerve from their objectives, even in the absence of positive feedback.

College admissions officers are well aware of this research.

Essay prompts
on the Common App

Below are a few of the prompts that appear on the Common App for 2019-20. — Some universities have their own prompts, and many scholarships require that applicants submit essays responding to a specific prompt. Such prompts, though, are often quite similar to the ones shown here:

  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

High stakes

Consider the box at right, in which we're spotlighting typical prompts for college admissions essays. Just look at the first of these essay prompts — it begins thus:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure...

You'll notice that at the heart of each is introspection. And the writing challenge in each case is to give an account of oneself, of one's own self-examination, and of one's mettle. The qualities admissions officers seek in these accounts include thoughtfulness, self-awareness, honesty — plus the ability to convey those qualities in clear, competent prose.

Students may have to write such essays to get into selective schools or be awarded significant scholarships. So the stakes are high, and for many students, the college admissions process is the first time they've ever had to produce such an essay or give such an account of themselves.

Perhaps your student has not had many opportunities to develop a lot of grit.3 Maybe your student has been blessed to grow up in a two-parent household; your student has no disabilities; your family has not had to deal with alcoholism, drug addiction, loss of income, or death of a family member. In other words, your student feels that she has led an ordinary life.

But is that really true?

Is your student a gymnast? — a musician? — a robotics enthusiast? — a computer programmer? — a videographer?

Well, has he ever overcome any difficulties? — Of course he has.

The point here is partly that every student has a story to tell. But it's equally important to realize that telling that story — or even seeing what that story is — won't necessarily arise simply from fulfilling the requirements of the high school curriculum or from extracurricular activities.

Meaningful discussion with our students

We moms and dads may need to coach our students, and here we don't recommend giving them advice; in fact, you should probably refrain from giving advice. We recommend, rather, asking searching questions.

Certain questions you can ask will prepare them to advocate for themselves in the college-admissions process — for instance, you can ask questions about homeschooling:

  • Why do you think you were homeschooled?
  • What do you think were the benefits of being homeschooled?
  • Have there been any drawbacks? — What's the downside of being homeschooled?

You can ask questions about overcoming obstacles:

  • What would you say is the toughest academic challenge you've ever faced?
  • What made that situation so tough?
  • Do you think you succeeded or failed in that situation?
  • Did that experience teach you anything about yourself?

You can ask similar questions about other situations: What would you say is the toughest personal challenge you've ever faced? — the toughest interpersonal challenge you've ever faced, i.e., a challenge specifically about dealing with other people, or relationships — and so on.

The point here is twofold: first, that our kids need time to develop, to become introspective, to become articulate about what they see; second, our students' taking a full courseload (often including AP courses and even college courses) may produce impressive test scores and transcripts, but it won't prepare them to advocate for themselves in the college-admissions process.

It is we the parents who must encourage that kind of development, and we must make such development a regular part of our homeschooling.

* * *


1.  My husband, Roy Speed, teaches two online courses in writing effective non-fiction prose: the first year is called Logical Communication; year two is called Essay Writing & Appreciation. His primary aim in those courses is to teach students to write, but each course relies heavily on in-depth discussion: he encourages his students to reflect deeply on the essays they read and on their own experiences, and to articulate their observations and insights. [Return to text]

2.  See her book on the subject: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth. Scribner 2016. [Return to text]

3.  Duckworth recommends giving your child the opportunity to pursue at least one difficult thing: It has to be something that requires discipline to practice, she says. The particular activity matters less than the effort. [Return to text]

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Terrific. Full of information. The materials were so thorough. I now have a plan of action. Also, this workshop is inclusive: No matter what type of homeschooler you are, you will understand better how to prepare your student for college and present him or her in the best light.

Mother of two


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