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  • Writer's pictureSawyer Earwood, CEP

High School vs College Essays: 3 Key Differences


What is the purpose of high school? 


A student could ask every teacher in their high school about the purpose of high school and likely receive just as many different answers. Some view high school as a core component in the creation of an educated and adaptable population of citizens with critical thinking skills. Others are likely to place less emphasis on high school as an educational experience and focus more on the idea of high school’s role in the cultural, social, and emotional development of students. I will also wager that you need not travel far in your questioning to find at least a handful of people who consider high school a complete waste of time. 


As a college counselor, it is understood that the majority of families and students I work with view high school as preparation for a college or university education. This viewpoint isn’t exclusively reserved for students and families, as we see more and more high schools highlighting their success stories through college admissions and matriculation of their students. The adoption of AP and IB programs, college counseling offices filled with impressively credentialed industry veterans, and marketing materials emphasizing schools as “college preparatory” are only a few examples of how high schools are embracing their role as a stepping stone to higher education. 


If you believe that high school is preparation for college, and by extension the college application process, then there is a glaringly apparent disconnect in how students are taught to write. The vast majority of high school students are woefully unequipped to write a personal statement. Their ineptitude can range from understandable to baffling, but the truth is that very few students are able to take what they’ve learned from almost half a decade of writing preparation and apply those processes to their personal statements. Even students enrolled in some of the most competitive and nationally recognized high school English courses freeze when confronted with even the most basic organizational, strategic, or thematic hurdle. 


To be clear, I don’t blame students for these worrying trends. Even if a student diligently learns all that is taught in the classroom, they could still be woefully unequipped to dive into a personal statement for the college essay. This blog post’s aim is not to assign blame or publicly shame, but instead to frame the key differences between typical high school essays and the personal statement. In particular, this blog will highlight common pitfalls that students struggle with such as differences in word counts, effectively addressing essay prompts, and writing from a personal perspective. 


 

Minimums vs Maximums - Crafting Succinct Essays


When thinking about high school writing, the general rule seems to focus on minimums: word counts, pages, sources, etc. From a practical standpoint, this makes complete sense. Motivating most teenagers to do something they don’t want to is a herculean task, even more so when academics are involved. If the measurement of completion is viewed through minimums, then students are theoretically forced to engage with the material and provide more thorough writing. In truth, we know this system is fraught with problems:


  • When the focus of writing is on a minimum, students view reaching that threshold as success. The emphasis is no longer on the quality of writing or mastery of the topic, but instead on the minimum needed to accomplish their task. 

  • Students always have and will continue to integrate “fluff” into their writing process to reach minimums. 

  • Sentences become needlessly long and wordy to increase word counts. 

  • Something is hastily added as a source if a student can scrounge even a single sentence or quotation, in order to reach their required number of sources. 

  • Perhaps most notoriously, students alter the size of punctuation or margins to provide that last bit of umph to reach the page limit. 


One of the harsh realizations for both over and under-achieving students is that nearly all writing in the college application process focuses on maximums. I typically see two common reactions from students confronting the reality of writing maximums:

  1. The student’s entire long-form writing toolbox collapses because it was built on a foundation of minimums. Their frustration appears in two ways:

  2. This student usually writes very little, sometimes less than a paragraph, for their first draft. 

  3. Other times, this student sprints out of the gate going well beyond the 650 word maximum with little to no substantial content.

  4. Alternatively, the student might be an excellent writer, but they have also catered to minimums their entire academic life. This student often goes well over the word limit, producing solid writing interlaced with fluff. It’s not uncommon to see these students stop writing entirely before completing their first draft due to the shock of going over the word limit. Their frustrations are often rooted in resolving a perceived disconnect with their writing abilities. After all, they get good grades, and that makes them good writers… right? Yet, at the same time, they struggle to convey an idea in an effective, efficient, and entertaining manner. 


Regardless of which English class you take, what grades you get, or your writing ability, the shift from minimums to maximums is challenging for all students. Despite these frustrations, this is the time for students to begin to realize that more words does not equal better writing. The modern teenager is pulled between a communication dichotomy: the short form of social media and texting vs. the long form academic writing they’re expected to learn in school. For the purpose of communicating a personal narrative, neither of these extremes will serve students for the college application or beyond. 


 

Choosing Your Path - Adapting to Creating Your Own Prompt


How does a student complete a writing exercise in high school? 

They answer the prompt. 

But, what happens if there is no prompt?


This is a very real and impactful hurdle that most students struggle with while writing their personal statements for the college application process. The writing skills of any given high school student can vary widely, but no high schooler can successfully complete their high school writing assignments without learning to address the prompt. In a few rare circumstances, high school students might have some freedom to choose to write about various historical figures, events, scientific experiments, or pieces of literature, but even in those circumstances, the goal of the assignment is clear and their freedom is limited by parameters. For the vast majority of high school students, writing a personal statement without a direct prompt is the first non-directed writing exercise they’ve encountered. 


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I also want to be clear that not every application essay during the college application process is as ethereal and amorphous as the personal statement. Most, if not all, supplemental college essays will provide very direct and informative prompts to help guide students through these additional writing exercises. Let’s look at an example for the University of Colorado Boulder.


  • University of Colorado Boulder 2023-2024 Supplemental Essay Prompt

  • What do you hope to study, and why, at CU Boulder? Or if you don't know quite yet, think about your studies so far, extracurricular/after-school activities, jobs, volunteering, future goals or anything else that has shaped your interests.


If we use this prompt as an example of a supplemental college essay, we can pretty quickly deconstruct the prompt to understand both what it is asking and how to respond:

  • If you DO have some understanding of what you hope to study/major in:

  • What do you hope to study?

  • Why do you hope to study that subject?

  • Why do you hope to study that subject at CU Boulder?

  • If you DON’T have some understanding of what you hope to study/major in:

  • What have you done that you find interesting or engaging enough to learn more about or potentially study? Consider the following:

  • Academic subjects

  • Extracurricular involvement

  • Jobs or volunteering 

  • Passions, hobbies, and interests not within the other categories


Utilizing the example above, a student can deconstruct prompts to a point where they have a clear checklist of objectives they’ll need to accomplish by the end of their supplemental essay response.  


Also see:


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Supplemental essays aside, nearly all high school students applying through the Common Application will be required to write a personal statement. The Common Application does provide seven general pre-populated prompts that students can choose from:


  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  2. 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?

  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.


Wait, you said the personal statement doesn’t have a prompt, but you listed 7 prompts above!

Correct! While the Common Application does provide seven prompts, we encourage students to choose their own topics (prompt 7) for two primary reasons:


  1. First and foremost, when a student selects a pre-existing prompt they become beholden to fully and completely answering that specific prompt. Reflect on the CU Boulder supplemental example that was highlighted previously. In order to respond to the entirety of the prompt “correctly,” the student must address all three pieces. Even if you use the other prompts as inspiration for your eventual writing, by selecting option 7, a student is guaranteed to fully answer the prompt since they are the ones defining the parameters.

  • Example: Let’s say a student chooses prompt 6. It’s not uncommon for a student to describe something that they find very engaging and why, but they often struggle to incorporate the final portion, “What or who do you turn to when you want to know more?” 

  • If a student wanted to write about something they find engaging and why, but selected prompt 7, then they wouldn’t need to address “what or who [they] turn to when [they] want to know more?” The same essay that would’ve been incomplete under prompt 6 is now totally acceptable under prompt 7. 

  1. Secondly, and arguably as important as the previous reason, students are less likely to think outside the box if they are working with a pre-existing prompt. It’s natural for a person to narrow their response, brainstorming, and critical thinking when given parameters around a specific prompt. While this doesn’t mean that a student won’t write a compelling essay, it does mean they are more likely to taper the scope of their creativity and experiences to fit into a more narrow response. Students should be encouraged to think outside the box and write about something meaningful to them. While it might not necessarily be the easiest or most straightforward path, I do believe it’s a path that leads to more engaging conversations, deeper self-exploration, and a higher likelihood of an essay that positively stands out in the application review process. 


 

Embracing Authenticity - Finding Inspiration in Personal Experience


The final key difference that this blog will highlight is the “personal” aspect of the personal statement. Even the most writing-intensive high school curriculum rarely allows students to write from a personal perspective. The same student who might write an A+ literary analysis on the symbolism of the green light from The Great Gatsby might struggle significantly in writing a response about how reading The Great Gatsby personally affected their worldview, which characters they ideologically align with, or how to express their unfiltered opinions without ruffling proverbial feathers. An unfortunate reality for most high schoolers is that they can easily analyze or regurgitate information from others, but aren’t taught how to express or analyze their own thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. 


Looking at the previous two differences I’ve highlighted, it’s easy to understand the practical rationale around utilizing minimums or providing specific prompts for writing exercises in an academic setting. Sadly, intentional or not, it’s clear that the academic system in the USA does not emphasize the value of original self-expression and clear communication of values, beliefs, or ideas that originate from within a student. In some ways, I believe this is possibly one of the greatest disservices to students navigating their high school experiences. I would argue that the cultivation of identity and purpose is one of the most crucial pieces of any developing person, even more so for teenagers and young adults navigating the transition to adulthood. These kinds of conversations and writing exercises also help students develop clear, effective, and efficient communication skills. Whether we are looking from an interpersonal, academic, professional, or societal lens, the ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs is valued as an increasingly desirable trait. 


Now, at the precipice of the college application process, our most academically successful students are paralyzed by the idea of expressing what they think, believe, feel, or hope, having to use first-person pronouns, and displaying any amount of vulnerability in their writing. As I work with students, both independently and within high school settings, I fear that our education system has created a graduating class of Siris and Alexas, happy to regurgitate specific responses to specific prompts, but unable to formulate or express original ideas in clear and varied forms of communication. 


The personal statement provides an unfortunately small demographic of people with the opportunity to confront both the beauty of empowered expression and the horror of its absence in their education to this point. As educators, we should emphasize the importance of the personal statement as more than just a “college essay.” The personal statement is an opportunity to take a small step toward rectifying a failure of our education system, the failure to equip young people with the confidence and competence to express their thoughts, values, identities, and beliefs in meaningful and effective ways. 


 

Conclusion


Writing this blog has provided an opportunity to reflect on why I enjoy helping students through the personal statement writing process. 


In the spirit of transparency, I will happily be the first, but certainly not the only, one to admit that the academic aspect of my college experience was not terribly challenging. I did well in high school, taking challenging courses while actively engaging with teachers, peers, and course materials inside and outside of the classroom. I remember, with quite a bit of shame in hindsight, my braggadocious frustration hearing my peers in my first college course panicking about assignment requirements that I had perfected as a high school freshman four years earlier. Internally I was terrified. Was I overprepared? Had I spent too much time on academics in high school? Did I select a college that was not rigorous enough? Had the promise of a more meaningful education experience been a lie? Was I doomed to another four years of absorbing information and then parroting it back in a pre-approved formula that could guarantee me a higher grade? Had I become a parrot?


Ok, maybe that last line was a bit of a fun theatrical exaggeration. I was not a parrot, rather I was a product of the American high school education system. In many ways that system provided more academic preparation for college than I could have ever anticipated. But even with all my academic success, my education had hampered me in many other crucial aspects. I had been taught more was more, when in reality less is often more. I had been taught how to provide the answer that I knew was correct or desired, rather than critically thinking outside of the box to tackle problems in new or inventive ways. I had been taught to write academically, but not how to express myself or communicate with others in an authentic, empowering, or clear fashion. The same deep-rooted mindsets that had helped me excel in high school would inevitably lead to significant academic, social, and personal hurdles during my time in college. 


With the benefit of hindsight, and an additional eight years working with high school students as an education professional, the importance of personal writing in our students’ development is clearer now than ever. Ironically, many people I speak with imagine academic and personal writing on a binary spectrum. I would argue that we need to shift away from academic and personal writing as a dichotomy and instead visualize an overlapping Venn diagram. Neither category can successfully promote meaningful growth alone and neither category is without significant overlap. I find joy in mentoring, guiding, and advocating for students as they confront old academic paradigms of writing and venture into the exciting and daunting unknown of personal writing. At the end of the day, students who openly and authentically engage with the personal statement will find themselves better equipped to not only tackle the classroom but also the world. 


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You can find more blogs on the college essay writing process below:


With all my support,

Sawyer Earwood

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors


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