For seniors at Brooklyn Prospect High School (BPHS), their first days back at school are focused on writing for their future. Seniors partake in a two-day writing retreat that starts with brainstorming, discussion, and peer feedback, and ends with a solid first draft of their College ‘Personal Statement.’
“With so many recent changes in the higher education landscape, the essay has become increasingly important when it comes to college applications,” said Enuma Menkiti, Director of College, who began spearheaded the writing retreats a few years ago after attending a workshop on the college essay herself. “Even when you look at the NACAC survey where admissions officers rank what’s most important when reading the application, you can see the change. It’s always been grades in core subjects then the rigor of curriculum first.. And in the past, you would find test scores next with the essay somewhere down the list. Now, with the vast majority of colleges going ‘test optional’, the test scores have moved towards the bottom, and the essay has moved way up. Colleges are trying their best to be more holistic in their review, so we need to ensure that students can tell their stories and have strong essays.”
While the College Counseling office leads this effort, it is their very own peers who play a large role in the development of their college essays. Students are split into groups of eight or fewer, given a series of prompts, asked to brainstorm, and then free-write. It’s an intense but effective two-day process where the writers share with their group, who take notes and are encouraged to probe the authors.
“This works well because they end up just talking to each other,” Menkiti said. “They’re essentially strengthening each other’s story by their own curiosity. They’ll get personal.”
Using a large sticky pad and other visual aids strengthens this freewriting and inquiry process.
“Students continue to pull out ideas, work through them, ending up with a story, an image or a memory, some kind of moment to engage the reader. And then the message,” she said.
The workshops are successful, with the vast majority of the senior class getting to the goal of 500 words.
“The thing I’m most proud of with the work we do is use positive peer pressure. You create an environment where you’ve developed the expectation through their peers,” Menkiti said. “I think the writing workshop works very well for kids who might struggle with stamina or the motivation to write a personal essay on their own. They’re watching their peers do it. They’re getting a safe space to do it in, and so they’re then able to step up and open up.”
To ensure that essays and all parts of the application are ready for a holistic review, the BPHS college team instituted a “Do Not Submit’ policy, which ensures every student runs their applications past a counselor before submitting them. “This way, we can ensure we have as many strong essays and applications as possible,” Menkiti said.
Throughout recent years, Menkiti said, BPHS has worked to increase the quality of the applications that students send out from the school, which in turn helps the school develop relationships with college partners, and can increase the caliber of College Admissions officers who visit the campus. This Fall, the 30+ admission representative meetings include Princeton, Northwestern,and Swarthmore, among others.
“Hopefully our work to help students share their stories, along with the editing support through ourdo not submit policy, will ensure that our students are sharing the best of themselves in their applications.” Menkiti said.