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Do high school students really write their college essays in English class?

Original post made by Paly Parent, Palo Alto High School, on Nov 5, 2010

In the current school board meeting packet, Superintendent Skelly asserts that "the senior English classes at both high schools teach a unit on writing the college application essay. They then have the students write drafts of their essays and provide feedback. These units are taught in October."

This has not been the experience of my kids, or other kids I know--they did not work on college essays in any significant way in English class. What about other folks who have had kids go through senior year at Gunn and Paly--did your kids do the essays as part of a class assignment or were they pretty much on their own?

Comments (28)

Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Back in the early '90s, the AP English class at Gunn had the college essay as one of the first essay assignments of the year.


Posted by really?
a resident of Meadow Park
on Nov 5, 2010 at 10:26 pm

What makes you think skelly has ANY idea what goes on in an English (or any) classroom at the high school (or any) level? Smoke and mirrors.


Posted by choice
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Both of my students at Gunn had English classes that gave instruction on writing a college essay. They were allowed to write an sample essay (given a prompt) and their essay was evaluated and graded. I believe that both of them took this class in their Junior year (this was not an AP or Honors class). Students have choices of English class and this class was one of their choices. No need to criticize Skelly because you or your student did not choose to take the class.


Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 6, 2010 at 1:14 pm

So writing a sample essay is a much different thing than writing the actual essay.

my student took the class in which he had heard essays were sometimes written during the senior year. (given the prompts aren't available, taking it junior year wouldn't have helped) However, he was scheduled for it for spring term, so that plan didn't work. The english class he was assigned to did not work on essays, but it wasn't the only one that didn't, from what I can tell. It may be that the situations are different at Paly and Gunn, that's one thing I'm curious about.

This is an interesting point to discuss, because in the school calendar discussion it's given as an example of the support the school gives to reduce stress on seniors (write their essays in english class), so whether or not it's a reality or a hope is meaningful.


Posted by choice
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Actually writing an essay in Junior year did help, especially since essays for schools are different. It was a perfect time for my students to start thinking about the essay and what they want to talk about in their particular essay. They did not use the exact essay once they applied to their selected schools but they took from what they had learned to produce the essays they needed their Senior year applications. Prompts were used from active applications at the time of the class but there is no way that a teacher could give prompts from every college application. I think what the teachers are trying to do is to get the process started and then your student should be able to apply that to writing their own inspiring application.


Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Junior and senior year English classes are one semester of an elective (like Sports Lit) and one semester of the required English. Elective classes are a mix of Juniors and Seniors, the required class is by grade. I have also heard that the non-elective classes work on their essay, while the electives don't.

To Really - As far as Dr. Skelly knowing what goes on in classes - he has kids in the district, including one who graduated from Gunn last year, so he has the same amount of first hand knowledge as any parent.


Posted by Paly Teacher
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 6, 2010 at 11:41 pm

The senior English teachers I know definitely include it as an essay in the World Lit/Classics class in the first semester. There are also college essay writing workshops offered on College & Career Day.


Posted by a paly parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

My daughter is a senior at Paly and taking three English classes this semester (AP English, creative writing, and advanced journalism). None of these classes have required a college essay to be handed in as a regular assignment. The AP English teacher offered to give them feedback if students wanted to hand in a college essay, but it was completely optional.


Posted by No help here
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 7, 2010 at 8:33 am

The questions I have are:

1. How many of our 1,000 seniors each year take an English class that incorporates college essay writing in their Fall semester?

2. Of them, how many are applying to colleges that require essays?

3. And of them, how many get their essays reviewed/graded by a teacher at school?

From what I can tell, virtually none.

Why? AP English teachers don't cover it. It's not part of the packed national AP curriculum, so they really can't. AP English is a senior class packed full of kids applying to January 1 deadline schools.

The non-AP kids (lots applying to colleges that don't ask for essays) may be lucky to have gotten into a Fall elective which works on the college essay for a few days. (Popular electives fill up fast so many kids can't get into the classes they want.)

Even for the lucky ones who get the English electives that cover college essays, some only offer general tips. One I heard from a friend gives input to a small few who are brave enough to volunteer their essays up to the class as examples. Many of the rest of the seniors are left to their own devices, without even one of the many college essays they have to write looked at by a teacher.

As for College & Career Day, the essay writing workshop is a few hours assembly-style.

So, to answer your question, the vast, vast majority of kids don't get college essay help at school.

Could they? I doubt it. It is hard enough for students in Palo Alto schools to get regular assigned papers graded and returned. Heck, I've heard some PAUSD teachers hire outside readers to grade student papers. Not sure if that is true, but frankly with all the teachers have to do it wouldn't surprise me.

I wonder how the English department teachers would feel if the school board mandated that they add one-on-one college essay help to their current heavy, class-size-increasing workload for the 3,000 or more college essays PAUSD students probably write each year?


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Nov 7, 2010 at 9:45 am

I'm a parent who went to a top-tier private school in another state many years ago. No English classes contained college-essay writing assignments, and no students received help with their college essays (unless they got it from parents, which neither I nor my best friend did). In my opinion, high school English classes shouldn't be offering college-essay writing assignments; instead, they should focus on assigning the sorts of papers students will be required to write in college: serious papers on literature, complete with quotes supporting theses and, where appropriate, footnotes and bibliographies (correctly formatted). This focus on learning to write for the purpose of applying to colleges shortchanges everybody, especially the students, who will never need to write a college-app essay again once they're in college.


Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2010 at 11:37 am

Interesting topic with some interesting points of view.

As I understand it, the college application essay takes the place of an interview to enable the colleges to understand who the candidates really are. The application process provides lists of achievements, academic, social and community orientated, to give the colleges some insight into the flesh of the candidates. Ideally, as in a job application, a face to face interview would put some soul on the candidate's application but due to various constraints the essay takes the place of this interview.

Now the role of the essay is becoming a much more important aspect of the application process than the interview would be. As a result, the essays are being given the same treatment as a resume in that it has to be professionally critiqued before submission. This is in fact taking away from the original idea of why the essay is asked for in the first place.

If the high schools are giving college bound students a grounded academic education to get the students into college should they also be preparing them for professional style interviews? In other words, should our high schools be teaching the students how to dress, how to speak, how to present themselves, in a manner suitable for the adult world? If education is a preparation for future life as a contributing member of society, then I believe all these things should be covered. If on the other hand, the goal of a high school education is preparing college fodder for the next level of education, then perhaps helping them write carbon copy style essays in sausage factory fashion is what we should do. Definitely reminds me of Pink Floyd's "The Wall". "Hey teachers, give those kids a chance. All in all, it's just another brick in the Wall".

It is definitely an interesting way of looking at things.


Posted by What the colleges say
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm

I was at a VERY reputable college admissions session not too long ago and they advised that students should have each college essay reviewed by an adult because (1) the essays are a VERY important part of their selection process, (2) the essays are VERY difficult to write, and (3) applicants often have VERY many of them to do.

They said expect your child to devote the last 2-1/2 weeks of December to the task.

If Palo Alto's proposed calendar is passed though our kids will only have 1 week (assuming they work on essays on Christmas Eve Day and Christmas Day) because they'll be studying for and taking PAUSD finals the first 1-1/2 weeks of those 2-1/2 weeks.

The calendar seems like a VERY bad idea to me!


Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm

I'm sorry, but aren't most of the essay prompts posted by colleges and universities in September and October?

Is there a particular reason why seniors must wait until the last two and a half weeks of December to get these essays done?

One of life's lessons is learning to manage your time and not leave things until the last minute.


Posted by What the colleges say
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Maybe it's because Fall semester Senior year kids are in school all day with lots of home work each night, researching which colleges to apply to, traveling to college campuses to visit/audition, taking/re-taking SATs, pushing to get their early action applications in to their favorite school, balancing their music/sports, etc.

It is an exceptionally busy semester (the most busy of all their K-12 years) so that's probably why the college admissions office says expect that your senior will be working on his essay at his first real break before the due date.

They'd know best. Makes sense to me.


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Nov 7, 2010 at 6:04 pm

I think colleges should do away with the essay altogether, especially given that so few students seem to write them on their own these days anyway. Instead, there should be a few short-answer questions followed by what graduate programs ask for: a statement of purpose, in which prospective students say why they're applying and what they hope to do if they're admitted. The whole college admissions scene has gotten completely out of hand, and it's today's high schoolers (and their parents) who are suffering.


Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 7, 2010 at 11:28 pm

My daughter is a senior at Gunn taking AP English. She was able to substitute a college essay for one of the essay assignments. She has already turned it in and had it returned by her teacher with helpful comments. My understanding is that the teacher has offered to read additional essays too, as some applications, the UC one included, request more than one essay. My older daughter had the same experience 2 years ago with a different teacher, so this is not new.

Remember this is on top of the mountain of teacher recommendations that teachers are asked to write. Many colleges request 2 teacher recommendations in addition to a counselor recommendation. I think the teachers are doing a fabulous job of trying to help students meet their admission requirements in this ever more demanding college application ordeal.


Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 8, 2010 at 10:52 am

The Common Application (with the main essay topic) is available in the summer. Many colleges post their supplemental applications in August. It is very possible for a student to complete all of their portion of college applications by Labor Day - and highly recommended as a stress reliever for Senior year. Leaving applications to the end of December is not a good idea and really poor planning on everyone's part.

My daughter had 2 English classes at Paly where college essays were discussed and assigned. Essays were also reviewed in Advisory (optional at the time but stupid of kids not to attend.)

In the end, your child and you are responsible for your child applying to college - not the high school or the teachers. There are lots of resources at the high schools and in the community - both free and for hire. If it is really important to you that your child attend a prestigious (and very expensive) school, think about hiring professional help - you can be sure other parents all across the country are doing so. An Admissions Director at a prestigious east coast college told me flat out, "we know everyone gets help on their main essays, pay attention to the short answers."


Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2010 at 11:08 am

Completely untrue what Skelly has said. I have a senior and his class is are doing nothing close to college essays nor did either of his teachers last year. It is not part of a standard curriculum. I believe there are a few select classes where the essay is engineered into the curriculum. It gives those students an UNFAIR advantage over their peers at Gunn !!! Skelly needs to become familiar with the non-AP students and what they get from the district. All students are not like his.


Posted by J.S.
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2010 at 11:33 am

My Gunn senior has Dramatic Literature Performance (an English class with a Drama component) this semester. She was working on a college essay - not the one she wants to use, but it took her through the steps.


Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Gunn's course catalog has no mention of college essays.


Posted by Kathy
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 8, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I completely agree with "anonymous". Do away with the essay for all of the reasons cited.


Posted by Julius Caesar
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2010 at 2:31 pm

1. Skelly would know about this. His daughter graduated from Gunn in June this year. That said, I'd agree that there's a lot he thinks he knows -- but doesn't.
2. This was covered in my son's English class at Gunn. They do have a college essay assignment but because of when it's done in the school year, it turns out to be more of a practice essay than the real one you're going to use.


Posted by Gunn Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:14 pm

We had that assignment in English class. Mandatory.


Posted by another Gunn Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I just turned my college essay in to my teacher and look forward to her comments. This is a required class to be taken Junior or Senior year.


Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 11:12 am

Glad to hear so many kids are getting help. BUT some do not. It sounds like a teacher-dependent assignment. Even though the district may require an assignment, the teacher's union may protect teachers from being forced to comply.


Posted by Gunn Junior
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I am a Gunn Junior who is currently enrolled in English Honors, a class that includes both Juniors and Seniors.

About a month ago, we had a unit about writing a good college essay. At the end of the unit, we had to turn in an essay. Now, obviously, we're not bound to use this in our college applications.

BOTTOM LINE: Yes, there are classes that include College essays as part of the curriculum.

I hope this clears things up.


Posted by paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 4:10 pm

yep, it does clear it up. There are classes in which kids do it, and a whole lot more in which they don't. And there may be a difference here between Paly and Gunn. But nobody should be making blanket statements about what all students do.


Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:38 am

Well said paly parent.


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