Students participate in fourth annual college counseling essay workshop


Ashley Yen

Senior Kate Vo works on her college essays on the Quad.

Natasha Janssens and Natalie Boquist

College essay writing workshops can cost $200 to $1000 at other schools, according to Director of College Counseling Jamie Kim. Yet St. John’s provides the service free-of-charge each summer, allowing every participating senior to draft and revise their main Common Application essay over two months before early application deadlines.

“I proposed the idea to the administration in my first year as director,” said Kim, who intended the program to “alleviate some stress and anxiety” surrounding college essays for as many seniors as possible.

Over the final and first weeks of July and August, 163 seniors attended the fourth annual college counseling essay workshop. Seniors were divided into groups of about eight and assigned to a college counselor and English teacher for the week.

Before St. John’s started the program, assistance with college essays largely took the form of impromptu, every-family-for-themselves efforts. College counselors sought an equitable remedy that would be available to every student.

“Many families were hiring outside counselors to help them write essays,” English teacher Kim Roquemore said. “Other students were coming to English teachers for help.”

The seniors started the first Monday of the program by completing writing exercises that helped them brainstorm angles of themselves that they wanted college admissions officers to see.

“The idea is to get started writing about those things that make you, you,” senior Ananya Agrawal said.

Writing the first draft of the essay is like playing an accordion: it gets bigger and then it gets smaller and then you repeat the process.

— Kristiane Stapleton

Each student then met individually with the college counselor and English teacher matched with them for that week and discussed potential directions for their Common App essay. That night, seniors completed a full essay draft so that they could receive feedback the next day.

“Writing the first draft of the essay is like playing an accordion: it gets bigger and then it gets smaller and then you repeat the process,” English teacher Kristiane Stapleton said. “You find the best moments, and you make them more central.”

The program is intended to demystify and break down a process that students often find overwhelming. The first hour of every day was blocked out for an exercise, typically reading and discussing successful past essays from a packet provided to each senior the prior spring. Students also spent considerable time revising their essays with their assigned college counselor and English teacher.

“After you add, you squish it again, expand and just keep going,” Stapleton said. “You might write 1000 words the first night, 300 the next and 200 another night, but with each revision you’re getting closer to the finished, polished product of 650 words that represent you on the page.”

Agrawal recommends that every senior sign up for the program, citing the “relief” she felt at finishing her essay two weeks before school started.

“The Common App essay is the one that every single college is going to see,” she said. “You want it to reflect yourself accurately, so the fact that St. John’s has this entirely free program where we write really good essays within a week is amazing.”