Building the Perfect College Resume

What do having a gap between two front teeth, a pilot’s license, and playing childhood games with older sisters have in common? They all serve as the basis of successful college essays I read this year.

October 15th is the first major deadline for college applications. Many of my students are submitting applications by the deadline and have diligently been working on essays. Even though editing college essays creates more work for me, I love having a front row seat in this process. A couple of years ago I incorporated a College Essay unit, heavily influenced by Brian Sztabnik where we review essays, tips for writing narratively, and college applications in general. (*Teachers – see my digression on this topic at the end of this post). After reading 130 of my students essays and offered feedback on how to make them better, I – as a teacher and parent of three kids who have been admitted into college – am going to offer some thoughts on building the perfect college resume.

I am asked frequently by parents what students need to be doing in high school (and even in middle school on occasion) to get into ______________ (insert dream college here). My advice is always the same: do the opposite of what seems to be the logical answer and resist the urge to build a resume.

The best essays I have read this year are rooted in life experiences – not endless activities that students have been forced into in order to check all of the boxes for a college.

I read about a student living in the heart of Atlanta whose mom rents out rooms through Airbnb. This student was initially shy and hid in her room when guests were in her house resenting the invasion of her privacy. Over time, however, she begin to sit with guests on her patio finding herself captivated by their stories and paths of life.

Another student told about her goal of watching a movie everyday during her junior year of high school. She decided that movies would give her talking points for conversations with people she met. For example, the French film she watched would not only help her relate to French people give her a segue to mature, worldly conversations. Watching Bollywood films sparked questions and opportunities to explore these questions with her Indian friends in order to learn more about Indian culture.

One boy wrote about the things he learned about people, and himself, as he walked his dog through the city each day. Another student being raised by a single mom adopted the role as the family cook because this was a way that he could help the family since his mom worked late. The more he began to experiment with recipes, the more he realized that he could adjust and play with ingredients depending on his mood; this has become the way he lives life realizing that adjustments can be made according to individual preferences. Collecting junk is a hobby of one student as he sees this as an opportunity to be a preserver of stories through things. Empowerment through a yoga retreat, designing and sewing a personal wardrobe, and processing the impacts of suicide of a classmate have taught me so much about my students – and taught them about themselves. 

Other essays included a boy who lived overseas when he was younger. Being in a place where he didn’t know anyone, he threw himself into his passion – science – and used his time reading, learning, and experimenting. As a junior, this student invented a glove worn by sign language interpreters which translates sign language to words on a computer. He placed in the International Science Fair. His forced solitude gave his mind a change to dream. Another girl shared the origins of her name, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. When she read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in eighth grade, she fell in love with Scout’s curious nature and her willingness to accept people for who they are and how her life has taken on the nature of a fictional character.

Don’t miss the point: the best way to build a college resume is to provide your student with a variety of diverse life experiences rather than a laundry list of activities. A good essay, rich with anecdotes and personality, will answer those questions and stand out from the pile. College admission officers are drawn to students who have a strong sense of personal voice and students who go deep in a few things have a stronger sense of voice as opposed to students who are exhausted and spread to thinly.

My advice to parents of high schoolers (and students) is three-fold:

1 – Encourage your student to only participate in the clubs, sports, and activities that they enjoy. Nothing should be done just to check a box.

2- Create opportunities for you student to try new things whether this be food, hiking an unfamiliar state park, or traveling to a different city or country. Stepping outside the routine promotes learning.

3- Tell and listen to stories. Sharing our stories and hearing other people’s stories help students grow in empathy, character, and relationally. Stories have power.


In a recent post in an online community, a teacher went on a rant about having to deal with college essays and how she was so over students, parents, and administration expecting her to help students with college essays. While I understand that this may not be “a part of our curriculum” (even though I use this lesson as a part of meeting narrative writing standards), I have always considered helping students with college essays and writing reference letters a privilege. If you are a teacher who finds yourself in a stage of life that you do not have the time to help students with college essays, simply say, “I’m sorry; I just do not have the time for this.” I, however, am thankful to have “extra” time and have build time into my schedule around major college deadlines to help students. They cannot procrastinate or expect me to write an essay for them, but I love that I – in a very small way – am able to help them step into their future. And to all of my teacher friends who share this view (and there are so many of you), bless you. We truly have the best job in the world!

One response to “Building the Perfect College Resume

  1. I love your ideas here! I, too, am one who can never say no to helping with a college essay, despite the time it takes me to do so. One of my favorites was about the first time dad let him mow the lawn; or the student who, as an immigrant, had an even more annoying experience at the DMV based on paperwork; or the girl who used memes to tell a story about journalism.
    College essays are a blessing and a curse. The competitive pressure to “get into the school of their dreams” often produces trite, formulaic essays, the creative, outside the box thinkers soar on this one.

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