Professional Writers Coach Seniors On Tackling College Essays


Ánimo Leadership Charter High School senior Ryan Atapattu sat anxiously in front of the computer monitor. The tempo of his foot taps sped up with each line of text his eyes traced. When he reached the end of the document, he took one last glance at the screen, clicked print and sighed in relief. In just a few moments, he would be sitting down with a professional writer to discuss the first draft of his personal essay for college applications, packed with glimpses into his life story and his dreams.

Surpassing Expectations

Ánimo Leadership College Readiness educators Ellie Herman, Denise Amezcua, and Sarah Ducker recruited professionals from across Los Angeles to participate in a Saturday essay workshop. “We work with our students on their college applications and have a lot of supports in place for students to get feedback along the way. This year over 65% of our senior class is UC eligible,” said Ducker. “So to ensure each student had adequate time to receive quality and thoughtful feedback on their work, we reached out to our personal networks to be an extra pair of eyes.” 

The professionals ranged from educators and screenwriters to authors, each using their knowledge of the college system and specialized skills to equip students on their road to college. Participants provided students like Atapattu with feedback on their Personal Insight Questions (PIQs), a requirement for the University of California (UC) campuses.

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In place of a traditional college essay, UCs require students to choose from eight PIQs and write four short essay responses that express their personality, background, interests, and achievements.

“I’m grateful for the help, because it’s not going to be my teachers or someone who knows me that reads my PIQs,” said Atapattu.

“So I have to be able to show that I’m a unique individual who is serious about furthering his education.”

More Than a Test Score

At Green Dot, we know the biggest driver of upward mobility is education. With a college degree, 9 in 10 students raised in the lowest-income families will escape poverty. This is why our schools deliver a robust college preparatory curriculum and structured supports for all students, regardless of background.

In more affluent communities, it’s not uncommon for students to have college admission coaches and consultants, who, for a fee (ranging from $1,000 to $40,000), provide students with test prep, essay and interview coaching, and application packaging support. Ánimo Leadership deliberately builds similar supports into their college preparatory curriculum–free to all.

Though transcripts and test scores are considerable factors in the admission process, essays and personal statements can often be the difference between an acceptance or denial letter.

This is the only way colleges get to know students beyond test scores and GPAs, which is essential given the college admission pool is highly competitive and crowded.

For example, last year, UCLA received over 100,000 applications from prospective first year students, but could only accommodate 5,950, making UCLA among the most selective schools in the country.

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Mapping the Way to College

Leadership Essay Workshop

The College Readiness program at Ánimo Leadership was designed to ensure students have access to equitable resources and to address the additional obstacles students in underserved communities encounter on their road to college.

In tenth grade, students focus a significant amount of time learning about different college and career options, exploring their own personal identities, backgrounds, and how these relate to their college education.

During students’ junior year, they create a personal educational path based on their values and interests, learn to set and meet meaningful personal goals, and prepare for the ACTs and SATs.

Finally, in their senior year, students are guided through the college admission and financial aid application processes. During this time, the College Readiness course also serves as a medium through which students reassess their academic and career goals.

Clearing the Last Hurdle

On the day of the workshop, students were assigned a 40-minute session with a professional working as a writer. The professionals read the students’ PIQs, asked questions about themselves to ensure they hadn’t omitted any interesting stories, and provided them with feedback on their work. Remembering just how stressful the college application process could be, Sarah James, a Los Angeles screenwriter, was motivated to work with students on their writing: “It’s definitely helpful to have an outside set of eyes on your work because there are always things you may not be fully explaining because you live in your life every day.”

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“It helped me alot because these professionals don’t know me, so it was really affirming that they were able to read my work, get a clear picture of who I am, and understand what I was trying to convey,” said Evelyn Bien, senior at Ánimo Leadership.

Bien will be applying the feedback she received on her PIQs to the personal statement essays she’s writing for her applications to Yale, Harvard, and Columbia University.

“We just want our students to be as prepared as possible to submit the best applications that they can,” said Ducker. “With the deadline a little over a month away, this is the last hurdle for our students and then they’ll be that much closer to college.”

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