Counselors and Specialists Offer Students Tips for Writing Resumes and College Essays

Let’s face it; high school students have a lot on their collective plates. School. Work. Extracurricular activities. Being a teenager. Parents know that getting their kid to plan beyond the next five minutes can be a Herculean task, but high school can go by quickly. Planning for the future, at least the foreseeable one, needs to start well before the band director cues Pomp and Circumstance.

Thankfully, local students (and parents) needn’t go it alone. Resume and college essay writing are only part of the equation.  At Maple Grove Senior High, juniors prepare their resumes as part of their English curriculum and update it as seniors.  During the first trimester of AP 11 and Trimester 3 of English 11, a process paper features a personal narrative or description that targets college application essays. “We go through several process steps—proposal and at least two drafts—to help students write their best essays. We also encourage students that, if they know a school they would like to apply to, to use that essay prompt,” says Jennifer Larson,  English teacher.

“Osseo [Senior High] students prepare resumes, participate in a mock interview and write a thank you letter as a part of the English curriculum in 11th grade,” says Michelle Mazanec, college and career specialist. “Our students regularly use the Minnesota Career Information System (MCIS) for college/career research through our Advisory program, and MCIS has a resume builder for students to use. Also during junior year in English, students choose a prompt and craft a college essay.”

“Our counseling department is well-trained on providing information to students about college processes, so we work cooperatively with the English department when students request assistance with college essays and resumes,” Mazanec says. 

Matt Musico is college counselor with Collegewise, a college counseling organization with over 40 counselors who assist families with the admissions process. He says resume building begins freshman year. “This allows students plenty of time to find out what they like—and what they don’t like—while also having the chance to make a real impact (and potentially experience something they’ll later write about in a college essay),” he says.

Is it better to be a Jack-of-all-trades or engage in select activities? “Admissions counselors like seeing multiple activities, but they also want to see the impact you’ve made in each one,” Musico says. “While having 10 or more activities looks great on paper, it’s not helpful when you can’t articulate what you’ve done well enough when it’s time to describe your involvement.”

Musico advises avoiding common mistakes, including using incorrect grammar and using the wrong college’s name. “Admissions officers understand that students are likely applying to a handful of universities, but taking the time to submit a clean essay shows that even the smallest details are important to you,” he says. Clichés, especially opening with a quote, is another no-no.

Musico also says an essay shouldn’t read like a cover letter. “Admissions counselors and committees want to truly get a sense of the kind of person they may invite to campus for the foreseeable future,” he says, adding the focus should be why a student did something, rather than how.

Is there a recipe for the perfect essay? In a way, yes. “Every essay needs to have a clear thesis, properly organized thoughts and a conclusion that wraps everything up,” Musico says. “It’s difficult to get a sense of a student’s personality when an essay is jumping from one thought to the next without any perceived order or a lack of smooth transitions that ultimately connect the dots.” Students should, for the most part, use language they use in conversations. If they normally use hundred-dollar words, great. If not, leave them out. “Sounding like yourself will help your true personality shine through,” he says.

“Writing a successful college essay is more of an art than a science,” Musico says. “I’ve read plenty of terrific essays that couldn’t be more different from one another, but there is one prevailing theme—they’re genuine. The only place in a college application where you can give an admissions team a glimpse into who you are as a person is the essay. This is your opportunity to show why you’d be a good fit at their particular college."