It’s Time to Help Juniors Reflect on Their Lives

As one class completes the application process, another one is rearing to go. In fact, this past week, many nervous parents of juniors (and some sophomores!) contacted us. They want to know when their children should start the college essays. How can they help? Is it too early?

As you well know, the pressure is on; the journey to college is indeed overwhelming. Confusing. Distressing. Parents and students want to know what they can do now to get an advantage inside the admissions office when they apply to college next fall.

So how can you get help calm students and parents and help them get through this process with minimal stress inside of their homes?

Teach your students how to reflect!

How to Teach Reflection

Despite what many parents and other well-meaning adults might believe, writing is not the most challenging part of the college essay. The tough part comes at the beginning of the process. Rather than wait for students to write drafts and bring them to you later for a review, you can give your students an advantage by exploring in the next several months how they exhibit their most significant traits or characteristics; this will better prepare them to write their essays at the end of the school year. That’s the first step toward reflection.

While most high school students spend a lot of time thinking and talking about friends, moving out of the house, figuring out life, choosing a career and deciding which college to attend, they must find out what’s important to them and why to master the college essay. It’s a journey to discovery.

When we help our students reflect and focus up front, the rest of the process moves much more smoothly. Too many students start in the wrong place. That makes it hard for any adult to guide them. They come to the process full of ideas about topics, with little consideration of the essay’s purpose. What are they writing? What is the message? Why? For whom?

All too often, students look for activities that might lead to stories, and they waste a lot of time talking about their experiences and their accomplishments. When they do this, they do not answer the prompt, which, no matter how it’s worded, is really asking students to show some insight into those experiences or accomplishments. That’s reflection.

We hear all the time from counselors that too many students bring them essays to edit very close to the deadline; at this point, it’s too late to help.

This much we know is true: You’ll get better essays (and less stress!) out of your next class if you encourage your students to start at the beginning of the process with a conversation about what matters to them with you, their parents, their friends. Let your students figure out what you already know: they are all unique and have amazing stories to share that colleges want to know.

Engage Your Students

Here is a short list of questions you can ask students (in person or in writing) to help them start the reflection process:

  • What would your best friend tell me about you?
  • What do you like about yourself?
  • What are 3 words you would use to describe yourself?
  • What are your best traits? (qualities and characteristics, not accomplishments.

If you have time to meet with your juniors, you can share and listen with an open mind and heart. You can also send the list home for parents, and suggest students talk to their friends about their traits and qualities.

Get Wow’s Book FREE

We’d like you to have a free copy of How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, The Inside Scoop for Parents. It’s full of more great tips to guide your students. To get yours, just send me an email (; please type free book offer for Link subscribers in subject line.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company. Wow was founded by professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills.