Conversations with Experts Giving Context to College Essay: Dr. Mae Sakharov
I’ve spent time this winter interviewing my mentors and other smart folks– like Dr. Mae Sakharov– about the difficulties and pleasures of the college essay writing process and working with teens. I do as I tell my students: if you keep showing up in the world-as-classroom with your pencils sharpened, and a sincere wish to do better than BS, life will keep giving you material, and teaching you what you need to know. I always want to know more. That’s also why I love teaching students to tell their stories well!
Here are some highlights from my conversation with Dr. Mae Sakharov, Ed.D, College, Graduate School and Career Counselor. Technically, we’re competitors, but I’d tell you to go see her in a heartbeat for full-spectrum counseling and a wise, good-humored perspective. We were introduced by a freak media relations fairy who connected us on impulse and then disappeared; both of us care deeply about teens, authentic learning, and no BS compassion. She has a great beat on the college counseling industry- be not fooled, it’s an industry!– and has the creds, sweat hours, and lived experience to see every life in context. In our conversation over Google Hangouts, , the frame cut out the lower half her face, so I spent most of the time with a view of just her classy glasses and warm eyes. She looked like a hibernant checking to see if Winter was over– no, no it’s not.
Talking to Dr. Mae Sakharov
EI: What is the college essay really…for?
Sakharov: First, I call myself more of a writing psychologist than a writing teacher. I don’t teach writing– My background is in theater and literature, children’s literature and storytelling, and years and years of improvisational theater.
When I started working on personal statements with kids it was not in structural way– like an English essay, but more about finding out who a person was– and bringing that out.
Writing the college essay is about finding out who you are; process of discovery.
EI: So essay success is not ONLY related to how well you write?
Sakharov: There are plenty of opportunities in the college application to show you can write. But the statement should be something that means something to you. People all have different gifts; some students are able to put into writing who they are– others are not.
I don’t expect all my students to be the same (in this, or any regard) by any means.
For example, if I am working with Engineering student [for whom writing has not necessarily been a focus] or someone who feels uncomfortable with words– I don’t force them to do something that is not reflective of who they are.
If writing is not their strong point, then they can write an essay that’s very simple, that says who they are.
For example– one boy who wrote about building an Eggonaut with his dad in his basement when he was a kid. But hIs original essay was terrible– he was trying to be impressive rather than tell his story.
For engineering students, it is usually good to tap into something that says she or he knows what engineering is rather than something she or he is doing it to make money.
EI: What’s the biggest problem you see with College Essay Writing as it is currently done?
Sakharov: The biggest problem we have here is that schools are teaching essay writing, and kids are getting graded, and their essays are sometimes less than adequate. Essay writing seminars, often held over a summer, can be quite costly.
After these classes, some of the kids think they are done- the idea is to be egalitarian and give everyone the opportunity to have essay class. But these kids gave up doing internships or other summer experiences; now they work on college essays– graded and peer read. And it is a shame.
I have my students turn in supplements or dummy essays to those classes.
For a strong college essay, kids write things that are very personal. That shouldn’t go into an environment where it will sit around in a faculty lounge. Or be forced into five paragraph essays that are boring.
It’s a gift to be able to get what someone has inside them and put it on the page. Not that learning how to diagram sentences is bad, but it’s not going to help you write an essay. That’s not what a personal statement for college is at all.
It’s a huge problem; I teach teachers and they themselves are not writers– and yet they are going to go off and teach that age that you work with, middle and high school. So you have to go back and teach these teachers how to write. Obviously there is something really wrong.
My gosh I’ve seen really great writing in some schools over the years, but it has to be special. You start it young and keep going and people learn how to dig out what’s inside themselves. It’s a process, and helping people learn how to write is not easy. Some people are gifted to help students do that and others should leave it alone.
EI: What about the anxiety, generally?
Sakharov:Yes– the biggest roadblock is that kids are so anxious and fearful and their parents have put so much pressure on them.
Then there is the tremendous amount of money it costs to go to school.
The kids can’t have fun because they are afraid and that is so unfortunate.
There are so many rip-offs with SAT tutoring and college prep, preying on these families.
EI: Is there a one-size fits all essay?
Sakharov: Different kinds of applications require different essays and different work. If you have one standard it doesn’t fit all. Certain schools do want a resume type essay.
EI: Where does SAT prep fit into the picture, or wreck the picture?
Sakharov: All the SAT prep– UGH. The SAT scores don’t mean anything because so many kids have 800’s and the SAT itself is now easier.
Parents think because the kids have 800’s, they will get into all these schools. But the students don’t have that intrinsic thing, that you can’t fake; that QUALITY.
EI: What kind of students are the hardest to reach?
Sakharov: Each year there are different students I have a hard time reaching– for example, someone with inflated self-image. Some students are difficult to reach because they are so angry at themselves or others. They will be successful, maybe in government and maybe on Wall St– but expect you, the counselor, to do everything.
Someone in great psychological pain can be very hard to reach. It can be hard to pin them down for appointments.
Another kind of client who is hard to work with is somebody whose mother talks for them.
EI: Are there ways you encourage a student to drop into a more personal space if they are not going there naturally?
Sakharov: By building trust and being patient.
I think you have to be equally harsh/mean– you have to tell people to throw the essays out if they are not good and help them do something better, especially if it’s just a laundry list resume without telling a story anywhere. I have to make students do this.
Does this interview resonate with you, or bring up questions you’d like to ask me or Dr. Mae? Do you struggle to put a true personal story into words? Have you been told to throw out an essay, and it stung? Let us know in the comments, or visit us on our Facebook page. Got an essay you want no-BS eyes on, to start to get the hang of this personal essay thing? You know where to send it.