Wall helps students find the right words

Jan Garrison

College essay class


June 30, 2021

What you write does make a difference. Especially when it comes to college admissions essays.

Students across the country are spending this summer thinking about what they will say. How do you write an essay that doesn’t read like the other 200 the admissions counselor handling your application must pore over?

At Culver Summer Schools & Camps, instructor James Wall is helping students find their unique voices during a special two-week class. A retired English teacher with 38 years of experience, Walls said he walks students through a process that should produce “two good essays” to build on for their applications.

And, he added, they are learning more about themselves along the way.

The classes started eight years ago when academic counselor Jan Jackson suggested Culver offer the course to the Upper Schools students. While it is geared mostly for students heading into their junior or senior years, Wall said he has had students at all grade levels take the class. One eighth grader took the class “because he wanted to get a head start” on the process, he added with a smile.

The class originally lasted all six weeks of camp. Wall’s goal was for each student to have three solid essays when they finished. The class has since been narrowed down to two weeks, so his goal is for the students to have two working essays when they leave.

Wall emphasized the essays must be more than a simple listing of your accomplishments. “Don’t tell me ‘I’m great,’” he explained. Every college admissions counselor is reading essays from 200 other “great” students. The goal of the essay should be to “sell me on you.”

Wall tells the students this can be accomplished by writing about a point in their lives that exhibits one of their strongest qualities. The first step is to identify those character traits. He asks students to select four to five of their best qualities, then focus on “the one best thing about you.” Traits that frequently rise to the surface include hard-working, resilient, and perseverance.


Instructor James Wall reviews an essay with a student.


The students then select a point in their lives when that character trait came through. They write about that moment, covering the process and the result – either good or bad. During this process, Wall helps them to collect their thoughts, edit their essays, and suggest how to improve them.

For the second essay, he has the students select a time when that characteristic shines through academically. “It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering,” he explained, but it should illustrate that they were “doing the best that they can.”

Some students have trouble getting started. They will sit and stare at a blank laptop screen during class. That is when Wall suggests they try a different method, such as writing out their thoughts on paper. Or he may just sit with them and talk about what they want to write. Sometimes, he said, just getting them to verbalize their ideas will jumpstart the creative process.

Some students have written about what they have learned at camp and then used the same character trait at home. One example is how a boy learned how to slalom ski while at camp and how that related to improving his grades at home. In the first essay, he talked about his frustrations in learning this new skill but how he pushed through to accomplish his goal. The second essay covered how he slacked off during his third quarter at school and his history grade fell. Knowing that failure was completely on him, the student buckled down in the fourth quarter and was able to bring his grade back up.

The first essay showed his determination to learn something new – something he wanted to do. The second essay showed his determination to make up for his earlier mistake. Neither is earth-shattering, Wall explained, but the essays showed he took ownership in each instance and had the grit to succeed.

One student wrote about his friend in Honduras being kidnapped and held hostage until he was freed. The student was moved by how his friend recovered after being tortured and not knowing if he would be reunited with his family or killed. It had a major impact on how that student now looks at his own life.

Another wrote how he learned courage and selflessness from his parents after his mother battled cancer and how his father helped her through it. Others have talked about how they have been moved by the service trips they have taken. The themes of gratitude and selflessness often run through them.

As the years have gone by, Wall said he has heard from a handful of alumni thanking him for his work. But he also knows he has had an influence on more when they come back for Homecoming and they make it point to stop and talk with him.

“There have been some very profound essays,” Walls said. “I think they learned something about themselves in the process. It shows how tremendous these kids are.”

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