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Turning a High School Internship Into a College Essay

If high school seniors haven't started thinking about their college essays, it's time.

"The worst thing to do is to put this off. So much of it is about reflecting and experimenting," says Joie Jager-Hyman, founder of College Prep 360 and author of the new book B+ Grades, A+ College Application. "Look at this as a process. Don't be too connected to one idea. Write down a couple of things before school starts and be willing to talk with a counselor or friend."

One of those ideas might be to write about a summer internship or job. But if that's what they choose, experts encourage students not to make it too generic.

"Essays that focus on a specific aspect of the internship—a memorable moment, a lesson learned, an ethical dilemma—are often more interesting than those that take a wider view," says Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor for CollegeConfidential.com and co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions.

Broad narratives about a summer experience tend to sound superficial and cliche, she says. Instead, describe an incident, even something as quirky as a long battle with a copy machine. "It can actually say a lot about how a student perseveres and thinks and may also add that dose of human that most college-admissions officials long to find," says Rubenstone.

It's good for students to think about a turning point or specific nugget from the internship experience, says Jager-Hyman. For instance, if a student wants to highlight his or her problem-solving skills, describe a problem encountered on the internship. Then, connect the solution to what's learned in school and explain a goal realized as a result.

"It could even be a mistake you made. Few take that approach," says Jager-Hyman, who has worked as a college-admissions officer. "You want to present yourself in a positive light, but it makes you human and shows you being self aware."

Since the internship will be listed elsewhere on the application, only include it in an essay if you will be adding new information that tells the college something more about you, says Jager-Hyman. If the internship wasn't a particularly meaningful experience, don't feel compelled to write about it in an essay, she adds.

And remember, the essay is just a portion of your overall application.

"No one ever got into college with a good essay," says Jager-Hyman. "It's not an essay contest." But it is often read before the transcript, and a good essay might make an admissions officer feel more generous when looking at a few not-so-perfect grades. "Essays definitely help, if you are a qualified student," but not if you don't have the grades and test scores needed, she adds.

This month, the new Common Application rolled out offering students different essay prompts (with no "topic of your choice" option) and limiting submissions to 500 words.

Megan Dorsey, a college consultant and founder of College Prep Results in Houston, says some of the new Common App topics, such as describing a challenge or learning experience, could work for students who want to write about a summer internship or job.

After describing the lesson learned on an internship, Dorsey says it's important for students to then explain the changed perspective and next step taken. She tells student to think about: "What have I done as a result of the experience?"

The essay is a chance for students to tell their individual stories and try to stand out from the rest of the crowd. "An essay gives the student an opportunity to explain something that may not come across in the paperwork the college already has," says Dorsey. So, if the internship provides a window into something unique, using it as a topic can work. She says not to emphasize the name of the firm, but rather the experience and the hands-on work.

"It's experience over the name," she says.

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