I want to talk, er, write, about writing college essays instead. No, not how to write a college essay, because I am far from a master at that particular art, but how our elementary/middle/ high school careers prepare us for this kind of task. In two words: it doesn't.
We are taught to write what other people want to hear. In AP English I, that comprises of the literary devices utilized by authors, and how they contribute to the main theme. In AP English II, it comprises of literary devices used by poets, and how they contribute to the main theme. Even though teachers say that there is no right or wrong answer in English, there is obviously always a right answer. We are coached to write a certain way, with expression of one's individuality shoved to the side in the face the right answer.
This hidden emphasis on right and wrong rather saddens me because we don't learn to hone our own voices and develop our own style. I personally found my style through poetry and practice, but it ill prepares me for the arduous task that is college essay writing.
I believe that there are two types of mindsets one has to be in when faced with writing challenges. The first is analytical, in which there is obviously a right and wrong answer, and the type of mindset that is taught by our English department. It teaches us to appreciate language, to look for the devices that help us delve deeper into a piece, without direct allusion to our own opinion (as in, not directly stating, This piece sucks, in my opinion. It's "the author uses repetition to emphasize the sounds made by a horse's carriage, and the greater significance that the horse has in relation to their childhood"... don't ask).
The second is infinitely more personal, with the concentration on our own goals, aspirations, beliefs, attitudes, personalities, etc. This is what colleges want, and this is the voice that we aren't particularly encouraged to use in writing for analytical English.
Now that I've actually sat down and written one essay, I realize I used the first one predominantly, and the second mindset was quelled in favor of letting an admission officer see the generic response thousands of other seniors would have given. After receiving feedback that my essay was basically crap, and the closest I even got to being impressive was when I wrote about my own experience with flourish, rather than my typical solve-the-problems-of-the-world goals and dreams. So I rewrote my essays, keeping in mind that my "poetry voice" impressed college admin more than my "English voice," which is really not easy, because, like in blog-writing, I can't see my audience, so I do not know how to gauge their response.
So I would advise potential college-essay-writers to ignore that voice that tells them to write the obvious answer for these questions. Take it as an opportunity to self-reflect instead, and it'll seem a lot more fun.