Empathy in College Essay Writing

El Myers (’23) reflects on getting tutored for a college essay and how Skyline writing center approaches this vulnerable writing situation. Skyline writing center tutors are “…trained in empathic tutoring policies, and undoing the power dynamic between tutor and tutee is one that we take with great caution and sensitivity.”

 In my opinion there is 4 big reasons why building empathy in tutoring is important: 

  1. Builds trust: When tutors show empathy, students feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their concerns, fears and challenges. This builds trust between the tutor and student, which is critical for effective learning. 
  1. Enhances communication: Empathy helps tutors to understand their students’ perspectives, which in turn helps them to communicate more effectively. Tutors who are empathetic can explain concepts in a way that resonates with students’ understanding, leading to better engagement.
  1. Fosters motivation: When students feel understood and valued, they are more likely to be motivated to learn. Tutors who show empathy can help students to stay motivated by acknowledging their efforts, celebrating their successes, and providing support when challenges arise.
  1. Promotes learning: Empathy enables tutors to tailor their teaching approach to each student’s unique needs, which promotes learning over telling. Tutors who are empathetic can identify areas where students may need more support and provide targeted guidance and feedback. 

In September of my senior year I brought what I considered to be my “final draft” of my college essay to the admissions counselor at the CUBE at Skyline and had an extraordinarily distressing experience: my paper was brutalized. My ideas were deconstructed with a red pen. When I questioned the counselor on why they thought my personal essay about connecting my physical expression to my gender identity was “not good” and their response was, 

“Your identity is not ideal for a college admissions officer. You seem confused about your gender identity, this is not optimal.” 

I was left speechless. After I left the CUBE I closed the tab to my personal essay that I loved and I did not look at it again for 2 months. 

2 months. 

When I came back to this essay I made some changes on my own terms and brought it to a few friends I had in the Skyline writing center. It was there that I was lifted up and told that the writing I accomplished was delightful and that the story I was telling is one that must be told with pride. 

As I submitted this writing to various colleges and showed it to my trusted teachers and friends I thought more about the interaction I had with the CUBE and I had one thought: what if this happened to someone else? I have been trained through the writing center since my freshman year and I was actively teaching lessons on tutor etiquette as a writing center leader; even still I was so distraught by this interaction that I had to stop writing for two months. What would have happened to a writer with less writing confidence than I? Someone who hadn’t been trained in writing justice and vulnerability? What could’ve happened to an incredible piece of work? 

I believe wholeheartedly that the CUBE and the writing center both need to exist within Skyline and I am well aware that the focuses of each are individual and different. However, if the CUBES mandate is to help students who are college bound, particularly in personal writing formats, that is what the writing center specializes in. We are trained in empathic tutoring policies, and undoing the power dynamic between tutor and tutee is one that we take with great caution and sensitivity. No writer should ever be told that their identity is “invalid” and “not suitable for college purposes” under any circumstances. The CUBE and the writing center must collaborate to undo the dichotomy of being above and below one another and work together so all students are tutored fairly and justly.

A note on the importance of listening to your peers.

Sara Zubieta (’23) reflects on her experience in class discussions and the impact of student talk on learning. “Listening to a peer’s firsthand experience was humbling and taught me more than any online article.”

During my time within the Communications, Marketing, and Public Policy Magnet program, I participated in weekly ‘Harkness Table’ discussions, where students openly discuss current events and national policies with minimal teacher intervention. We had the richest conversations and the most nuanced view of issues when everyone brought their perspective. We covered topics from immigration laws to voting rights for minors to justice system reform. While it is always comforting to have people support your point of view, I remember clearly how impactful it was when a classmate disagreed with me and shared their personal story. Listening to a peer’s firsthand experience was humbling and taught me more than any online article. A genuine narrative gives so much context and insight. It takes bravery to be vulnerable and a peer’s words deserve to be honored with attention. 

Based on these experiences,  I can say confidently that all individuals have their own funds of knowledge. Vulnerability between people brings the most three dimensional narrative. I hope this is a gentle reminder of how important it is to not only listen to those around you, but welcome their perspectives and criticisms.