The New Essay

Any and every discussion about engaging Millennials in the classroom invariably includes technology no matter which state you're talking about. As a generation raised almost entirely around the Internet, mobile phones, multimedia, and other relatively recent generations, their communication needs differ greatly from their predecessors. Innovative educators have seized upon these patterns and established creative strategies that deliver familiar material through brand new conduits.

Unsurprisingly, this also means shifts within the usual assignments, like the ubiquitous essay. Amazing tools allowing students to explore digital networks, video, audio, images, and other media mean even more chances to engage learners on a wide variety of levels. Rather than a straightforward sheet of text, they can now punctuate their points through visuals and sounds like never before. The fact that Digital Writing Month now exists should be a testament to these little evolutions.

Getting into College

Although dialogues involving alternative or multimedia essays tend to emphasize their classroom presence, they certainly have a place in other higher education sectors. Tufts University, delighted edtech enthusiasts in 2010 when they announced that applicants could now submit an optional one-minute video supplementing their more traditional admissions packets. Within the first year, thousands of aspirant enrollees posted their YouTube projects, hoping to show off what makes them appealing candidates. Because Millennials thrive in digital environments conducive to creative, innovative thinking, Tufts' decision to embrace new media proved incredibly successful.

Texas Christian University's approach still involves the very same principals celebrating imagination, offering up multimedia and low-tech options. Like Tufts, they haven't exactly dumped the traditional essay entirely, rather experimenting with brand new formats. For the more tech-savvy applicants, they encourage short videos. For the not-so-tech-savvy — or students without access to the necessary equipment — TCU also provides an incredibly simple, effective alternative. Take an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper and do anything with it. Anything. As long as it remains flat, fits in the envelope, and does not exceed the page's boundaries, they accept the project.

Beyond creative thinking, the "new essay” for some schools look for collaboration skills. For example, Massachusetts school Olin College required its engineering applicants to participate in a one-day competitive event. Students break off into assigned teams and work together to design and build a tower to meet provided specifications. As they attempt the challenge, their ability to function alongside other people and while under pressure both get examined. Witnessing a potential students' attitude, leadership acumen, and other social skills in person provides far more insight than letters of recommendation and personal essays ever could.

In the Classroom: Social Media and Crowdsourcing

Creative alternatives to the usual sitting down and writing to a prompt have almost always existed. Multimedia presentations, case studies, and other projects all find their ways onto the syllabi. Technology, however, provides even more opportunities for savvy teachers to reject the traditional essay. Blogging and social media especially pique the interest of educators looking for something different that simultaneously challenges and engages the digital native set.

According to the latest National Survey of Student Engagement findings, the most engaged freshmen routinely took advantage of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. Twenty-eight percent plan tutoring meetings and/or group projects and 33% complete their assignments with these tools. A further 15% communicate with their professors and advisors through social media, with over half reporting that the discussions involved both parties.

With social media integrated so deeply into students' lives, it makes perfect sense that teachers formulate some innovative lessons involving the tools. These assignments might happen alongside or in lieu of the more familiar structure. For example, in Boston, schools are using the Facebook Notes feature doubles as a medium for typing up essays and sharing them with a wide audience. They can also add links, videos, and images to help illustrate their main points. Unlike the traditional essay format, Facebook Notes also comes handily packaged with a comments sections, where friends (and, depending on the privacy settings, total strangers) can participate in the discussion and offer up their own opinions and advice.

Even if a classroom assignment requires turning in a more standard essay, crowdsourcing tactics using social media and other forums is also a possibility. The aforementioned Facebook Notes provides one option. reddit's /r/proofreading subreddit overflows with high school and college students looking for advice on their admissions and classroom essays — for free. Active and reliable participants known as "Verified Proofreaders” are the most helpful in these situations, as they typically boast some degree of professional and/or academic experience.

In the Classroom: Blogging, Prezi, Slideshare, and Storify

Like Facebook, blogging also merges traditional long-form writing with interactive feedback and multimedia options. Unsurprisingly, many edtech-friendly professors require their students to write essay-style blog posts and launch in-depth discussions outside the rigid classroom walls. This might involve private works within Blackboard or Angel, visible only to classmates and instructors; some teachers might prefer Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, or other options with public or private settings.

Where once the more tech-oriented classroom considered PowerPoint the apex of all that is presentation, the Internet offers up interactive, even collaborative options. Visual essays through Prezi and Slideshare create more engaging, innovative alternatives to the usual slideshow or written work. and allows up to 10 users can edit a project from anywhere with an Internet connection means more creative and editorial input, regardless of whether or not the projects are assigned to groups or individuals.

Before students get to the classroom, "Prezumes and Portfolios” might enhance college applications. This intrepid student seeking a spot at Oxbridge College took advantage of Prezi to organize a multimedia exploration of his qualifications, and searching the site reveals many more eager to impress their favorite institutions.

Slideshare's interactivity integrates with Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube for multimedia presentations. Like blogs, presentations uploaded to Slideshare host comments sections for further discourse, meaning a much higher degree of interactivity than what the traditional essay involves.

Journalism students and professors alike embrace Storify for crowdsourcing, networking, and compiling final projects. Users act as digital curators to select the social media posts relevant to their writings, building informative works around the sources they verify. Part crowdsourcing, part blogging, part social media, the tool builds all the relevant journalism 2.0 skills far more effectively than perusing books and analyzing the findings in the old-style essay format. Assignments revolve around seeking trustworthy sources, researching what they have to say, and writing up features summarizing their findings. It's real-world experience for the soon-to-be real-world reporters of the world.

In the Classroom: Mobile

The changing face of essays is also as simple as writing them up on a completely different platform. Ninety-seven percent of American college students own a mobile phone, and 79% also possess a portable computing device, like a laptop or a tablet such as the iPad. Of the 18-to-29-year-olds with smartphone access, 73% take advantage of them for more than just making phone calls. Educators at all academic levels now weave mobile devices into their coursework, turning students' fascination with them into viable teaching strategies.

For college students who work on the go or must jot down inspiration right when it hits, well, there's apps for that. iDevice users, for example, might outline a digital essay with iThoughts HD, bookmark digital resources with Instapaper or Evernote, write everything up in MyWritingSpot, and distribute it with Dropbox. But there exists a bevy of apps well beyond these, and ones available for more than just the iOS platform, and through experimentation, students can discover the apps that best fit their needs and are the most comfortable to use.

Not every student can afford smartphones, laptops, and tablet computers. In order to promote digital literacy and ensure far more equal classroom opportunities, some schools have started offering free iPads to all enrollees, like Seton Hill, a Catholic university in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, which takes it a step further by also adding a MacBook to its admissions packet. They plan to upgrade the technology as necessary. For the colleges and universities able to afford this undertaking, this means greater accessibility for students marginalized across economic lines. They don't have to wring their hands over completing assignments involving technology they cannot purchase, freeing up mental and physical energy for tackling the work itself.

How to Succeed at Your "New Essay”

Some education experts believe this influx of new innovations might bring the traditional essay and doctoral dissertation closer to obsolescence. It might be a bit too soon to start picking out the coffin, but students these days should probably understand a few things about the technologies now infiltrating the academic writing process.


  • Keep it short: Admissions counselors have little time to spare, even if a student might very well be the next Stanley Kubrick. Don't go over a minute.
  • Be prepared and edit: U.S. News & World Report recommends video essay creators launch their projects with a solid plan and some room for flexibility. Gathering together all the necessary materials and scripts ahead of time saves you future migraines. And once the filming itself wraps, you should pay close attention to your editing. Turning in something sloppily produced will probably not impress anyone.
  • Follow instructions: If an assignment, optional or not, outlines criteria, meet all of it. Even though colleges and professors encourage creativity through video assignments, that doesn't mean the possibilities are limitless, as the cliche goes.
  • Minimize distractions: Regardless of whether or not a video's focus is on you or another subject entirely, you need to keep audio and visuals simple and streamlined. Note that oversights like leaving a television on in the background or failing to edit out a barking dog only sour an essay's quality.
  • Be genuine: This advice applies to all aspects of academia, of course, but particularly on admissions videos and classroom projects. Trying too hard to impress, exaggerating, or flat-out lying compromises grades and your chances of getting into your favorite school. Honesty and sincerity are much, much easier, anyways.

Social Media

  • Never buy followers: You might think a fanbase of thousands will impress admissions counselors, but paying a service to inflate your Twitter or Facebook presence results in quite the opposite. Services like Twitter Counter make it extremely easy to track which accounts probably purchase fake followers. Build everything organically with accessible and interesting content and openly communicating with other users. Also delete those spam bots who pop in on occasion; a massive following of those never makes anyone look good, either.
  • Keep it professional: Admissions counselors know to check Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites for a candidate's qualifications and suitability. Thirty-five percent admitted that negative social media discoveries led to a student's rejection. Monitor all social media activity, set appropriate privacy settings, and run a search for your name and e-mail address to see what pops up. The extremely diligent applicants might want to set up Google Alerts for that last tip.
  • Keep private information private: Some contact information, like e-mail addresses, might be necessary for schools to contact you. But for your own safety, restrict publicly disclosing your home address, phone number, class schedule, license plates, and so forth.
  • Interact with schools and professors: Standing out safely and professionally as a candidate and as a student, to some, means spending time establishing digital relationships with colleges and professors. It also enables and encourages discussions to take place via Facebook Notes, Twitter, and other social media outlets used for essays these days.
  • Incorporate media: Punch up essays and applications and show off your technology savvy by posting videos, images, audio clips, and more alongside your text. This advice also applies to blogging and slide creation sites.

Blogging and Slides

  • Proofread: Just because the Internet's general grasp of language is, to put it kindly, lacking, that doesn't mean your blog posts and slides should follow suit. Proofread for spelling and grammar errors like you would a more traditionally-formatted essay.
  • Comment: Even if professors don't include commenting as part of an assignment, commenting on classmates' blogs open up discussions that might very well enlighten you further regarding the course materials.
  • Write thoughtful, informative content: You may only get your teacher and a couple of other students to read through what you have to say, but that doesn't mean you should eschew producing quality material. It establishes your credibility and fosters engagement. And keep post lengths shorter; most blog visitors tend to stop paying attention before hitting the 1000-word mark.
  • Keep slide copy to a manageable length: Bombarding a slide leaves it looking cluttered and bores audiences. Say it simply (but effectively), add some sound or visuals, and move on to the next one.


  • Be polite: Even if you wind up not using any of the information a friend, family member, or fellow Internet denizen provides, thank them. They took the time to help you, so you take the time to show some sincere gratitude.
  • Verify all information: You lose credibility if you crowdsource research and blindly include whatever you find. Journalist's Toolbox lists some excellent online resources for checking and double-checking the facts.
  • Don't spam inquiries: Spamming is a less-than-wonderful thing, so only ask in appropriate channels. Find forums dedicated to writing assistance, put out a general inquiry on Twitter or Facebook, or private message friends and family you know would help out.
  • Don't plagiarize: If you elect to crowdsource opinions for an essay, remember to properly attribute any quotes to whomever spoke or wrote them. This advice also applies to citing other materials as well; schools know how to catch a plagiarist, so don't think you're clever enough to slip past them.
  • Don't crowdsource the whole thing: If you ask for research help or opinions, don't expect the same crowd to also proofread. Plus, crowdsourcing an entire project from beginning to end is kind of lazy.


  • Review apps before downloading: Before downloading an application, especially one that costs money, see what professionals and fellow students recommend first. It'll save time and probably a few dollars.
  • Make backups: Not every app automatically syncs with other devices for backup documents, so be sure to upload updated important writing files, photos, videos, and other media to a backup machine whenever possible. Just in case.
  • Be wary of eye strain and sore thumbs: If you're piecing together an essay using a smartphone, take regular breaks to rest your eyes and thumbs; these issues crop up all too often in the digital era. No project is worth sacrificing your health over.
  • Use a bookmarking app: Instapaper and Evernote are the most common, but other apps offer up the ability to compile valuable links and media all in one place as well. They are incredibly valuable tools for students on the go, especially ones for whom inspiration always seems to strike at strange times.
  • Don't write in text speak: You might be taking advantage of a mobile device, but your teacher will more than likely not find these linguistic shortcuts cute or clever. Write as if you would in any other medium.

Whether crowdsourcing proofreading, piecing together a journalistic feature through Storify, or harnessing an iPad for the entire research and writing process, the "new essay” stands poised to overtake its more traditional predecessor. Thanks to higher degrees of interactivity and the inclusion of multimedia, Millennials and later digital natives engage with content in some incredibly inventive ways. It stands to reason that many of these options will find permanent homes in higher education classrooms, if they haven't already.