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College Essay Exchange

Mentoring high school juniors and seniors to brainstorm, edit, and craft personal statements for college applications.

The College Essay Exchange (CEE) pairs high school juniors and seniors with volunteer mentors to work on their college application essays. A majority of the students served are first-generation applicants to college. Volunteer mentors come from all walks of life and share a dedication to positively impacting the lives of young people. Literary Arts provides training and guiding documents to prepare mentors to work effectively with students from diverse backgrounds. 

Literary Arts’ Youth Programs co-created CEE with award-winning teacher Susan Bartley at Franklin High School in 2010. Mentors travel to high schools to participate in one-on-one mentoring sessions with students. In 2019, local companies The Standard and Wieden+Kennedy hosted sessions where students received mentorship, learned about their job fields, and toured their offices.

We will continue using both formats in the coming year, including new partnerships with Portland State University and creative ad agency Roundhouse.


How do I become a mentor?

If you are interested in becoming a mentor, please fill out the Volunteer Application Form to be added to our cohort of volunteers. We coordinate with teachers at the beginning of each school semester to confirm dates and times of sessions. We reach out to potential and returning volunteers with the final list of mentoring sessions, usually in September for fall sessions, and February for spring sessions. 

New volunteers are required to fill out the registration form, attend a training, and undergo a volunteer background check with Portland Public Schools. The background check is free and lasts for three years. We are actively seeking mentors from a wide range of cultural and professional backgrounds. About half the students we work with are first-generation applicants to college.

How much time is required?

Volunteer mentors can expect to spend about 50 to 90 minutes per session, depending on the length of the class period. New mentors are required to attend a training, which will last approximately thirty minutes. Since mentoring sessions are held at the high schools, we also ask that mentors take travel time into account.

What will I be doing as a mentor?

While some students will arrive with completed essays that need polishing, it’s much more common for students to be brainstorming and/or working on a first draft. Grammar and punctuation are not the focus here. Instead, we ask that our mentors be thoughtful, active listeners and encourage each student to present their best selves on the page. The most important part of a college essay is that it illustrates the student’s unique story. Of course, we’ll go over all of this and much more at the trainings.

What is the history of the College Essay Exchange?

The College Essay Exchange began in 2010 through a partnership with Susan Bartley, a teacher at Franklin High School who co-founded the Advanced Scholar Program. (She also received the Council Trenholm Memorial Award by the NEA, an award for teachers who work to reduce inequities within education.) In the program’s  first year, we trained 34 volunteers to work with 34 mentors at an after-school session at Franklin. The session was a powerful, positive experience for everyone involved. We’ve steadily expanded the program and currently serve around 250 students per year.

If you have any other questions, please contact olivia@literary-arts.org or 503-227-2583 ext. 105.