Pre-college Parenting: College Admission Essays

Each September, thousands of college-bound high school seniors share a rite of passage: procrastinating on their college admissions essays. Students usually find the required essays the most difficult and stressful part of applying to college. Students know colleges emphasize the essays’ importance, but many just don’t know how to get started. There’s no doubt: writing admissions essays can be stressful. However, forethought and planning can prevent stress from becoming agony.

Below are my top five college admissions essay suggestions for parents, forged from over a decade of helping my students win acceptance at schools from state institutions to Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and other top-notch colleges and universities.

1. Resist the “list.” After 18 years of raising a child, parents sometimes let their pride in their children turn an application essay into a disaster. A 250 word essay simply cannot capture all of a student’s hard-earned accomplishments. Nor should it try. Parents often fear that their children will miss an opportunity to highlight an important accomplishment. As a result, these parents demand that their children pepper admissions essays with lists of their co-curricular activities, employment experiences, and community involvement. Unfortunately, admissions officers usually view these essays as impersonal and unfocused.

Try this: Include your child’s resume to highlight his or her accomplishments. Colleges use resumes to get a “big picture” view of applicants’ abilities and character. Encourage your child to use admissions essays to tell a unique story that spotlights one or two interesting or valuable personal qualities. Leadership ability, sense of humor, and intellectual curiosity are traits admissions officers especially value.

2. Focus on unique ideas. The essays that admissions officers like best tell unique stories. However, students often struggle to come up with original topics.

Try this: Think about one true story that demonstrates your child’s best personal quality (such as bravery or creativity). Don’t worry about connecting the story to a co-curricular activity or other resume experience. Instead, help your child remember what makes him or her unique. Some families find browsing old photo albums helpful to spur story ideas.

3. Set up a calendar and make weekly goals. Teenagers’ procrastination is most pronounced when projects are complex and long-term. Like most adolescents, your child would probably benefit from help planning long-term projects. An average student applies to four or five different schools, each of which might require a different essay and separately crafted short answer responses.

Try this: (1) Help your child prepare a to-do list, a calendar, and weekly goals. For each application, make a list of the required essays and short answer questions. (2) Create a calendar that assigns one or two weeks to each application. (3) Split each application into small chunks. For example, instead of making one task out of writing a whole essay, split the essay up into the following tasks: brainstorm topics, select a topic, brainstorm details, compose a draft introduction, compose a draft body, compose a draft conclusion, revise and edit, final proofread. You can even assign a task to each day. Try to keep tasks to 30 minutes or less. Getting the ball rolling is half the battle!

4. Keep it in perspective. Few colleges admit or deny applicants based solely on the admissions essay. In most cases, your child’s academic record, test scores, co-curricular activities, community service, and work experience factor more significantly into the school’s decision than the essay. Essays serve an important role, but there is no one “perfect” essay, and trying to achieve “perfection” increases stress and leads to procrastination.

Try this: Instead, reinforce the message that sincerity and originality trump technical perfection. Encourage your child to focus on presenting a genuine, thoughtful glimpse into her personality and aspirations. The best college essays feature strong sensory details and mature introspection.

5. Know your team. The best college admission essays reflect the efforts of the applicant, parents, teachers, and other trusted mentors.

Try this: Help your child prepare a list of adults willing to look at drafts and give feedback. Try to choose one adult – perhaps a coach, youth leader, or extended family member – who knows your child’s personality well. This editor should give each essay the “sniff” test to be sure the writing strikes readers as sincere. Choose one adult to serve as a proofreading expert. Usually an English teacher or writing tutor is best for this role. Finally, include an expert in the college application process, such as your child’s guidance counselor or a professional essay consultant. Make sure each team member sees each essay and then make revisions based on the feedback. Remember to send thank-you notes when applications are complete!

By following these five tips, parents and students both can both reduce stress and succeed in showcasing the student’s most important qualities.

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