What's the Big Deal about a Little Essay?
What's the big deal about a little essay? All the colleges want is a perfectly written and very compelling 500-word essay demonstrating thoughtful self-reflection. Is that so hard?
Yeah, right! Are they serious? They obviously don't understand teenagers. The words "teenager" and "thoughtful self-reflection" don't even belong in the same sentence! My son Alex is working on his law school application essays. I give him advice and he politely says, "Thanks Mom! I love you." But then... He doesn't actually do it.
Nope. He just hasn't gotten around to writing those required essays. Although he is a college senior, he's still just 19 years old. So when I tell people that I understand what it's like to get your teens to write their college application essays, what I mean is that I *really* know what it's like!
If you have a high school senior, college admissions are looming large. It's a huge job for everyone, and quite stressful. The essay is the key part of the application.
Colleges want to know two things about your student – who they are and how well they communicate. They may see 4 years of “English” on a public transcript, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the child can write well. They may see 4 years of choir on their activity list, but they may not be sure if choir was just an “easy A” or a real passionate interest. By requesting an essay, colleges can learn who they are (or rather, who the student THINKS they are) and determine their true writing skills. A teen’s essay should be a well-written partial answer the question “Who are you?”
Each college admission essay is like a portrait of your child. If a college asks for three essays, make sure you give them three portraits. For those photographers out there, that means three costume changes, three background choices, and three different props! Each essay should be a completely different perspective on your child. Because it is a portrait of your child, it has to have your child’s voice. Voice is the author's style. It is what makes their writing unique, conveys their attitude, personality, values and character. Voice is how colleges will know if the essay was written (or too heavily edited) by a parent. Believe it or not, teens don’t write like adults. For those who live in the world of application essays, this distinction is VERY easy to detect.
College websites will usually list the application essay topics, and those topics don’t usually change much from year to year. Some colleges will ask for just one essay, and others will ask for several. As you collect those essays from the different colleges, you will notice some common themes. This will help you to reduce the overall number of essays the student needs to write. Even if your child is not a senior, you can still collect those questions and have them practice writing college admission essays as part of their English program. When they reach senior year, you’ll have lots of essays from which to glean ideas.
Essay topics are written by adults but read by teenagers. Think about the communication issues you currently face with your teen and you can see why this might pose a problem. When faced with questions like “Tell us about your experiences with diversity,” my teens thought they had nothing to say. Their reasoning went something like this, “I’m a white guy. Duh!” As parents, we could read the topic and discuss it together, and explain what the question meant, and brainstorm some possible experiences that might be considered diverse.
Older teenagers often want to do everything themselves, but college essays really require input from parents. Brainstorming is an idea-generating technique where a group will all call out spontaneous ideas, without evaluating each idea as they call them out. Nothing is too silly or far-fetched to be suggested. It’s a great way to think outside the box. If you are completely stuck, fill out the profile information on fastweb.com. Every time you click “yes” to something on the questionnaire, it is a brainstorming idea to consider for your essay. After generating ideas, circle ideas that you think might work. Only assign each idea to one single essay.
It bears repeating; never repeat anything. If you mention the word “chess” in one essay, never use that word in another essay to the same college. If you refer to “Thomas Jefferson” in one essay, don’t use his name again, no matter how much you want to! Each essay is unique, and nothing should be repeated between essays. In addition, don’t repeat anything that is found in another place on your college application. If you have written about your homeschool philosophy on the application, don’t repeat it in the essay. Don’t mention your grades, course titles, grade point average, or test scores either. Those things are found on the application already. There, I have repeated myself eight times, which will hopefully drive home the point of not repeating yourself. Nine times – sorry.
Think about a photo of your child that is meaningful to you. We have a picture of my smiling son on his bike, my husband running after him with his hands raised toward the sky. The photo screams “success” and was taken when Kevin rode his bike without training wheels for the first time. That picture is the kind of essay to write. The essay is a word picture about the student, written by the student. It is a first person singular short story that is true. Yes, you have to use the word “I” in this essay. Think of a specific moment in time, like the photo I described above. That may be your introduction.
Once you have written an essay, you can modify it slightly to match the college you are applying to. When you use the essay again, remove those identifying statements, and change them to be specific to the next college. Before you submit the essays, however, make very sure you have the right college details on the right college essay! Do NOT mention Dartmouth when sending your application to Yale! It would be like your son sending a love letter to two different girls and getting their names reversed. It would not bode well for either relationship!
College admission essays help the college know your student, but they are also evaluating how you’re your child writes. The essay must be “perfect.” It is sometimes difficult for teens to accept feedback, but this is extremely important. Parents and other adults must help edit the paper. Remove redundancies, cut down the fluff, and keep the meat. It must be perfect in terms of spelling, punctuation, verb tense, and grammar. Point out any errors, but allow the student to correct them. This will help the essay to retain the student’s voice. That’s how the college will get to know your student.
The love letter analogy mentioned above is pretty close to the truth. Yes, you are telling the college all about yourself, but you should do it in a way that endears them to you rather than turns them off. Your child should avoid appearing narcissistic. That is not an easy task for teens who must write glowingly about themselves. The antidote for this is honest self-reflection, with perhaps a dash of self-deprecating humor. The colleges know you aren’t perfect. Never leave the impression that you think you are!
Above all, colleges are looking for something real – something authentic. A diamond may be “in the rough” but it beats a rhinestone every time! Sometimes being honest and real means “being a character.” In this regard, homeschoolers have a distinct advantage over their public school peers. Homeschoolers have tremendous freedom in the high school years to seek outlets for their areas of interest. This, by definition, will make your child stand out from the crowd. Your job as parent is to help them to first discover and then communicate their uniqueness to the world.
Practice college application essays before senior year. If you go to a college fair, grab some application packets and look at their essay topics. Use those for writing assignments this year. Save these “practice” essays. In case of emergency (like writer’s block) you may be able to use some of the essay ideas during senior year. It will make senior year so much more pleasant!
And then, when they are done and accepted into the college of their dreams, they may say “Thanks, mom” and actually mean it!
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