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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

College Crash Course Part 16: Easy Admissions Essays

Most every college application asks for a personal essay. The purpose of the admissions essay is to:

  • Get to know your child better
  • Find out what makes your child tick
  • Hear your child’s story
  • Understand the “why” behind your child’s “what”



No matter what anyone tells you, the essay is not the most important piece of the college admissions puzzle. It won’t make or break your child’s chances unless it’s horribly written with glaring grammar and spelling errors.

Though it’s not the golden ticket to admissions, the essay can be a place for your child to set himself apart, tell his story, explain his life, and show who he is – especially if your child has an unusual life compared to the average American kid. The essay can help your child sparkle!

Additionally, the essay could prove valuable for an "iffy" applicant who doesn’t quite have the courses or test scores admissions counselors like to see. It can open the counselors’ eyes and the schools' doors if your child is teetering on the edge of being admitted.

Your child’s essay should:

  1. Tell a story that highlights the essence of who he is.
  2. Grab the attention of the weary admissions reader. The biggest problem with most essays is they are boring. Your child should avoid a boring essay at all costs! Humor is always appreciated if your child has it in him.
  3. Not be written by Mom! Even if writing is not your child’s strength, he is unique and the school wants to hear his 18 year old voice, not Mom’s 40 year old voice. He should have help with the editing of his essay, but the original ideas and expression should be his own. Please do not edit out your child’s voice – even if it sounds snarky. Colleges love real people. They can spot the robotic, boring, parent-driven, pretentious essay a mile away!
  4. Respond directly to the prompt if there is one.
  5. Not be predictable. Now is the time to be creative and think outside the box! Admissions counselors are looking for a diverse group of students. Your child shouldn’t use the cliché about how he hit the winning run. He should show how he’s unique.
  6. Not be a story about someone in the family. It should be about YOUR CHILD. Admissions counselors want to know more about him, not grandpa who discovered the cure for cancer.
  7. Start with a hook. Use a quotation, irony, an amusing anecdote, or a play on words. The essay should entertain the reader!
  8. Detail only the most unique or important accomplishment – maybe something that isn’t in the list of accomplishments in the admissions folder. Your child shouldn’t just repeat the stuff he’s already told the admissions counselors unless he can add something of value to it. If he simply gloats over his accomplishments, it will make the essay boring and redundant.
  9. Be a place where your child explains his situation if he has something negative in his record.
  10. Give some insight into what your child hopes to do or be as an adult if he knows.
  11. Possibly mention why this college is a good fit for him. *Be sure to change the name of the college on each essay!
  12. Be edited by someone with good grammar.
  13. Not cause undue stress! The essay most likely won’t be the deciding factor that gets your child into college. In fact, the essay may not even be read – especially if your child has the test scores needed to get in. 

So how important is the admissions essay, really? Well that probably depends on whether or not your child is an iffy applicant (an applicant that doesn’t quite meet the grades or test requirements). If he meets the advertised averages for GPA and test scores, the admissions essay isn’t crucial. It’ll probably just be skimmed. Remember, admissions counselors have thousands to read and very little time to read them.

Iffy Applicants

After watching insider videos of admissions counselors discussing applicants, it was obvious the information they were using to determine whether or not to accept an iffy applicant was data they learned through the student’s admissions essay. Hard luck stories were given the greatest consideration.

The Story

The essay should tell your child’s story but not his entire life story. It should convey a single event or piece of who he is.

So what’s your child’s story? How can he turn it into a great essay? Here are some tips to help your child discover his story. Have him:

  1. Ask his friends what stories they would tell about him.
  2. Ask his friends to describe him and give examples of why they think he’s that way (There might be some good stories here!)
  3. Ask parents and grandparents what stories they would tell about him.
  4. Ask family members to tell about something he did when he was little that gave clues as to who he would become.
  5. Think of his biggest hardships in life – even if they involve personal stories about you or your family that your friends don’t know about. These types of stories are beloved for admissions counselors. Don’t worry! The essay will not be kept in your child’s permanent records. It will be discarded after he has completed the admissions process. If there is a personal tragedy in his life, it would be wise to share it – especially if it’s an elite school with tough admissions.
  6. Tell what he wants to become. When did he decide this? Was there an event that occurred? How has he pursued this?

Our Example Essay

My daughter used a play on words and a little shock value in her essay. She played on the word “bar,” combining the ballet barre with the Bar Association for lawyers. She spent fourteen years at the ballet barre. As a Mock Trial student, she sat for the Georgia Junior Bar and passed with honors. Her goal was to go to Law School.

She began her essay this way:

It may sound sketchy, but I spent most of my childhood at one bar or another – bars in San Diego, bars in Georgia. My favorite bars were in San Francisco. But I really got to know myself after six months at the Houston bars. Believe me, bars taught strength, balance, and perseverance. Standing at the bar, I willed every muscle in my body into position and attempted to master the perfect arabesque – hoping it would look like that on stage.

The essay followed with a revelation of her intense ballet and mock trial training, her desire to go to law school, and how this college would be her next step in fulfilling her dreams of joining the American Bar Association as an attorney. The essay tied up nicely by referring back to her hook.

Although I’ve never been in a pub, you could say I’ve been obsessed with bars.

I hope this post helps clear up the mysteries of the College Admissions Essay! Please post any questions you have below or share any insight you may have.

If you would like your child’s essay professionally edited, please email me for a reference to an editor that edits college essays.