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  • Writer's pictureBeth & Tim Manners

A Parent's Guide to the College Essay

The first thing to understand about the college application essay is that it is unlike any other piece of writing a high school student has done before or likely will ever again. This is because it serves a highly specific purpose and has a unique audience.

That purpose is to provide an open window into the true personality and character of the writer. The audience is college admissions officers, who know exactly what a high school student sounds like. These parameters represent uncharted territory for the vast majority of high school students, not to mention their parents. More on that later.

Such unusual circumstances call for unprecedented strategies. Precisely because it is new and different, writing about oneself can be a little uncomfortable at first. That’s okay. Going off to college is nothing if not about stepping outside one’s comfort zone, and the essay is as good a place as any to start that journey.

This is not as hard as it may sound, and can be as much fun as one makes it. Indeed, the more a student enjoys writing the essay, the more the colleges will enjoy reading it. This can only build the chances of landing in the admitted pool.

Finding the topic can seem daunting at first. It may feel like there’s great pressure to share some amazing, earth-shaking story, however most 16- or 17-year-olds haven’t yet had that kind of experience.

Colleges understand this. They are not anticipating anything more than some unadulterated insight into personal qualities or values, or a way in which the student’s view of the world has been challenged, changed or grown since entering high school. They are not expecting a great work of literature; they just want to get a sense of what is meaningful to the student and why.

The essay topic itself matters far less than what the student brings to it. Truth is, the colleges have seen every topic under the sun many times over, and then some: sports, mission trips, art, music, camp, community service. What they haven’t necessarily seen is how a given student thinks and writes about a given topic.

Colleges want to hear a story about a journey, from point A to point Z, as only the student could tell it, in his or her “voice.” That means writing as closely to the spoken word as possible. Yes, the essay must be well-organized and grammatically polished, but it should also convey in high fidelity what the student wants to say, the way s/he would say it.

If the student is eloquent, it should be eloquent. If naturally funny, that should come through. Slang is okay, within reason. Nothing should ever feel forced. Sincerity is the word.

If any of the above sounds disconcerting, that’s because it often is, and doubly so for most parents. Just as it can be uncomfortable for teenagers to write a mini-autobiography, it is typically difficult for well-intentioned middle-agers to give them the latitude they need to tell the colleges whatever it is they want to express. What the colleges want to hear is whatever the student -- and the student alone -- wants to tell them.

Students who get it right inevitably learn something about themselves along the way. The essay is about a journey and is itself a journey. Our students often comment that they are both surprised and delighted by what they wrote. It’s hard to imagine a better result than that.

For parents, sending children off to college is a long and emotional process of letting go. Allowing your students to take the lead and call the shots with their college essay, in their own voice, is a relatively easy way to start that process. Best of all, giving them agency will make their college application that much stronger.

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