Episode 22: Preparing for Essays

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the essay.

NYCollegeChat episode 22 tips for preparing high school students to write college application and scholarship essays

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by over 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will most likely be a required essay, sometimes called a “personal statement.”  While some large public colleges do not require essays, most selective colleges do require essays.

Sometimes there will be more than one required essay.  Sometimes the required topic or topics will be given to the student; sometimes the student may choose from several topics.  Sometimes the essays are quite short—just 250 to 300 words; when they are this short, there is usually more than one required.  Sometimes they are longer—more like 500 to 650 words.  Sometimes there is an actual character count, like 2,500 characters.  That means that every letter and space counts.  That is when great editing really comes in handy.

It goes without saying that students should write their own essays.  It also goes without saying that adults in a student’s life might read and reflect on that essay with the student—in other words, help the student do the best job possible.  Indeed, some high school English teachers do just that when they have students write personal statements for use in college applications as a class assignment.  It seems to me that many—even most—students get some kind of adult review of their application essays, and I imagine that colleges understand that.  Nonetheless, these essays should tell students’ own stories, their own views, and their own observations and should be told in the words of teenagers—albeit, teenagers trying to put their best feet forward.

This episode is not about actually writing the college application essay.  We might do one on that later, and there are other resources that can help you help your child produce a nicely edited essay.  This episode is instead about what you can do to help your child prepare to write those essays eventually.  There are two kinds of essays that students can, in a way, prepare for in advance.

1.  The Why-Did-You-Choose-Us or Why-Are-You-a-Good-Fit-for-Us Essay

Essays with topics like these require students to have some understanding of the college and of how they would fit in well at the college.  To answer such a question, your child will need to know how to do research about a college, find out what makes it unique or special, understand the academic majors it offers (and, if it is a university, the various colleges or schools it comprises), the activities and sports it does and does not offer, and the type of community it is located in.  All of these could be addressed in such an essay.

No college wants to hear that a student is applying because that student thinks that he or she can get in.  Your child has to make a more convincing case than that.  So, as college application time approaches, help your child study up on colleges of interest.  Internet websites can be a great way to do that, but some college websites are really quite difficult to comprehend.  Even professionals have trouble with them.  So, start early.

At a minimum, understand exactly the name of the major your child would be interested in at each college he or she is applying to.  Keep in mind that something as simple as a biology major is not called the same thing at every college; furthermore, at universities, a biology major might not always be in the same college or school within the university (i.e., sometimes in arts and sciences, sometimes in health sciences, sometimes in something else).

If your child is interested in continuing with certain extracurricular activities or sports in college, it is important to see that those activities and sports exist at the college.  For example, a student should not write about his interest in continuing to be part of a wrestling team if the college does not have one.

So our advice is this:  Doing research about potential colleges of interest ahead of time enables you and your child to call an admissions office with questions—before it is time to write that essay.  It also enables you and your child to realize that some colleges might not be what you had thought and are not necessarily the right choice after all.

For more tips, listen to our Series 2: Choosing Where to Apply episodes here.

2.  The What-Can-You-Contribute-to-Our-College Essay

This is a slight variation on the first topic, but with more of a focus on what your child brings to the college.  This is not so much a how-do-we-match-up essay, but more of a why-should-we-admit-you essay.  This topic requires your child to speak about his or her accomplishments and why those would improve that college community.  It’s a bit like, “Ask not what the college can do for you; ask what you can do for the college.”

Admittedly, this can be daunting.  What can one high school kid contribute to life at Stanford University?  Well, it’s time to help position your child to answer that question.  Encouraging your child to play an instrument, participate in drama groups, play on sports teams, be part of the student government, write for the newspaper or yearbook, help younger students in school, and/or do volunteer work outside of school to help others—all of these are values and talents and abilities and skills that your child can bring to a college campus that can help make life on that campus richer for other students.  If your child does very little in your community or at school, except go to classes, writing this essay will be very difficult indeed.

Of course, academic contributions could be important, too, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.  Perhaps participating in science competitions or successful independent research projects or inclusion in selective school literary publications or being part of a winning robotics team could count for something.  So encouraging your child to go the extra mile when it comes to academic competitions certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Bottom Line

Other essay topics do not require so much preparation in advance.  Essay topics I have seen recently include these:  write about a person, who is not in your family, who has had a major impact on your life; choose a current issue and tell us your feelings about it; write about something that is so important in your life that it defines you; invent a course that all freshmen should take.  All of these take thought on the part of your child, but they are not really questions that your child needs to prepare for before it is time to complete the college applications.

The bottom line is that there is nothing worse than having nothing to say in an essay.  That problem cannot be fixed by editing.  It is just like having no activities to list in the activities section of an application.   So you and your child must think ahead.

When it comes time for your child to write the essays, he or she would likely benefit from talking about them with you or an older sibling or a teacher or another caring adult.  Sorting through ideas and experiences can be a difficult process.  But you have to have ideas and experiences to sort through—and that’s why you can’t wait till the last minute.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether essays can be important, even if not in the application process
  • Why talking to an adult can really help your child think through an essay
  • How to think about family responsibilities as topics for essays

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