The Art of the College Essay

Like many other families with a high school senior, ours is in the midst of the college application process. This means my hubby and I are nagging our senior to do all the things applying for college entails. Right now, thanks to her English teacher, she is writing admissions essays. I recently spent the weekend cajoling, encouraging, transcribing, and editing. Fun times!

Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to talk to Danny Ruderman, a college counselor based in California who has guided many families through the college application process over the last 15 years. He has a bunch of excellent resources out there on the internet and wrote a book titled The Ultimate College Acceptance System. Since I had the opportunity to pick his brain I asked him about his top three college essay writing tips. Here they are:

1. An essay should be authentic to who the writer is. Lots of people talk about “hooks” when they speak about essay writing. My daughter’s English teacher told her class all about an essay that a girl wrote titled “I Like Milk.” She tied it to her identity and tailored her essay to the particular college she wanted to attend. Ruderman likens this to “The Costco Essay,” a legendary essay in which an applicant explains how her trips to Costco as a child shaped her identity and world. “This only works if you can do this and really say something about yourself.” If your kid cannot say something authentic about himself/herself in this way, don’t use this “hook.” Encourage a topic that directly tells an admissions counselor who they are.

To that end, the author might use his/her college essay to tell a story about something that happened to him/her. Ruderman used just such a story to get into Stanford. He argues that “a story draws people in. It could show your student’s strengths, how they have grown, or why they would make a great college student.”

A college essay should also express personal qualities and characteristics that might not be reflected in the rest of the application, such as a student’s sense of humor or moral code. If your child has trouble identifying his/her personal qualities, Ruderman suggested asking him/her about people he/she admires and why. “Usually the qualities they identify in other people are actually qualities they personally have as well.”

2. Encourage your teen to research the school he/she is applying to. If your teen chooses to write the “why this college” essay, make sure he/she really researches that school and shows why it is a good match for him/her. Your child should not talk about loving small classes if he/she is applying to a school with large classes or needing structure at a school that offers a loose structure. Pick the characteristics of the school that match his/her strengths and interests so that the essay sounds genuine.

3. Make sure your child thoroughly proofreads and edits his/her essays. Encourage your child to find at least one person (more is better) like a mentor, parents, a teacher, and/or a counselor to help with this. Critical mistakes to avoid are not necessarily a little typos but glaring mistakes that are made when someone is in a hurry, like including the wrong college name in the essay.

Keep these points in mind when encouraging your kids to write their college essays. The essay may be the make-or-break factor when considering an equal applicant. Good luck to you and your high school senior!

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