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Help Your High School Senior Write College Application Essays

As a High School English Teacher, many high school senior students often ask me: Can you help me with my college application essay?  I understand the concern because it’s a challenging essay to write.  It must be concise, polished, and communicate something unique about the applicant.  How can we assist our teenagers in this important task of the college admission process?  As a parent, here are a few steps to consider to help your high school senior write college application essays.

Be sure your teen has read and understood the prompt.  

This is the most essential piece of advice I have!  Occasionally, I will read students’ application essays, and – as lovely as they are – they do not directly address the prompt asked.  

For example, a frequently used prompt reads like this:  Discuss a time when you overcame an obstacle in life.  Discuss how you did it, and talk about the results.  Your teen should identify exactly what the prompt wants in the essay.  First, it asks that an obstacle be identified.  Secondly, the writer must explain her process in dealing with the obstacle.  Lastly, the prompt wants your teen to discuss what happened when they overcame it.  It might help to break apart the prompt and identify the pieces of the question that need to be answered.  

Also, your teen mustn’t reject or change the meaning of a prompt.  For example, if the prompt asks your teen to discuss an event that impacted who they are, your teen should not write that there is not an event that influenced them.  Or, as another example, if the prompt asks why your teen wants to attend this university, it goes without saying that your teen should not write about another college that was their first choice.

Consider the number of words the application requires in the essay.  

If the length of the essay is relatively short (250-400 words), your teen will need to write brief, concise paragraphs.  If the essay is longer (closer to 600 words), your teen has room to expand ideas.  Help your teen brainstorm ideas depending on how much room they have to write them. 

Your teen may benefit by writing down the key ideas they want to communicate in the essay.  

Your teen should identify what he or she wants to say and ask: What are the most important things I want to convey in this essay?  For example, your teen might organize their key ideas like this:  I want to share my experience as a camp counselor.  I want to talk about the sense of responsibility I gained as a counselor.  I want to share how that responsibility has transferred to other parts of my life.

Write an introduction that is relatively brief and uses a few key phrases from the writing prompt.  

Remind your teen that this is not a creative writing piece; keep the format simple and organized.  Use words that the prompt uses.  For example, your teen’s phrases might look like this: From this experience, I’ve learned . . . Dealing with this obstacle has taught me . . . The central reason I want to attend your university is because . . . 

Divide the writing into paragraphs. 

If the application’s format allows, divide the essay into paragraphs for a more polished, readable appearance.  There should be an introductory paragraph, approximately 1-3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Remind your teen that they will want to stand out in a unique and positive way.  

What is unique about your son or daughter?  What interesting experiences have they had?  What activities in their lives have led to leadership opportunities?  Encourage your teen to think of ways to give the admissions staff an impression of who they are in distinct and inspiring ways.

Encourage your teen to reread the essay with the words “How?” and “Why?” in mind.  

This is especially important if the essay seems too brief or does not reach the recommended word count.  For example,  if your child has written that being in an orchestra has taught him leadership, you ask, “How did you learn leadership through that activity?  What are examples of that leadership?”  Encourage him to offer specific examples.  If your teen has written that she gained courage through the experience of dealing with a leg injury, now ask, “How were you courageous?  What are examples of that courage?”  Reading the essay through the lens of HOW and WHY will assist your teen in adding a more personal touch to their writing. 

Your teen must reread the essay a few times to be sure it is edited, professional-looking, and free of obvious errors.  

This step cannot be missed!  This essay is an opportunity to give a first impression, and it needs to appear as if effort has been put into it.  Encourage your teen to have one or two people review the finished work. They can ask a friend, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, or a sibling.  Someone else’s eyes may catch something your teen missed and can identify phrases that seem clunky or out of place.

Save the essay and revise it as needed for other applications.  

It is quite likely your teen will be able to use some of the ideas from the essay for another application with a similar prompt.  Please encourage them to save their work and refresh their ideas later.

A strong college application essay is an excellent way to make a first impression with a College Admissions Office.  This is often why seniors need help with how to write college application essays. However, your teen does not need to become someone different or insincere in their essay.  The essay – as the entire application itself – should not imply perfection but communicate humanness.  Colleges receive thousands of applications every year, and your teen must remember that the goal of the application is to share who they are as a person.  When your teen finishes and looks over their essay, they should make sure it still sounds like themself – and that it conveys a glimpse of who they truly are.    

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