The ABCs of College Essays

If you’re the parent of a college-bound student, you know well all that goes into the college admissions process. From taking the SAT or ACT to the researching of colleges, there’s a lot to do in a relatively short amount of time. But what about the application essay? “If the college to which your teen is applying requires or strongly recommends that he or she write an essay, there are a number of things your teen can do to put his or her best foot forward,” says Tiffany Layden of the Brookhaven / North Druid Hills Huntington Learning Center. Here are her five tips:

  1. Put thought into choosing the right topic. Most colleges’ essay prompts are open ended, as admissions officers generally hope that students will give good thought to selecting a topic that shows who they are and what they are capable of. Encourage your teen to be authentic and introspective, to think about what he or she is proud of and passionate about as well as life experiences that have required your teen to work harder, overcome setbacks or change. Remind your teen that the goal isn’t to impress the college with a laundry list of achievements, but rather, to present oneself in a way that is different than what the admissions officer would find on a transcript.
  2. Follow the directions. The essay is your teen’s chance to engage in thoughtful self-expression, but it isn’t the place to ramble about why a college is your teen’s dream school or explore tangents about his or her life or feelings. Remind your teen to carefully read and ponder the essay prompt given by the college. Don’t disregard any instructions. If there’s a word count, stick to it. If specific questions are asked, be sure your teen submits something that answers them.
  3. Create a detailed outline first. Rarely do words flow together to create a compelling essay without sufficient planning. Your teen must spend time creating an outline with a beginning, middle and ending. The outline should include good examples and clearly show how the essay will move from start to finish. Before your teen starts writing, have him or her review and edit the outline if needed. Are there gaps in the story? Is the main takeaway of the essay clear from the outline?
  4. Allow plenty of time for multiple drafts. It’s understandable that your teen might be focused on preparing for the SAT or ACT and narrowing down colleges and universities of interest, but it’s critical to allow time to craft a well-written essay—and revise it. If an application is due January 1, a sample timeline might be creating the outline by November 1, first draft by November 10, second draft by November 20 and final draft in early December. This allows your teen time to set the essay aside for a couple of weeks and read it with fresh eyes (and proofread and fine-tune if necessary).
  5. Edit like a pro. Speaking of drafts, your teen might question the suggestion that an essay requires rewriting several times. Yes, it’s true. A great essay takes writing, revising and revising again. Encourage your teen to do the obvious—proofread for errors and edit wordy or confusing sections—but a great self-editor should ask questions while reviewing as well, such as:
  • Does the essay hook the reader from the very start?
  • What’s the point of the essay and did I capture 
it effectively?
  • Is any part of the essay too long or too rushed?
  • Is there a clear conflict that caused me to change in some specific way or take a new path?
  • Did I achieve the desired tone for the essay (moving or humorous, for example)?
  • Does the voice sound and feel like me?
  • For each and every sentence, could I say it better or more clearly?

The college application essay is the chance to show an admissions officer who your teen is as a student and a person—beyond his or her transcript and test scores. It’s a personal statement that should come from the heart and share with the college to which your teen is applying why he or she would be a great fit as a student there. Your teen should be sincere and articulate and remember that a college’s goal in requesting supplemental essays from applicants is to give them the chance to tell the college something about themselves. This is a powerful opportunity—encourage your teen to put his or her best foot forward.

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