Transition from High School

Write the Common App essay!

By Diane Schwemm

At the risk of jeopardizing my UniversityParent credentials, I’ll confess that my oldest son submitted his Common Application on New Year’s Eve.

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Yes, December 31st, just hours before the January 1st deadline for most of the schools to which he was applying. He did get into college, but he gave his mother a few gray hairs in the process.

Clearly our family needed a better strategy with son #2, who’s heading into senior year of high school and has started the college search/application process, so I consulted an expert. Christine VanDeVelde is a parent, journalist, and co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

This comprehensive, accessible book has tips galore for students and parents both. Christine is passionate about the same things we are at UniversityParent: supporting students and their families by providing practical advice that can be put directly into action. I’m delighted to share the insights I learned from talking with Christine.

story-icon-bar-convo-3Your student should be prepared for the fact that many colleges require supplemental essays, so in addition to the main personal essay there may be quite a few others! Find these requirements through the Common App as well.

What should my senior’s top priority be this summer?

Writing the Common Application essay. “The process of completing college applications is like taking another AP course fall semester,” Christine says. Students can get a head start on the Common App (used by most American universities and colleges) by completing the essay. Essay prompts are available on the Common Application website.

Colleges that require supplemental essays make those prompts available August 1st, also on the Common App website, and students should look at those as well. “This will make a much happier fall semester for seniors!” Click HERE for Common App essay prompts.

Does the essay really matter?

According to Christine, colleges care about 1) grades, 2) classes taken, 3) the rigor of those classes, and 4) standardized test scores (in that order), with the essay coming in 5th. “The essay alone won’t get you in,” she says, “but slipshod effort or questionable taste can keep you out.” Basics such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation are very important. At selective schools making razor-thin decisions, the essay may be a factor, but an applicant must meet all the other qualifications first.

What do admissions deans look for in an essay?

Two things, Christine says. First, that the student can write at the academic level the college requires. Second, after reading the essay, they’d like to know more about the applicant as a person than they did when they started.

Some tips for your student from Christine: “Don’t waste your essay on information that’s found in other parts of your application. It’s not a resume. It’s also not the place for gimmicks, so don’t write in iambic pentameter even if you can. Let a story come straight from your heart.”

How can parents help without getting overly involved?

“Every thought, piece of content, and expression in the essay must be the student’s original work,” Christine reminds parents. “If deans get a whiff of an essay that has had too many adult hands in it, they may look askance at the entire application.” That said, there are appropriate ways to help if your student asks. You can:

  • Brainstorm possible essay topics with your student.
  • Suggest a writing warm-up (10-15 minutes of free-form typing to get the creative juices flowing).
  • Provide feedback. “Feedback is not coaching, and it is not editing,” Christine says. “Feedback is making suggestions, and pointing out typos, errors in grammar, and glaring omissions.”
  • Listen as your student reads the essay aloud. “Does this sound like me?” your student will ask. Again, resist the urge to edit. Just give feedback.
  • Remind your student that good writing involves multiple drafts.

And that’s it, parents! The essay has to get done but there’s no prescription or perfect topic. Your student doesn’t need to analyze a serious issue or ponder too deeply. Writing the essay might even be — dare we say it? — fun. Share this final thought from Christine with your student: “This is the one place in the application where it is only your voice speaking. You’re standing in front of the admission committee saying, ‘This is who I am.’ What do you want to tell them?”

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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