You CAN Help Your Child Write an Application Essay
At the Wow Writing Workshop, we believe success on the essay begins at home — sooner rather than later — and with you, the parent, as the guide. You know your son or daughter better than anyone else. Who else would go to the moon and back to help your child prosper as an adult?
This time of year, every year, many moms and dads just like you start to get nervous. They want to guide their children, but they’re not sure how. Most of the parents we meet are worried that students have not yet started their applications – or that the essays are either not done or not very good.
There’s no need to panic. Not yet. Nov. 1, the first early college application deadline, is still months away. But it is time for seniors to get started, and for freshmen, sophomores and juniors to learn how to reflect so they are prepared for college!
I am going to share Wow’s best tips so your child can respond to any college application essay question. It is the arguably most daunting part of the college application for most students (and parents!). We’d like to take some of the stress out of your journey.
What is a College Essay, Really?
At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. It’s a thinking task as much as a writing task. That is the key to standing out inside the admissions office. In the world of college admissions, college essay refers to any piece of writing that a college requires as part of the admissions process. You might hear about personal statements, personal insight questions, supplemental essays or short answer questions. All of them refer to this type of writing.
No matter what you call it, or which college your child selects as his reach, you should approach the essay in the same way. The best thing you can do to help your child shine is help your child reflect before they start writing that first draft.
As admission to the nation’s most selective schools becomes increasingly competitive, the college essay has been rising in significance as well. According to a survey by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, grades and academic rigor are the most influential factors in an admissions decision. Next are test scores, followed by college essays. The essay is just one of multiple selection factors in today’s holistic approach to college admissions. While a college essay won’t get a child who is not qualified into any college, it can help a qualified applicant get a better shot at admission to that dream school.
Be careful! There’s a lot of information on the web and in books, and from many well-meaning adults are out there trying to help your kids. Unfortunately, much of the information is confusing, gimmicky or simply inaccurate. And most of it focuses on what the finished product should look like, not how to write it. We know that’s not helpful to you or your future college student.
Essays are generally fairly short, ranging from 50 words for a short answer question to 650 words for a personal statement. Some schools ask for just one personal statement. The University of California, on the other hand, asks students to answer four personal insight questions; each response can be up to 350 words. There are several application platforms on the market to help streamline the admissions process. The most widespread and familiar is the Common Application.
The personal statement provides your child an opportunity to show people who may never meet her just what kind of person she is.
What do Colleges want?
Colleges use the essays in different ways. There is no rubric for a good essay, but the ones that stand out and are most effective share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:
- Answer the question.
- Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
- Sound like a high school student.
- Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
- Demonstrate reflection.
The key word here is reflection. The essay should always show insight into who your child is. Does the experience he writes about have to be earth shattering? No. Does it have to illustrate an “aha” moment? Not at all. It is a reflection on something that has meaning to your child. It doesn’t matter what that is. There’s no magic answer. No secret sauce. Not even a shortcut. The essay is one (very important) piece of a holistic admission process.
How to Teach Reflection
You can start teaching reflection by engaging your child in a conversation about himself or herself.
We know it’s hard to get a 17-year-old to think about anything other than friends, moving out of the house, figuring out life, choosing a career and deciding which college to attend.
Contrary to popular belief, writing is not the biggest challenge here. Exploring who your child is, what matters to them and how they exhibit those traits or characteristics in the world is the tough part.
This is the place you can really help. When we help our students focus up front, the rest of the process moves along much more smoothly. Before your child starts writing, selecting a prompt or picking a topic, he or she needs to know which defining traits and characteristics are important enough to share with colleges. That’s the first step toward reflection.
Too many students get hung up on the topic of the college essay, long before they are even ready to start the application process. They start by looking for activities that might lead to stories, and devote a lot of time talking about their experiences and their accomplishments. That’s why college essays seem so difficult. Students start in the middle of the process. Mom and Dad, you can help by gently bringing them back to the beginning of the journey
You know what’s amazing about your child. Help your child figure this out, too.
What makes your child so wonderful? What do you love about this person you’ve raised? Make a list. Is your son kind? Resourceful? Compassionate? Is your daughter industrious? Funny? Patient?
Think about qualities and characteristics, not accomplishments.
If you have a senior, it’s time to get started. If your child is younger, you can jump-start the college essay process by starting the conversation about traits and characteristics during sophomore or junior year. Keep it going. Keep talking. That way, you’ll be well into the journey before the pressure begins.
In any case, find a time to sit down with your son or daughter, then share and listen with an open mind and heart. This is a journey into self-discovery for your child, where you will both find out which characteristics define your child, how he or she exhibits these traits in the world, and how your child wants to share it with colleges.
This is how you teach your child to be introspective and find meaning out of life experiences.
This conversation will prepare you to ask the one key question that can really help your child hit that essay out of the ballpark: What is it that you want to share with colleges that they don’t already know about you beyond grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?
Once your child can answer this question with a specific trait or characteristic, he or she will be able to find a meaningful story that illustrates that trait and also answers the prompt.
About the Writer
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop and co-author of a newly published college application essay writing guide for parents, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay – The Inside Scoop for Parents . A national expert on the college essay, Lifton speaks throughout the country at college admissions industry conferences and to schools and nonprofit organizations. Later this month, Lifton will moderate a college essay panel, featuring admissions directors from Cornell University, UC-Berkeley and Amherst College during the annual meeting for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling in Columbus, Ohio.
For more information about Wow’s free and paid writing coaching services, click Resources for Parents.