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Articles College Tweens Teens & Twenties

It’s College Essay Time 

By Linda Leavell

By the time your children apply to college, their high school grades and standardized test scores mostly will be set, and they will have invested time in certain extracurricular activities. Is there any part of your child’s college application that might make the difference between acceptance and disappointment? Yes! Nearly every college or university will require at least one thoughtful essay, and competitive institutions often require several. 

Colleges and universities are experiencing surging interest because submitting standardized test scores is now mostly optional. Applications to schools using the Common Application have risen almost 20% in the past two years. Without SAT or ACT scores potentially holding them back, more students are applying to more schools. 

Admission to Texas’ two flagship public universities is particularly tough. The University of Texas at Austin automatically admits students in the top 6 percent of their high school classes, while Texas A&M University welcomes those in the top 10 percent. All other applicants undergo what is known as “holistic review,” an examination of their transcripts, test scores, extracurricular activities and essays.

In other words, college admissions have become increasingly competitive, and kids get only one opportunity to make a case for themselves in their own words to the people considering their application. For that reason, a well-written essay is more important than ever.

The essay illuminates the reader about your child using a specific life event as the narrative. The essay demonstrates their thinking and writing ability. It allows them to explain flaws in their resumes (like an extended illness that resulted in lost class time). And a thoughtfully composed story may be the difference-maker when admissions officials are choosing among students with similar academic profiles.

Unfortunately, the essay cannot alter a student’s class rank or improve the rigor of his or her classes. In other words, even a great essay will not get your child into Harvard or Stanford if the academics are not already up to those universities’ standards. But a poor one definitely will keep them out.

Many colleges and universities use the Common Application, which offers seven writing prompts and lets the applicant choose one. Most Texas schools use the Apply Texas application and specify which prompt is required. Meanwhile, several Texas public universities have joined the Common Application, potentially streamlining the application process further.

Whatever the prompt, the point of the exercise is to tell university officials why they should pick you. Your child should try to illustrate these points:

  • What will you add to the next freshman class? 
  • What do you want them to know that’s not evident from your transcript? 
  • How is your story unique? You want yours to be the one that’s remembered tomorrow after the admissions officials read it today.

Ideas for good stories come from many places. Among the possibilities:

  • Academic pursuits or extracurricular activities
  • Career goals
  • Hobbies
  • Leadership or workplace experiences
  • Moments of personal growth
  • Challenges or difficult decisions

In general, describing the impact that the coronavirus had on your life will not set you apart. (It happened to every kid you know.) Most applications offer a place for an optional brief essay to address whether the virus affected your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans or your education in any way beyond what would be typical. 

What happens once you settle on an idea? Consider these points:

  • Try to capture the sound of your own voice. Use words you would use every day.
  • Understand the mission of the school you are approaching. If it’s a conservative institution, for example, make sure your essay is in step with the university’s values.
  • Add details, like colors and facts. The girl who told me she had read 1,000 books in her dad’s library was far more interesting than a girl “who likes to read.”
  • Do not plagiarize or break the rules. Stick to the requested word count.
  • Get someone other than a parent to read your story. If it fails to make sense to a person who doesn’t know you well, it won’t make sense to the admissions officials.

Parents often ask me, “When should we start?” I strongly discourage kids from starting before the summer of their senior year of high school, for a variety reasons:

  • The prompts may change, so it would be discouraging to write something that cannot be used. 
  • Waiting until that post-junior year summer gives kids the most time to develop emotionally and intellectually, meaning that what they write about as 17-year-olds will be more thoughtful than what they considered important as freshmen.
  • Juniors are distracted by AP exams, end-of-year activities and finals. They usually cannot focus until the summer, which is an excellent time to get the essays written, before the busy senior year begins.

Most universities start accepting applications Aug. 1, and the application deadlines for competitive schools roll throughout the fall. The essay is an important piece of the application, so leave yourself plenty of time to do your best work.

Editor’s note: Linda Leavell, the owner of The Write Coach, is an editor with more than 30 years of experience and an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University. To learn more about college essays or to reach her for college essay coaching, see her website, www.TheWriteCoach.net.

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