Teens & Tweens
How to Write a Winning College Essay
By Susan Henninger
How important is the college essay to the admission process? "It's very important," says David DeVries who, as the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and the Director for Academic Advising, Undergraduate Admissions, and Career Services for the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, has had the opportunity to read more college essays than he can count. "For a place like Cornell University where there are thousands of applicants each year, what will set a student apart is the essay and how they present themselves in it," he adds. Amanda Neill, Assistant Director of Admissions at SUNY Geneseo, who has read thousands of essays herself, agrees with DeVries. She notes that, "Most of the students applying to Geneseo are admissible based on their academic performance, that's why we ask for supplemental information like essays and references." So how can your teen develop an essay that will stand out?
Being Memorable is Key
Neill has read some incredibly imaginative essays where students really showcase their ability to think outside of the box. One girl used her artistic talents (instead of words) to draw a picture of how she thought she'd look in her new dorm room at Geneseo. Neill learned so much about the student just by looking at the details she put in her drawing – a hockey stick on the floor, post-it notes on the walls, and the book titles on her shelves. This year the Geneseo Admissions Office received a "Rapplication" from two high school friends applying to the school. The two boys personalized the song lyrics, referencing landmarks and trivia that they could only have known by visiting or studying the Geneseo campus, and Neill says "I could immediately see them coming here!"
On a more somber note, one of the most poignant essays that Neill says she ever read was by a boy who played in a rock band where one of the members unexpectedly passed away. The applicant explained how much more than just playing music the band had meant to him in a way that the reader could really connect with.
An essay that comes instantly to DeVries mind was written by a boy who was homeschooled in the Smoky Mountains. The teen described how he and his mom had daily biology lessons together and how their classes encouraged him to begin to view the mountains, the creek, and the natural living things in his own backyard through a "biological lens." Somewhat longingly DeVries recalls, "It made us all want to go to her class!"
Another essay that he remembers was a student writing about his grandparent's home where his extended family gathered for meals and special occasions. DeVries explains that, though it was a "low key" topic, the way the teen expressed how important the home had been to him growing up was both moving and appealing, along with being very well written.
Not so Memorable Essays
There are certain themes that tend to be turnoffs to the academic counselors, says DeVries. He advises that students try to avoid what he and other evaluators call "the Oprah effect," essays about overcoming adversity without any type of reflection about what the student learned from the experience or how they grew from it. DeVries finds it unfortunate that some college applicants seem to think that, "If they confess to everything bad that happened in their lives then they'll blow the reader over." Essays that he characterizes as "cloying" are not recommended either.
Neill finds herself cringing when a prospective student puts the wrong school's name in their essay. "It's my worst nightmare and it happens more than students would like to think," she says ruefully. "To me that indicated that you didn't take the time to proofread your essay carefully."
Like DeVries the admissions personnel at Geneseo tend to see some of the same topics over and over which "doesn't make you want to read on -- it's boring".
But Neill concludes, "There's no such thing as a bad topic, only bad writers!"
What is the Right Level of Parental Involvement?
Admissions staff have several different ways of determining which of the written pieces of the application are the students' actual writing so it's best to let the teens do their own thing with minimal interference or doctoring says Neill, adding, "We can tell pretty quickly if a student has written an essay or not."
"Try to avoid being too prescriptive with your kids," says DeVries. "You never know what will catch a young person's interest and since they're just seventeen, it's better if they write passionately about something they care about than producing the perfect essay," he adds. He also recommends that parents not try to second guess what topics might impress college admissions staff the most, based on information they've read in books or articles.
Both DeVries and Neill agree that parents can best support their teens by helping them proofread the final essay and providing support and constructive criticism. ,
Sue Henninger is a contributing writer to Genesee Valley Parent who has enjoyed family camping as a child and a parent. Visit her website at www.fingerlakeswriter.com