While the college application gives all the demographic and quantitative information a college could need to make a decision on your child’s numerical qualifications for admittance, it doesn’t really give a lot of insight into who your child is…if they really want a child like yours for their school. Enter the dreaded college essays! Dun-dun-dun. Ok I know its cheesy but blog posts don’t come with scary sound effects.
What They DON’T Look For
So let’s get what college essays aren’t about out of the way. They aren’t really about learning how well your child writes. Don’t get me wrong a crappy written essay is a red flag for colleges so its important that grammar and spelling are in proper working order. But that’s not really what they are looking for when they ask for an essay. They aren’t looking for a litany of all the things your child has done and accomplished over the last four years. Many kids play a sport, volunteer for church group activities and get great grades. And your application gives all this information anyways.
Ever had a person who clings? Colleges are not looking for a stalker or a brand name seeker. If your child approaches an essay with the mindsets of I HAVE to get into THIS school – Brown, Harvard, Texas A&M, UCLA, you name it – it will show through. You wouldn’t want to date a stalker or someone who only wants to date you to increase their reputation. Neither does a college want a student “stalker” or “reputation gamer”.
Avoid the Cliché
Standing out is important but forcing “an issue” doesn’t really make you stand out. All to often you become one of many faceless students who tried to make something out of nothing. Helping your child not fall into these all too often overly used cliché essay topics and focus on essay topics that highlight their uniqueness will be huge in their sharing with admissions’ officers just who they are.
Community Service Hero. If your child has spent their high school career using their vacations to volunteer at the community food garden, serving the homeless on the weekend and/or volunteering for big brothers or sisters routinely AND that really did provide them with a life altering experience, then by all means they should share that. Be honest and genuine.
But for your child to claim they spent one day in a four year high school career building houses for the poor and now they want to dedicate their life to service, how it changed their life and taught them the importance of helping others, lacks any real grit to it.
Sports Metaphors and Lessons. Most athletes can same about the same when it comes to any high school sport they played. The went to practice. They played games. They compete. And hopefully, they had fun. Nothing is wrong with that but EVERY student athlete can say the same thing. To sit and say that your high school sport taught you hard work, commitment and dedication, first doesn’t really sound like most teens and second, is definitely cliché. I’ve been around a fair amount of teens and a far amount of high school sports, and I can only share one story that I think truly fits the concept of someone who could actually talk about how he learned hard work, commitment and dedication. This kid was so dedicated to his craft and so focused on improvement and bettering himself that after two to three hours of track practice, he would then run the five miles home. He would then get up every morning, early before school and run in all weather conditions.
If your child can tell a truly unique lessons learned from sports, then by all means they should share it. (You know, what I learned from Coach Wooden as his player kind of unique.) If not, find something else.
Hardship. There are tons of true hardship stories out there and colleges do like to hear how this has shaped their life. Sharing about how you lost your parent to a war (or murder) and what that did to your child and your family. Surviving homelessness. Losing a limb. Surviving cancer. All of these are true hardships.
I’m not going to say that divorce is not a personal difficulty but depending on the divorce, shouldn’t be in the essay. Losing your family pet is most definitely a personal loss and difficult emotionally, its not a hardship. If your child hasn’t really gone through a hardship, stay away.
What DO They Look For
The number one thing college admissions looks for is YOUR CHILD. Who are they? Something that your child’s application hasn’t shared. Every students has at least one interesting story about themselves that they can tell that would fit the prompt that they are given/can choose from. Keep that in mind when reading your child’s essays. If the prompt is Tell us what you bring to NC State, and your child starts talking about drop out rates, students not working hard enough, etc. then they aren’t really talking about themselves. Think personal stories and not English essays.
Initiative. Passion. Uniqueness. A few years ago when I was applying for college, it was all about being apart of everything, showing diversity. While college admissions still look for well rounded students, they are not looking for the person who does everything. The kid who is passionate about fishing who takes the time to be apart of local fishing clubs, contacts fishing holes to volunteer with kid catches, who starts a fishing club at her school shows passion, uniqueness, initiative AND diversity. Colleges look for diversity in their students – diversity in that each is a unique individual. Your child should think to highlight their passion, initiative and uniqueness.
As aside note on passion, think of it as a safe bet. Whenever you go to Las Vegas, there are never any sure things, no matter what the guy on the corner at the race track says. (Other than maybe don’t beat against the house.) But there are safe bets, such as if you are holding 19 in Blackjack and dealer has to hit on anything less than 17, you are probably safe at staying your bet. One of the ways colleges hedge their bets is seeking children with passion. Passion more than any other aspect of your child should come through in everything they do. Helping your child by instilling a love of what they do, rather than just going through the motions, will be one of the best gifts you can give them.
Self-Analysis. One of the best college application essays that my stepson had to write was choose a between the role of a movie villain or hero and tell why you would want that role. I’m sure I was more excited about the opportunity to write that prompt. But what my stepson initially didn’t understand was this prompt was more about discovering what kind of kid he was, what his character was like rather than whether or not he wanted to be the hero.
Humble Confidence. No one likes a show boat but no one really likes a wet rag either. I know that there is a fine balance between confidence and self-glorification. But your child should be able to convey a humble confidence in their essay without sounding like their *blank* don’t stink. Think about it. The student who conveys they are going to be successful in life because they go to college is far more appealing than the student who conveys the only way they will be successful is if they go to Yale.
Likeability. I think we have all known someone who seems like they have it all together. Captain of the football team. Homecoming King. ASB president. But…that doesn’t make them likeable. In fact, I think we can all say we have known people who maybe popular but are far from likeable. A student of merit, star athlete, or perfect SAT scores will not mean much to many a college if they aren’t someone they would want to hang out with in school or stay up late studying with at a coffee house. Likeability is equally important as any other factor.
Generally speaking a college essay can be daunting, especially since most will tell you, its the most important part of the application process. But it doesn’t have to be. College essays should highlight your child’s uniqueness, their passion and their individuality. Most importantly it should sound like them!
Until next post!