Student essays are one of the most difficult components of the middle and high school admissions process. Applicants are usually writing admissions essays for the first time, and they’re not sure what to write about or how to differentiate these pieces of writing from the kind they do in English class. All of these difficulties mean that students drag their feet in writing middle and high school application essays, causing more stress at the end of the admissions process.
Remember, though: essays don’t have to be as stressful as they seem. Students can view essays as an opportunity to share an authentic part of themselves with admissions committees, better ensuring that both the student and the school are confident about mutual fit. Here are a few tips to reframe the essay writing process and ensure high-quality writing:
These are the student’s essays, not the parent’s. Make sure that all writing submitted is the student’s own work. Schools are very savvy about catching essays that have been written by parents or anyone besides the student. In short, don’t be those people - it’s far riskier to submit a parent-written essay than it is to submit a student-written essay that isn’t perfectly written.
Respond directly to the prompt. Yes, schools are looking for direct responses to the prompts; don’t use essays as an opportunity to expand on other components of the application or tell unrelated stories, unless those topics are tightly related to the question being asked. Check in frequently during writing to make sure that each paragraph of the essay builds an argument related to the prompt.
Think of an essay as a written interview. Essays represent an additional opportunity to open up to the admissions committee, painting a full picture of the student as an academic, athlete, friend, community member, daughter/son, sibling, etc. While essays should tie in to the same themes as the rest of your application (persistence, interest in STEM, etc.), it’s best to use essays to also introduce something new that hasn’t been shared in other parts of the application.
Essays bring personality to the application. Admissions profiles without essays are boring: a list of biographical information, scores, and numbers. Essays are the best chance to “hook” the admissions officer: include an interesting anecdote, write in a unique voice, and infuse writing with personality. While there is a limit to how unique an essay can be (essays that completely ignore the prompt or are written in a hard-to-understand style are counterproductive), it’s best to aim for a very unique essay from the first draft.
Differentiate these essays from school essays. There are many reasons why middle and high school application essays are different from English papers and book reports. First, these essays are explicitly about the student: they should be written in first-person and include much more personal detail than would be typical in a school essay. Second, students can be more flexible in the writing conventions of application essays. While application essays should certainly be structured, logical, and grammatically-correct, they usually don’t need to include a strict thesis or body paragraph structure as students have been taught in English class.
Quality over quantity. Some students write an excellent essay and then panic when they realize they still have 100 words left until the maximum word count. Don’t feel the need to add filler content! A punchy, personal essay that is on the shorter side is much better than a verbose essay that relies on cliches and redundant sentences to fill word count.
Show off quality writing. Application essays are the perfect opportunity to learn some new vocabulary words, vary sentence structure, and use a range of rhetorical devices. Be careful not to pack the essay with too much jargon, but sprinkle in a few polished phrases alongside personal anecdotes to impress the reader. And of course, triple-check the essay for grammar, punctuation, and spelling before submission!
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