Help Your Students Master the College Essay!

How to Translate the Message from Admission so Your Students Better Understand What Colleges Want in an Application Essay

“I’m clueless as to what these colleges are really looking for in the essays. I’ve heard so many different things from various people I don’t know what to believe.”

¬- Tracy, West Bloomfield, Michigan

This quote, emailed to me from a parent of a college-bound high school senior, heightens awareness over one of the biggest challenges you may face each college admission season. There is so much information coming from outside sources to students and parents, it is often hard for them to differentiate between good and bad advice.

As a result:

• Students and parents are confused.
• Colleges are not getting what they asked for, and are unimpressed by many of the essays that come across their desks.
• High school counselors like you who want to help students write better essays may be unsure how to untangle the mixed messages.

We can all learn something from Tracy, who told me she knew the essay was important but was troubled by conflicting information she heard from other parents, read on the Internet, and received in her snail mail.

Parents and students get flooded with information promising success on the essay through gimmicks; write it like a movie trailer, use a killer opening sentence, buy a book of essays that worked. There are books filled with essays that “got students admitted to UC-Berkeley?” Students can enroll in intense weeklong boot camps? Summer trips will teach students how to make a difference doing humanitarian work in remote parts of the world.

Another parent who had worked with Wow told Tracy to contact us. The information overload cluttered her mind – and her daughter’s. We calmed her, and explained what colleges wanted and what the words they used really meant.

As counselors who work with students and talk to college reps, you know what admission wants from students in the essay. But how can you help them? Translate the message from admission so students – and their parents – really understand what the essay is, and what’s expected.

To begin, take a look at a few of the most common terms used inside the admissions industry:

• Passion
• Leadership
• Initiative
• Reflection
• Voice

Buzzwords like these are not new to this industry, but they take on new meaning (and not always accurate) to students and parents as college becomes increasingly competitive, and as the essay rises in importance in the holistic admission process.

“An entire business is built around jargon,” explained Shawn Felton, the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Cornell University. “There is garbage cluttering the message, and that creates anxiety.”

Because students trust high school counselors, you have an opportunity to set he record straight, help them find accurate information, and perhaps calm them so they feel less pressure – and ultimately less anxiety – when applying to college.
Help Students Cut Through the Clutter

Consider what happens inside your 17-year-old students’ minds when they hear these buzzwords and industry phrases used often by admissions. They resist. They shut down. Why should they have to reflect? They are focused on their future, not past.

It does not matter if they don’t want to write an essay. Most selective colleges require an essay, or several, and so they need to do it. And they should look at it as an opportunity, rather than a burden.

The Common App essay prompts, and personal statements for UC-Berkeley, ApplyTexas and other schools, ask students to be introspective. Most teens do not have a lot of experience thinking or writing about who they are, or how they got to this point in their lives.

You will help your students in more ways than you may even know if you just talk to them, and let them know you understand this is a hard task. Then make the task a little bit easier by explaining what colleges mean when they use certain words.

Break Down the Buzzwords

Start translating the message by using the most common buzzword: Passion.

• Show us your passion! What is your passion?
• Share your passion.
• Is there something you are so passionate about your application might be incomplete without it?

Ask your students, what does passion really mean? Do college want something huge, big, and life changing. Not at all! They may tell you they have nothing to write because they have not done anything big. Or they may say they are going to take trips to work with indigent families to show colleges they have passion.

“We don’t care about your passion,” Cornell’s Felton said. “We care about your convictions? What are your beliefs? There is no passion without core.”

To help students understand what colleges mean when using the word passion, ask them to write down a few things they like to do. Here are a few starter questions:

• What do you care about?
• What are you going to do today when you get home from school?
• If you could do anything in the world right now, what would it be?
• What do you do in your free time?

Amy Jarich, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Undergraduate Admissions, University of California – Berkeley, would love to know what your students do in their free time: “I just want to know what you care about,” she tells students. What would you tell me in an elevator? Let me know that you’re active and alive in the world you live in.”

Jarich and Felton talked about the buzzwords at NACAC last fall in San Diego during a panel I moderated: What Admission Wants in an Essay: How to Instruct Your Students.

Joining us were high school counselors Ed Schoenberg, of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Calif., and Olga Morales-Anaya, a former high school counselor for San Jose’s unified school district. She developed a curriculum to help underserved students write college application essays.

During the session, we talked about the mixed messages, the buzzwords, and ways to make it all less confusing for students. The two counselors shared some of their best tips for clarifying the messages from admission. Schoenberg suggested counselors help students learn how to celebrate leadership in the most unlikely places to move them away from boring stories about experiences running for school office, or starting a club, rather than stories showing what they learned about themselves.

“You don’t have to be elected to anything,” Schoenberg said. “You don’t have to be the captain of a sports team.”

He mentioned a favorite story by the son of a janitor, who noticed that his high school classmates were leaving the cafeteria in a mess after lunch. The student organized a group of a half-dozen classmates who picked up trash, so that the school’s cleaning staff wouldn’t be overburdened. Another student who came into school one day feeling discouraged because he didn’t think his life showed any aspects of initiative.

He said he had nothing to write about. Schoenberg did not believe him and started asking leading, probing questions. He helped pull a story out of the boy. “I looked at his file and saw that he played the violin, and that he worked in a senior-citizens home. I asked him about those. He told me: ‘Yeah, and I teach the seniors how to play the violin.” Then they discussed how he felt when he played for the seniors.

The boy wrote a compelling story about what he learned about himself when he played his violin for the seniors.

Even with the best intents, well-meaning adults often contribute to the mixed messages the students and families take home.

Following the dynamic, interactive NACAC session, we started a LinkedIn group, The College Essay Discussion: How to Clarify the Message from Admission. ( Already, we have hundreds of participants, and we’d like you to join the group, share best practices with colleagues and help us continue the conversation.

“We need to start a conversation and change the way we all look at it,” Felton said.

This post is from an article written by Kim Lifton, President, of WOW Writing Workshop. Wow Writing Workshop provides free resources for schools and free parent programs. Here is a link to their site: WOW Writing Workshop