September 2017

teenage boy thinking

Ask a high school senior to write an essay for her English teacher, and it should feel routine. But ask her to write an essay for her college application, and it is a whole different assignment — one with different stakes.

“There is a fair amount of anxiety about writing for college applications, particularly because there’s a fair amount of anxiety about the college admission process in general,” said Meg Otten, college counselor at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the 6-12 grade school in Faribault, Minn.  And then there’s the additional pressure that “comes from the unknowns,” Otten said, from who is going to read an application essay to who will be in the large pool of applicants submitting essays.

Many colleges ask for some writing when students apply. That’s the case at Minnesota private colleges, with writing required at 10 institutions and potentially required at seven others, such as if students use the Common Application.

To keep worrying in check — for students and their parents — it can help to start with what colleges are looking for in these essays and personal statements.

“Writing is really at the heart of the liberal arts experience, so regardless of what they’re going to study, we see it as really important to ask students to write for us and share some things about themselves,” said Dave Wagner, director of admissions, St. Olaf College.

Yes, this should be an example of a student’s best writing, a piece of clean copy that has been revised and polished. But the substance of the piece is critical; Wagner said the college is looking for what motivates students and makes them unique, beyond all the quantitative information about test scores and lists of activities.

“This is the one place they can use their voice and hopefully write in an authentic way that shares something really meaningful about themselves,” Wagner said.

As for why colleges look at writing, the primary reason is to gain a sense of the student, notes Otten, who been on both sides of the table, having previously worked in admission at Carleton College and financial aid at St. Olaf College. “What are they like, beyond test scores and grades? Their personality can come through in their writing,” she said. “As a reader of an application, you’re trying to see who this student is.”

Advice along the way

Parents have a small role to play as a sounding board, being available for a son or daughter to share initial ideas — such as when the Common Application essay prompt is being considered. And as Otten said, parents can do some minimal proofing, noting if there’s a run-on sentence or an example doesn’t make sense.

“It has to be the student’s original idea; that is what the admission office is looking for — who that student is, in his or her own voice,” Otten said. “If it is sanitized because of the parents and other adults are involved, it becomes something generic that doesn’t say anything about the student.”

It is okay to seek someone’s help to spot some grammar errors or offer big picture feedback, Wagner said. “What is problematic is if the essay is not completely written by the student.” For students working on their writing, Wagner encourages them to read an essay out loud with a friend or family member and to ask them if it is easily identifiable as the student’s work.

At times students worry about standing out with what they write in their essays — about whether their anecdotes are dramatic or packed with life-changing experiences or tragedies. But that worry is misplaced; colleges are seeking to hear an authentic voice and so writing about situations or concerns that could feel common place is fine. “I tell students that it is not so much the circumstance they describe that is going to make a good essay, it is going to be your reflection,” Otten said. “What are you thinking? Why is this important? If they can answer those kinds of questions they have a good essay.”

For parents who are concerned about deadlines, Wagner suggests that students put together a master calendar with key deadlines, including for essay writing, that the whole family can see. “If students take the lead in doing that, it is easy for parents to check-in,” he said.

What reminder should students keep in mind as they head off to polish essays this fall? For Otten, she finds students often need to remember to add enough specifics and to include enough reflection, sharing their thoughts and world view.

The application deadlines for Minnesota private colleges can all be reviewed in one place, to help with planning. Note that all Minnesota private colleges have options that allow students to apply at no charge.

By John Manning