Much has been written about how to write a parent statement or essay for your child’s applications to private preschool or continuing K–12 schools, but little has been written on what not to write.
For parents of preschoolers to students at older points of entry (and all the years in between), the finest example of admissions/application essay instructions can be found in the Common Application to U.S. colleges and universities.
The Common App asks applicants to write a statement of 650 words about anything — anything at all — so long as the statement is about them. You may think that sounds easy, but it’s not. For example, the finest Common App essay I have ever read was by a high school senior who, at age seven, started volunteering with kids diagnosed with cancer. The little girl became a national advocate for volunteering with sick children, appeared in the media, and won prestigious awards for her work. Over a decade, she worked with over 100 hospitalized children, befriending each one as well as their families. Her college essay, however, wasn’t about her work or the accolades she received for it. It instead detailed how she had stayed close to these parents and siblings, and talked about the emotional impact upon realizing that she was a link, often the final one, to the children the families had lost.
The same principles apply to parent essays. To make it easier, we ask parents to not use adjectives when they write and describe applicants. Terms like brilliant, gifted, caring, talented, and a host of others not only bore admissions committees, but scare them. If, for example, a parent genuinely feels his child is brilliant or gifted, is that same parent going to expect and demand “special” treatment for that child if and when she is admitted to the school, taking teachers’ precious time away from the class at large? That is how to get rejected on the spot.
Try to write an anecdotally-driven parent statement.
For young children, a day in the life of your child is far more interesting and introductory than a list of his or her attributes as observed by Mom or Dad. For older kids, one or two academic or social experiences is a good suggestion for parent admissions statements, especially the effect these experiences had on the child’s development.
Do not write a statement longer than a single page.
There is much to say about every child, but school applications may not be the venue in which to say it. If schools receive 900 parent statements for a particular point of entry, how much do you believe actually gets read if the statements are overwhelmingly long? More saliently: will it get read at all?
Do not feel you have to impress.
Usually when parents write to impress, it has the opposite effect. The “leader” who is always first to finish the reading or art or math project and “help” his peers in the classroom, while at the same time designs the group’s imaginary games and activities, is often perceived as demanding and overbearing. This is a more central question: can that same leader also assume the role of follower, giving others a chance to shine and create?
Don’t try to conjure the future.
The kid who likes playing with a science kit is not necessarily destined to become a neuroscientist, just as the kid who enjoys writing about his summer vacation is not necessarily tomorrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Above all, don’t overstate.
A child who donates his or her gently used clothes or toys to charity is not Mother Theresa helping the poor, or Jimmy Carter building homes for humanity. She is a kid learning about charity and community service.
Balance what you write.
Few kids, especially younger children, actually sit around all day trying to perfect a task or learned skill, whether that be math, writing, art, or computer science, and if they do, they are missing out on many other aspects that childhood and adolescence exist to introduce them to. Admissions directors are famous for asking the magic question, “What else is your child interested in?” Schools do not teach one subject; they teach many.
Don’t brag, even inadvertently.
Your child’s interest in the ocean, marine life, and swimming is fine to write about as is his fascination with changing seasons, nature, and animals, as long as it isn’t preceded by the words: “At our vacation home ...”
Finally, an admissions essay is not the place to list the people you know who are connected to a school (parent, alumni, board member, etc.). For the most part, admissions directors do not like the “powers that be” to dictate which students to accept, and that is the subtle message of a parent statement that name drops.
We are taught to be ourselves at every turn. It’s hard to do in private school admissions, when you suspect that other parents are presenting better selves than they really are, and, of course, painting rosier, larger-than-life pictures of their children. Yet, being honest often yields the best results in terms of admission at virtually every point of entry. Think about the simple, beautiful message of the aforementioned Common App essay.
If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember:
Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.
Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.
But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.
Remember Your Private High School Application Essay Audience
The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is. Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.
This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before. It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.
One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you. You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.
But all too often students, especially in the application process, forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.
The Importance of the Essay Topic
What is the root of this cause? The topic.
If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.
So, how do we accomplish this?
It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.
Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.
“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”
Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”
While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.
What Your Topic Should Be Instead
When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”
Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.
So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.
The Essay’s Opening Paragraph
Don’t believe me?
Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?
1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”
2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”
Next Steps: Your Perfect Admissions Essay
Okay now you have the framework.
First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.
Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.
Good luck! And let us know what you think in the comments below.