When Sue O’Connell’s daughter asked her to take a peek at the college admissions essay she’d written, the Chicago-area mom had no problem telling her to go back to the drawing board and start the whole process over. O’Connell wasn’t being cruel, nor was she the average mom biting her nails through the admissions process.
The former lawyer is a college admissions coach, someone other parents hire to walk their teens through the sometimes confounding process of getting into the school of their dreams.
[ What college admissions officers say they want in a candidate ]
Essay writing is just a part of that application puzzle, but it’s become an increasingly big one for college coaches such as O’Connell, a growing breed of professionals who get paid by parents to beseech their teenagers to dig just a little bit deeper to set themselves apart from their peers.
Just 500 to 700 words long, the admissions essay is make-it-or-break-it for your average high school senior. They have to be unique but poignant, smart but not smart-alecky. Kids have to sell themselves without sounding selfish or arrogant. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of other kids are doing the same exact thing at the same exact time, all trying to stand out.
“Not every college or university has the chance to meet every applicant,” says Stephanie S. Espina, director of freshman admissions at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. “The essay is an opportunity to get to know the student on a more personal level . . . a way for a student to convey their interests, passions, reflections or future goals.”
[ Want your child to get into college and have a good life? Here’s how. ]
But college isn’t just about kids’ goals anymore. Parents are involved, and in some ways that’s a good thing. A joint study by researchers from UCLA and the American Academy of Pediatrics that was published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015 shows a direct link between a parent’s expectation that a child will attend college and the child’s academic success in primary and secondary school.
But parental expectation is like the mythical hydra when it comes to college admissions. Where one head may be silenced with a glowing recommendation letter from a basketball coach or band director, another is already popping up to shout, “But what about that essay!?”
“Parents think there has to be a secret handshake to get into college,” says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He blames essay obsession on an obsession with prestige. Most kids may be able to get into their local community college, and if they have the grades and a decent set of extracurriculars, they’ll probably make the cut at a state school.
“Where the essay really counts is if you’re a bubble candidate, where your grades are just so-so, and at very highly selective schools,” Jump says.
Like counselors at other high schools throughout the country, Jump has seen a spike in the number of parents turning to paid coaches for that little extra help.
For parents who want to go even further, type “college essay” into Fiverr — an online marketplace to find freelancers to do just about anything for you — and dozens of responses pop up, offers ranging from ‘I will edit your college essay” to the more carefully worded “I will perfectly handle your college essay.” Other sites are less cagey, blatantly offering to sell you an admissions essay for less than $30.
“I think that is a terrible trend and a risky trend,” O’Connell says of buying your kid an entire essay. This may seem obvious, but there is clearly a market for it. “They’re going to write something completely generic. They’re not going to write what’s really in your heart.”
Not to mention the ethical issues that come with an essay that’s purchased outright. Paying for something and representing it as your child’s subverts the admissions process as a whole, giving kids an unfair advantage, says Carrie James, an ethicist with the Good Project at Harvard University. And of course there’s the message it sends to your child — that you can buy their way into college (and who knows what after) and that Mom and Dad will take care of the tough stuff in life.
“The longer-term ethical implications are important to consider as well,” James says. “What kinds of future workers and citizens are we nurturing through such practices?”
Most college coaches draw a very strict line between advising and “doing it for them.” Their job is to get kids to write the essay themselves, just a better version than they might have drafted alone.
“My counseling training has taught me to ask lots of open-ended questions,” says Ethan Sawyer, who counsels students on essay writing and goes by “the College Essay Guy” online. Instead of asking, “Did your parents’ divorce make you sad?,” for example, he’ll ask, “What was that like?”
“I also teach students basic screenwriting structure, as it’s a pretty efficient way of not only showing them how stories work but also getting them to think visually,” Sawyer says. “Personal statements are short films.”
Sawyer has gotten requests to write the essay outright, but he’s turned them down. Mostly, he sees kids who just need a little help, some prompting to get started or proofreading on the back end. Often those kids are in public schools where the counselors on staff just can’t keep up — not surprising when you consider the average public high school guidance counselor manages a caseload of 476 kids.
The fact that those public school counselors exist at all should give some direction to parents who are unsure whether it’s okay to give — or pay for — essay help. Some 30 percent of public schools employ at least one counselor whose exclusive responsibility is to provide college counseling.
Adelphi’s Espina says admissions officers do expect kids to get some help with their essay, usually from a guidance counselor, an English teacher or a parent, or even from the college.
“Many students lack the access to resources to fully grasp the process itself, including the importance of the college essay,” she says. “It’s quite common for [admissions] counselors or directors to provide free lectures-presentations on the college essay at local high schools or on their own college campuses.”
And if kids just seems out of their depths, O’Connell has this advice: “I tell kids if you’re really, really struggling, you’re not telling the right story.”
Sometimes they just need to be sent back to the drawing board.
Jeanne Sager is a writer and editor based in Callicoon Center, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @JeanneSager.
Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @On Parenting.
Want your kids to be resilient? Here’s what NOT to do.
I learned my son is gay when I read his college essay
How helicopter parents are ruining college students
Kids heading to high school? Here’s when to let go and where to help.
You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
RELATED: Goucher College aims to level playing field with video application option
3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
RELATED: 3 tips for getting your college application materials in on time
5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
RELATED: Who reads your college applications anyway?
8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS