When a child advances to the 11th grade, not only the child, but also the parents begin to feel the pressure of gaining admission to the college of their choice. ‘Their’ is the operative word here because parents must evaluate the college in light of their own resources. So, anxiety time sets in big time.
While it can be exciting to gather materials and research colleges, it can also be downright sobering and daunting to realize that the admission process is a complicated process. Yet, one that has to be mastered by both parents and children. What about costs? Oh, yes! If you are planning to visit campuses, you must allocate portion of your budget for that. But before we talk about that part of the process, all concerned must first deal with the most serious of all steps of the process—the personal essay that must accompany the application.
All other components —SAT, ACT scores, volunteer work, recommendations, etc.— while important aren’t as tough as the composition of that personal essay.
Naïve students and parents often think that writing that essay is like writing an e-mail. Or that by having the English teacher correct it, and by re-writing, revising, honing, and polishing the essay during the year, that is all that is needed—they’re in for great disappointment.
Admission officers, admission committee members, alumni volunteers, and others involved in reviewing applications rely heavily on these personal essays. No college has the same process, but in general, the essay is the only tool that yields a glimpse into the applicants’ inner lives, their perspective on life, their attitudes, their motivation, ethics, politics, and love or dislike of community. So do not for a second underestimate its value. That is why elite colleges assign a great value to it, with some admission officers admitting —off the record of course— that scores and GPAs are but picayune adjuncts, feeble complements to the personal essay.
And it only makes sense. Just think of an admission officer receiving ten thousand applications for 600 spots. How do you separate the wheat from chaff? Furthermore, most of the applicants have superior GPAs, glowing recommendations, and stellar extracurricular records.
What separates the wheat from the chaff is the personal essay.
Those students who attach well written essays, with serious personalized content, and with a voice that is distinctly theirs and not the voice of a paid essay coach, or even less—that of parents, they —the children— have a fighting chance. Teenagers must sound like teenagers and that is what the admission agents look for: a personal voice. A touching anecdote written with sincerity and in the teenager’s voice will probably propel the application to the top of the heap.
Having participated in the admission process as a volunteer, I once read an essay that not only brought tears to my eyes, but also taught me about the problem of euthanasia. The applicant communicated —in plain, unpretentious, monosyllabic words— his juvenile turmoil, the anger, and the resentment he felt when his parents put his dog to sleep. If I remember correctly, his concluding paragraph was what caught my eye: “At that point in my life,” he wrote, “all I could think of was that life really sucks.” Adding later, “ … now I feel differently, and your pre-med undergrad program will help me become a medical doctor, for now I revere life and want to make a difference.”
Now, only a teenager can use the word ‘sucks’ and not be self-conscious or offensive about it. Little details about an applicant’s outlook on life can be more telling than saccharine recommendations, engorged extra-curricular activities, or even off the charts GPAs.