Your teen doesn’t need to save the world to write a great admissions essay.
It wasn’t a lack of ideas that kept Brent Blanck-Singer from pounding out his college essay. And, it wasn’t that he was a bad writer. No, his writer’s block stemmed from his uncertainty about how to morph his regular life experiences into an enlightening, relatable story.
“For a long time, I didn’t know how to approach writing the story,” Blanck-Singer explains. “I didn’t know how to strike the right tone—how to sound tough without sounding pompous.”
Frustration made him “push the essay writing off for as long as possible,” Blanck-Singer admits.
He’s not alone, here. Achieving the right tone and message has caused many a high school student to stumble.
“One of the most frequent questions I get from my students is: What do you think colleges want to hear from me? What is going to impress them?” says Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, a college admissions counselor in La Jolla, California and author of the book Admission Possible.
“The good thing is that admissions counselors aren’t looking for Hemingway-style prose or even extraordinary stories,” Hansen Shaevitz says. “They are looking for you to be yourself.”
They’re looking for examples of how your mind works: how you reacted in an adverse situation or how you solved a difficult problem. Everyone has these stories; the tricky part is how to tell them.
“College essays are very different than English assignments, where you have to analyze a play in the third person,” says Lisa K. Buchanan, a San Francisco-based essay advisor and writer. “They involve more intimacy.”
She recommends high-school seniors read a sampling of literary nonfiction essays before starting their own college essay. “Go to the library. Get an anthology of essays, and read the first opening paragraph for inspiration,” she says.
And when thinking about the voice of an essay, think about the qualities of your favorite conversation partners—what makes them so interesting to talk with —and adopt it.
“In general, you tend to avoid the person who only talks about how great he is or the person who, when asked about their vacation, gives you a list of every single thing they did,” Buchanan says.
The same thing holds true for the voice of essays. “You want to show a little bit of vulnerability,” Buchanan adds.
A good way of practicing this is talking through the essay at the dinner table. “Sometimes when you’re being spontaneous and exploring the topic, the things that come out are just wonderful,” Hansen Shaevitz says. “And parents can help you get more focused as you’re speaking. At the end of the dinner, you can practically have the essay written.”
It was through this practice—talking through the essay with both his guidance counselor and parents—that Blanck-Singer overcame his writer’s block and penned a heart-warming story about overcoming his physical disabilities through sports.
The best compliment Blanck-Singer received on the essay was from his English teacher. “We’d been having a tough time all year,” he says. “But after he read my essay, he said he understood more about me than he had the entire year.”
And that—say college essay advisors—is the sign of a really good essay.
By Rebecca Meiser