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.
Her flawless, golden brown complexion was an unlikely canvas for an almost expressionless face. Large-rimmed glasses framed unnerving brown eyes.
It was the ’80s, the advent of power dressing. Appearing much taller than her real height of five feet and five inches, she wore classic, stylish outfits with larger-than-life shoulder pads and demanded our full respect.
Her knowledge of English literature was impeccable. The manner of speaking was confident and solid. No one wanted to raise her hands to answer her question for fear of making a mistake. With her, you were either right or wrong, no excuses.
When she walked down the hallway, the students moved aside one by one, like the parting of the Red Sea. And as she passed, she would give you that familiar glare as if telling you, “Oh, you better do well in my class.” She was every inch intimidating.
THE AUTHOR with her college professor Lou Leonardia
Ms Lou Leonardia was my college professor. At the time, when the term “terror” was used to describe a teacher, she was one, and she knew it. Yet, she never called us names, used foul language or punished us in any physical way. She maintained her good breeding, and valued dignity and pride of work.
I felt threatened at first, but later on was so challenged that whenever she asked a question, I would readily raise my hand and see how she would react. I knew that if I was able to manage it, I would have seen beyond that daunting facade and paid more attention to the lesson.
She became a most unforgettable teacher, and her subject became my favorite. Some might find it odd that the professor most students found the hardest to crack is the one who would be the most memorable, but I am sure I’m not alone in that.
I now have two teenage sons. And whenever we talk about their school and studies, there are a few times they ask why some teachers are so difficult and seem to love giving them a hard time. I would answer, “Your teacher is just challenging you, because she knows you can be better.” They reply, “You’re just saying that because you’re a teacher, too.”
“Exactly, but that doesn’t mean I’m on their side. I’m on your side, too. Learning can be hard because it puts new ideas in your brain. And since your brain is still developing, it needs these new ideas to be stronger. That, my loves, is why you’re in school. We also have to understand why a teacher chooses to be strict or lenient. But in the end, difficult teacher or not, it will always depend on you. Would you rather know nothing, or know much more?”
One of them shook his head and said, “But we all did our best and he still wasn’t happy with what we presented. It’s so frustrating.”
“Are you frustrated with the teacher or what you are learning? Think about it, because if you’re frustrated with your teacher, no one wins. Your teacher will just be there for some time, but the lessons you will learn are like building blocks for your future.
“Teachers are there to be instruments for your learning, too. And the best teachers look past what is written in textbooks. They go as far as thinking about how your learning today can affect your future. They also see how you deal with pressure, express yourself verbally, evaluate situations, approach problems, accept mistakes and find solutions.
“If you look at it, these are things you have to learn in real life. Plus the fact that in your case, can you imagine them being in a roomful of teenagers to teach?”
Mark and I laughed because he got the point, and replied, “So that’s why I see them like second parents.”
I smiled and said, “Yes, be thankful for having them. Not everyone can be teachers; it’s really a tough job, you know. And they will always hope for the best for you.”
Teachers, too, are challenged to make students comprehend the value of what they are receiving, since they are tasked with developing so many young minds. But they love their jobs, and although they know that the service they give the youth might be left unnoticed, they find fulfillment in the knowledge that somehow they have been part of their lives, and had learned much, too, along the way.
In my professor’s case, she knew that we could deliver more than what we thought we could. There are many approaches to teaching, and so Ma’am Lou chose to play the part of the villain who brought out the hero in all of us. And she never gave up.
But then again, we choose whether we want to be heroes or bystanders. In any case, teachers are supposed to challenge you, as much as life does. If everything was easy, you would have learned nothing.
To all teachers, I salute you. Your service to our children is as valuable as life itself. Besides us parents, you are role models for our children.
I hope that we can also remind our sons and daughters to thank you, because no matter what behavior you have shown them, be it kindness, thoughtfulness, understanding, and even strictness, you have in one way or another have given them a taste of the kind of people they will meet in their lifetime.
As responsible adults, we will not forget that we are also on our own journeys. In our world full of distractions, which the vulnerable minds of our youth are exposed to, let us see it fit to approach them in a manner that will welcome and inspire, rather than alienate them from the priceless gift of education.
From my own experience, I understand that balancing our personal and professional lives does test us. But it is our test, not theirs. And as we empower the youth to become true and honorable leaders in the future, we, too, enable ourselves to become more than just the ordinary people these children encounter in their lives—just like Ma’am Lou.
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TAGS: College Professor, Education, PARENTING, teachers, teaching