Lessons from a College Essay Coach

Tips I’ve gathered from helping high school seniors with their admissions essays.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Working with college applicants on their admissions essays, I’m always amazed by the interesting stories they have to tell and appreciate the opportunity to help them share who they are with a college.

From that experience, along with being a parent who survived the college admissions process twice, I’ve learned the secrets to getting through the essay with your teen and what really makes for a winning one. Read on to find out what they are.

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Kids aren’t excited to tell their story At least not initially. The essay is work and in the midst of enjoying the summer before senior year or the last season of their favorite extra curriculars in the fall, most teens don’t have or don’t want to make the time. So no, yours is not the only one procrastinating.

Some kids are too anxious about getting it right because they’re concerned with the consequences if they don’t (see next secret below). Others are reluctant to start the whole college application process, including the essay, because they’re not ready to think about moving on from high school. Read my post on motivating the reluctant applicant to learn more.

The essay won’t keep your teen out of college But it might help him get in. GPA and SAT scores rank higher than the essay in admissions criteria, but for comparable applicants, the essay can turn into a deciding factor in determining which candidate would be the better fit for a school.

You know too much Parents want the admissions office (and me) to know everything about your student, too. That’s my advantage: I work only with what your teen shares with me and what they want a college to know about them. Parents often call or email me with additional info that they consider essential to the essay. But this is your kid’s story and unless the essay needs to be fleshed out a lot, that background isn’t usually necessary.

CommonApp essay prompts are a second thought I help many of my applicants figure out which prompt their essay answers. Too often teens write their essays before or without reviewing the prompts. More and more high school English teachers dedicate class time for juniors and seniors to work on their essays, which is a big help. Unfortunately, not all teachers focus on the prompts, making the time spent writing less productive.

Too many words or not enough The Common App word count is 650, but I’ve rarely received an essay at that number. They come to me several hundred words over or a couple hundred under. As a former editor, I’m skilled at cutting words effectively, but that can mean losing some of the writer’s favorite lines. When it’s too short, I send it back with suggestions for additional material, which means the student needs to find time to work on the essay again. Because this is your student’s chance to show who they are beyond their grades and high school resume, they need to pay attention to and take advantage of the word count.

Share what they’ve learned Writing chronologically comes easily for teens, but they often struggle explaining the effects of an experience(s). A college wants to know how an applicant has grown, changed their perspective, been influenced by events in their life, but too often that reflection is missing in the essay. Sometimes, sharing a series of events illustrates the point, but a little bit of introspection should always be included.

Nothing is off limits It’s how a teen presents their story that matters. There’s even a Common App essay prompt that addresses failure. Colleges want to know a student will arrive on campus with the tools to deal with the challenges of freshman year or will take advantage of the ones they offer, if necessary.

Your story doesn’t have to be a Greek tragedy It’s okay for a teen to admit they have a good life. The point is for a student to tell their story, to share a part of themselves. The admissions office wants to see how they’ve matured to become the person they are today. Whether that’s sharing a serious illness or celebrating their passion, is up to them.

Be yourself Admissions officers aren’t impressed by an essay filled with lots of big words and don’t believe that a passive voice sounds smarter. They want to hear the real voice of the writer. If the essay is genuine, that will carry through on all 650 words.

Colleges are looking for the right fit, for someone who will be an asset to their school, who will succeed. That means presenting yourself in the best light. If a student recognizes they have a talent or skill, they should own it. Written correctly, it shouldn’t sound like bragging, but show self-awareness and confidence, which a college will find appealing.

Every high school senior has a fascinating story to tell, they just need to understand how to tell it.

Share your thoughts on the college admissions essay in the comments section below.

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2 Responses to Lessons from a College Essay Coach

  1. Great advice, Anne! Thank you!

  2. Your editing was truly top notch, thanks Anne.

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