As if filling out college applications wasn’t stressful enough, students seem to have particular angst over what to say in their college essay. Add to that the fact that many college applications have multiple essays they require, and the process can be a real stumbling block, even for the brightest students.
Elizabeth Benedict and her company Don’t Sweat the Essay, mentor students through the pro-cess and we’re thrilled to talk to her in this show. Her titles also include novelist, college writing instructor along with business owner, and she shares her thoughts on how to set yourself up for success when it comes to putting it into word.
Why is an essay required?
As the common application was adopted by the majority of colleges across the country, it be-came very easy and very quick to apply to multiple institutions. This meant that admissions of-fices soon became deluged with hopeful seniors’ applications, and they realized that they would need to differentiate from among the thousands of requests for admissions. The essay elicits such information from students, and the more in demand a college is, the more likely they will require not just one but multiple essays before admission is granted.
That said, everyone starts with the essay required for the Common App, which is about 250-650 words, and can easily be changed under most topics (also known as prompts) for the specific school to which you are applying. Knowing that there will likely be more writing ahead of you, Elizabeth cautions students to spend some time on this first essay, but not to over agonize over it, or you could get stuck before you’ve really even begun.
What are the topics or prompts on the Common App?
They can change from year to year, and are generally announced in February or March. The questions are on the Common App website and you can pick from among five choices.
How important are essays in the application process?
Elizabeth feels the essay is very important in the entire package. It’s not enough for colleges to see evidence of achievement in grades and activities; the essay helps confirm if the student is up to par with everything else they are looking for. Are you likely to be a leader? Are you creative? Adventurous? The essay is the student’s opportunity to communicate these facets of the whole student to an admissions counselor.
Similarly, a student that may not have top 10% grades or a sheet full of activities benefits through the essay to tell their story and raise their profile in the eyes of the school.
What role should parents take in the essay writing process?
Elizabeth said it really depends on what the current relationship is, but for the most part, having an “outside” source that’s objective to review the essay and can recognize good writing will serve the student best. However, parents can assist in observing who their child is, and help point out their strengths to then write about.
When should you get started?
Practically, you cannot get started too early as the prompts for the Common App might change. And even though they’re available in February or March, it’s better to wait until June as a stu-dent’s perspectives can change in those months. The writing process itself generally takes 3 – 4 sessions for Elizabeth’s student clients, or about three weeks.
Of course, it’s also dependent on how many schools you’re applying to and how many essays they collectively require. In addition, for early decision/early action colleges, which open the ap-plications process in November, don’t wait until October to start the writing process.
However, Elizabeth stresses that it’s never too early to practice to become a strong writer. There are often free programs available through schools to develop writing skills, and great books like Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale also provide a good glimpse at strongly written prose.
Elizabeth also recommends reading magazines like The New Yorker to review what good writing looks like.
What is the link between essays and scholarships and other awards?
Elizabeth stresses that good communicators and writers have a leg up and that can also lead to scholarship opportunities and other awards. However, realize that the greater the reward, the more work that’s likely involved. In other words, more essays. However, by the time students have gone through multiple applications, their essay writing skills have become almost second nature.
BRAD RECOMMENDS: Building a team
Every successful team is made up of strong performers working together – so who should be on your college planning team to get into your target schools?
- Parents and Student, together – it might be tough for some kids who want to be independent and break away, but keep in mind parents and students working together is looked upon fa-vorably by colleges. If the dynamic is difficult, enlist a family friend to keep both sides focused
- Teacher or Student Counselor – who knows your student best at school?
- Paid advisors – if your family has a financial planner, CPA, tax specialist or college funding specialist, talk to them about your goals and your situation; their goal should be to save you more than they cost
- Student support: career counselors who can assist your student through the SAT/ACT test process and application process
- Online tools – for the do it yourself fans, there are a host of online resources on hand and many are free; our podcast is certainly a helpful tool in this respect
LINKS AND FEATURES
Elizabeth’s company and website: Don’t Sweat the Essay
Elizabeth recommends reading great material to write great material, like Sin and Syntax
Follow Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax forum of writers
Common app essay prompts
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