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Mirror Writing Application Essays

Former Duke admissions recruiter Rachel Toor wasn’t getting through. Her advice about an applicant’s personal statement was met with “slightly revised versions of the same vague platitudes.” So when she got a suspiciously impressive new essay, she was concerned. Had someone else helped him write the essay?

“No, he said. This time he didn’t let his dad touch it.”

Toor’s piece is a great reminder to parents who get so invested in their children’s college applications that they forget to let their children participate.

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If your child doesn’t ask your advice, leave him alone: it’s his job to find a creative way to showcase himself in 500 words. But if your child does ask for help, you still need to keep your hands off the essay. The work of the application essay, Toor argues, is “an exercise in emotional archaeology.” Your child needs to do that crucial digging himself.

But you can help him do that digging by being his mirror. You, who have spent more hours watching your child than anyone on earth, can reflect back to him what you know to be true but he may not have realized about himself.

Here are four hands-off methods for being your child’s mirror.

4 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids Write a College Essay

1) Encourage an early start on the college essay

You can’t make your child start early. As Kathy Bates has taught us, forcing people to sit down to write is a cocadoodie way encourage good prose.

But you can have an early conversation, ideally in summer when there are no meetings or practices or homework assignments.

Ask questions. Skip “What do you want to be when you grow up,” because every teenager has already learned a 15-second non-answer to this question. Ask him tough questions. What is your proudest moment? What do you think you’re really good at? If he can’t say these things about himself, ask him what positive reviews other people have given him. What’s the best compliment he’s ever received? These questions will lay the foundation for talking about him, not what he thinks an admissions committee wants to hear about him.

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Depending on the personalities in your household, you can enlist a whole room full of mirrors. You might stage a “boast” dinner where your family shares stories about your applicant. Record the conversations or designate a notetaker. One of those stories may spark the perfect essay.

2) Study the genre

If your child has been well-trained in 5-paragraph essays, he may be surprised to learn that the formula for high school writing success is often the formula for college essay failure. Because the admissions officers are looking for personality, these essays offer a rare opportunity to play with genre.

Start by reading successful essays together. Start with the perennial favorite “But I Have Not Yet Gone To College.” The University of Chicago also has terrific  essay prompts and sample essays that will give you and your child a sense of the range of possibilities.

After reading some samples, encourage your child to play around with genre. What would the essay look like as a movie review? A recipe? A tweetstorm? A letter of recommendation for the school? An invoice to the school from the student, detailing what it will gain from his attendance?

Don’t push your child to write a recipe if he’s not an enthusiastic cook or write an obituary if he hates dark humor. The essay doesn’t have to be funny. It doesn’t even have to be fun. Depending on the subject, it might be cathartic, depressing, nostalgic, heartwarming. But as you look at examples, talk about how the genres enhance the stories the writers are telling about themselves.

3) Reflect the true-but-trite

Admissions essays are the most difficult things to write, next to maybe wedding vows. But with wedding vows, you can get away with trite but true statements like those that open with “I love.”

That will not fly in admissions essays.

If you read sample essays together, you and your child will learn that most successful admissions essays are selectively truthful. I defy you to find a winning essay that includes the sentence “my passion is to help others.” While that may certainly be true, it’s also true for everyone applying.

When your child asks for help on early drafts, reflect on any true-but-trite statements. Don’t all future medical students want to help people? Don’t all English majors love books? What about an essay from the English-major-to-be about why she hates books? Now that would get an admissions officer’s attention.

4) Do. not. edit.

A lot of well-meaning parents give terrible writing advice, mostly by focusing on errors far too early in the writing process. Grammar is not nearly as important as the story your child is telling about himself. You’re not here to be an editor, even if you are a writing professor who excels at pointing out dangling participles.

When it is time to edit (about 3 drafts later than you think), don’t forget your mirror status. Do not personally change a word of that draft. Instead print a copy for each of you and then read the draft out loud. Trust him to hear the parts he wants to change.

You can help in lots of productive ways, but don’t interfere with the product. If all goes well, your child will be at school 9 months from now doing all his own writing. By adhering to your mirror role, you’ll help him produce a strong piece of writing while also modeling the skills he needs to view his own writing more critically.

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Students applying to Ivy League schools find themselves having to wade through a particularly dense morass of conflicting advice. With Harvard and Princeton denying far more valedictorians than they accept, many students are coming to the the disquieting realization that overwhelming academic achievement and stratospheric scores may be not enough. Hence, the hope that a perfect essay might be where real distinction lies.

It’s been said that there are only two stories we tell each other: a familiar person leaves on a voyage, and a stranger comes to town. This is no less true of college essays, but it doesn’t make writing them any easier.

All of the Ivies use the Common Application with its single essay requirement. Students are given a choice of five prompts that ask them to tell a story that reflects their own identity, to recount a moment of failure, reflect on a time when they challenged a belief, describe a place of contentment, or discuss an event that marked their transition to adulthood. But the student who is applying to both Princeton and Pomona has to craft a personal statement that speaks to readers at both schools equally well. As Jon Reider, a well-known high school counselor in San Francisco, says, “It has never occurred to me that one Ivy (or anywhere else) would want a certain kind of essay. The whole point is that the main essay tell that kid’s own truth. Colleges take what they get.”

Admission officers at Ivy schools would agree that in telling their truth, students choose topics that more often reflect the reality of their own lives than they do the ethos of specific colleges:

  • Brown admission officers Louis Trujillo and Natasha Go note, for example, that this year saw many more natural disaster essays: Sandy, Colorado flooding, Oklahoma tornadoes.
  • Others point to a shift in the overused “helping others in exotic locales” topic, from the old staple in which a student discover peasants that are happy in spite of their poverty, to one in which witnessing the deprivations of poverty spur students to express gratitude for their American prosperity.
  • Many students write essays in which they celebrate a rather anodyne version of diversity, marked less by political engagement, for example, than by servings of both sushi and stuffing, masala and mashed potatoes, turkey and tamales, at Thanksgiving dinner.

Students’ desire to write an Ivy-inspired essay is also complicated by the nature of the Ivy League itself. While the league shares a long tradition of academic excellence, exclusivity, and a set of admissions protocols that relate mostly to athletics (such as an Academic index that all Ivy athletes have to meet), the eight Ivies remain very distinctive institutions. It is hard to imagine how to write a Common Application essay that simultaneously speaks to Columbia’s focus on the intellectual value of a core curriculum, Brown’s notion that such value derives from the absence of a core, Cornell’s proud tradition as a land grant school, and Harvard’s exclusivity.

Of course, there is an element of self-selectivity that may set the essays of some Ivy applicants apart from others. Thoughtful applicants focus on how particular schools fit with their social and intellectual aspirations, and good essays mirror such self-awareness. Elisha Anderson, an Associate Director of Admission at Brown, notes that when he used to work in the admission office of a smaller, nonconformist liberal arts college in Massachusetts, he saw so many essays on protests, filmmaking and the Food not Bombs movement, that, “It wasn’t until I started working at Brown—where I almost never read essays on any of these topics—that I realized how different the self-selection of the two applicant pools must have been.”

Unlike the Common Application essay, however, the school-specific supplements do require that students write more targeted essays. It is here that the student needs to craft an essay that speaks to his or her fit with that particular institution, and some will ask the question very directly: “Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia,” for example, or “Why Brown?” Dartmouth avoids additional long essays and Harvard’s is optional, but last year when the Common Application did away with its so-called activity paragraph (“choose one of your extra curricular activities and tell us about it”), these Ivies decided, as did Columbia, that it was useful enough for their purposes to include it in the supplement. The Ivies with engineering schools ask for additional essays from prospective engineers, but Cornell, not surprising given its seven colleges, asks every applicant for such an academic interest statement. Presumably Princeton and Yale are largely looking for exactly the same qualities in their top applicants—academic aptitude, intellectual depth, awareness of others, leadership qualities, and knowledge of the institution. To help them identify those elements, Princeton asks students to reflect on their own lives by writing, for example, in response to quotes on culture, service to the nation, and the practices of inequality. Yale, in contrast, asks simply that a student “Reflect on something you want us to know about you.” Associate Director Rebekah Westphal of Yale explains that the question is, “open enough that students write about whatever they feel like at the time, to present themselves to us without trying to fit into a certain topic or question.”

In a good essay the student embarks on a voyage to learn more about an idea, a place, or about herself, and she returns able to examine and understand what has been familiar with new eyes and a deeper perspective. In that narrative, Ivy admission officers are looking for qualities that are no different from those that readers at Stanford, Rice or Chicago are searching for, and for the greatest part, they are all likely to discern them in similar essays.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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