If your high school senior is anything like mine, then they may have a handful of college essays in various states of undress. One is a daydream in search of an idea, others are dutiful outlines, two are actual drafts. Not a single one of them is ready for submission — not even close.
But that’s not what my daughter thinks. To her, her second drafts are “ready” and her first drafts are “close.”
The good news is that she’s got time. The bad news is that she doesn’t know how much work lies ahead. Unless your child goes to a high school with a particularly rigorous approach to writing, college essays are probably your teen’s first encounter with the woes and wonders of extensive rewriting.
So how can you nudge your child to keep working on those “final drafts”? Start by encouraging your teen to reread their “final” draft for these six things. And remember to give your child lots and lots of props for their continued effort. In this day and age, it’s tough being a college applicant. Let your teen know you admire all their hard work.
Begin with a bang
Can the first paragraph be a little punchier, a little shorter, a little more playful? There are many ways to use rhetorical tricks to hook your reader at the beginning of an essay. For instance, you can pretend to be writing about one thing that fulfills common expectations, then switch at the end of the opening and reveal you’re talking about something completely different, thereby playing with the reader’s expectations. (For example: a teen could paint a picture of toiling insanely hard day in and day out in a way that makes the reader think it’s a brutal backpacking trip, only to reveal it’s a coding boot camp.) You can also open with slightly mysterious dialogue that piques the reader’s curiosity. (“I’m never doing that again.” “Why not?” “You’ve got to be crazy.” Right now we don’t know what “that” is, or who is crazy but we want to find out. Finally, if these more advanced tricks of the trade are too complicated, think about creating some opening intensity simply through pacing, which usually means shortening the sentences so that they move the reader forward at a faster pace. This will also help by saving a few more words for the ending.
To be or (preferably) not to be
Watch out for overuse of the verb to be. Too many uses of “is” and “are” populating the page can paint a dreary verbal landscape. This means replacing “is fascinating” with “fascinates me” or even “blows me away.” (Although you don’t want the whole essay to be written in teen-speak lingo, an occasional slang word can show your child’s personality.) Instead of “this was a learning experience,” have your kid experiment with “this experience taught me,” or “this instilled in me,” or “this forced me to rethink.” Moving away from the verb to be makes the language livelier, more muscular, and often less vague.
Make it sticky with the five senses
A lot of writing curricula in middle and high school emphasize the idea that good narrative writing draws on details from the five senses. In the college essay your child needs to use these skills — without overdoing it — so that those sleep-deprived, weary college admissions committees snap to and get a sharp, clear picture of your child in their mind. This is tough because these essays often have a lot of heavy lifting to do: they need to tell a story and connect that story to the student’s past and future selves in only 250 to 500 words. This typically leaves limited room for sensual detail. Still, these moments of visual imagery or descriptions of sound, taste, hearing, or smell are important because of how the human mind works. The sensual moments in your child’s essay are the moments that will stick in the college admissions officer’s mind. In reviewing your child’s essay, make sure these descriptions do their job: evoke an image or give the reader a strong feeling. If your child’s essay doesn’t have them, make sure they include one or two images or scenes and have them cut out something more abstract.
Add sweet morsels
Little tiny changes can make all the difference. Coax better writing from your child by suggesting that they concentrate on improving their word choice. Hunt for what one high school English teacher I know calls “fugitives” — words that sneak into our prose and undermine its power. For instance, amazing might be a perfectly accurate description for that volunteering experience that changed your son’s life, but it’s such a common word, it actually makes the experience seem trivial. But astonishing still conveys the idea that your son’s mind was blown; ditto for the tamer but still pointed startling. Of course, your teen shouldn’t rewrite their whole essay, thesaurus in hand, swapping out every possible garden-variety word with an erudite mot juste (that’s pretentious for just the right highfalutin word — and it’s the sort of thing you don’t want your teen doing). Still, going deep on finding a descriptive word to replace, say, three to five overused or otherwise mundane words is worth the extra effort.
Depending on your child’s personality, the topic, and the school they’re applying to, your child’s essay may come off brash and boastful or insecure and tentative. It’s tough: kids are told to spotlight their accomplishments but seem humble and open-minded. No kid wants to sound like a self-inflated jerk; on the other hand, you’re supposed to put your best foot forward without shame. Teens naturally teeter between egomaniacal delusions of grandeur and turbo-charged insecurities, so this balance is particularly challenging. Here are some formulas to consider: if the story is one of leadership and victory, it’s worth your child adding a detail about how they worried about the outcome, or even hit obstacles along the way. On the other hand, if the essay is about an internal challenge (struggling with dyslexia, say) then it’s important that the narrative lead to a revelation of strength, self-confidence, or humor.
Don’t summarize. Instead, push boundaries
Ask your child to try exploring uncharted territory in their concluding paragraph. They can always cut it back and use the original ending if it doesn’t work. But because we write from beginning to end, there’s a strong likelihood that your child’s ending is far less carefully written or thought through than their beginning or middle. Ask your child to explore the ending without focusing on word count. Encourage them to venture beyond the obvious. That means they should experiment with pushing the boundaries: if it’s funny, try to make the ending funnier; if it’s philosophical, go beyond the obvious conventional wisdom; if the essay is heartfelt, work on writing an ending that will bring tears to the eyes of their readers.