Mon, September 11, 2023

The College Essay: 10 Tips for Coaching Your Child to Writing Success 


Young people are fascinating. The adolescent years are layered with footprints so deep, they often never fade. As adults, we know that young lives are filled with great material. Topics for the college essay’s personal statement ought to be tumbling off the page. Yet they hover just out of reach for many young people who are left grasping. So our job, as mentors, is to help bridge the connection between the raw material that lives within each student and the polished final product of the 650 word personal statement. Invite your student to look at the essay as an opportunity to reflect upon their own lives filled with the 3 Ps: Purpose. Passion. Potential.

Purpose: Illustrates the student’s unique pathway in the world thus far.

Passion: Highlights something that has moved the student in a profound way.

Potential: Demonstrates the inherent potential this person has to add to any institution.

Below is a writing process tailored for the personal essay. Before we begin, here are some pointers worth remembering: This personal essay is in fact a story from one’s life, so bearing the narrative process in mind will help. There are no “best” topics. It’s not what the student writes, it’s how they write it that matters. There are strategies the writer should employ to come across with eloquence, but the piece must be in the student’s own voice. Lastly, the essay should aim to build a connection between the writer and the reader, who in this case just happens to be a college admission officer.

So parents, here are ten steps for guiding your young person to college essay writing success.

1. Brainstorm with a 10-minute timer.

Have your student turn off all devices and go to their designated space for focused work within the home. Set a ten minute timer. At best, this timer is not a phone but a stand-alone device, to avoid further distraction. Try writing with a pen and paper, but typing works as well. (Sometimes the act of handwriting allows the brain to slow down and ruminate.) Once the timer begins, don’t let the writer stop brainstorming until the timer goes off. Encourage them to: Use bullet points. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Nothing is off limits. Judgment free zone. Let the mind wander!

2. Evaluate the list.

Now that it’s all on the table, it’s time for your child to turn on a critical lens. Have your student look over the options several times and cross off topics that feel less important, immediate or lacking purpose and potential. I suggest your student eliminate topics that are:

  • Generic…(not unique to the applicant’s personal journey such as losing the tournament, the academic course that almost buried them)
  • Lacking Emotion. (Won’t allow for vivid enough moments and/or examples from life, revelations, or reflections that build connection)
  • About Someone Else (grandpa, my coach, etc.)

3. Select the topic:

First and foremost, the topic should be one the student feels passionate about. Parents, guardians and/or guidance counselors can have input, especially if consulted, but the student must feel motivated enough to write something filled with passion and purpose. Here are some suggestions for honing in on “the one.”

The topic should…

  • Be honest. The voice and choice of the student. Real and somewhat original.
  • Show growth, change or knowledge gained from the world around them.
  • Be vivid enough in the student’s mind to use small, rich details from life that draw the reader in.
  • Be complex enough to include turning points where your student can stop and reflect upon the events described.

4. Create a narrative arc:

A narrative arc (below) is the structure embedded in any story and the personal statement is a narrative from the student’s life. The arc can and will vary depending upon the topic of the essay. However, I find this a useful structure for organizing the student’s ideas.

  1. Inciting Incident: A tangible event that launches the essay into motion
  2. Rising Action: Obstacles that the writer experiences on their journey
  3. Climax Moment: The turning point from which the reader can/will reflect upon
  4. Falling Action: The result(s) of the climax
  5. Resolution: Evidence of the growth/change/wisdom gained from the writer

5. Use vivid imagery

Good writing creates a sensory experience. Encourage your writer to use details that a reader can see, hear or even smell at points throughout the essay. When the reader can “see,” they can feel, connect, and empathize with the writer’s passion.

6. Put it all up front.

DO NOT save the good stuff. Make sure your writer starts with a powerful opening line. Be full of intention. The purpose of the essay should be clear immediately. Early word choice matters a great deal. Admission counselors have countless applications to read through and limited time. Do not waste your time being vague, general or elusive.

7. Vary sentence structure.

Make sure your writer edits to break up pools of long sentences with short simple ones. The ebb and flow of sentence structure is a formula for winning writing. Long complex sentences do not necessarily make something sound more sophisticated.

8. Don’t repeat!

When a reader comes across a repeated adjective or descriptive verb (within a short span), it’s distracting. It takes the reader away from the messaging and forces her to think about the grammar and syntax. Overused words lose their punch.

9. Print it out. Read it aloud.

Our ears are much more keen to inconsistencies, errors, and repetition than our eyes. Have your student read it aloud to themselves, a family member, the dog or anyone who will listen. Read with a pencil in hand. Mark the corrections on the spot. Revise. Revise. Revise. It works.

10. Walk-away.

Tired eyes and minds lose perspective and critical thinking capacity. Have your child walk away. Take a break. Come back later. Fresh eyes bring clarity to ideas.

Some closing suggestions for parents as they facilitate the process:

  1. Engage in the brainstorming process alongside your writer. Talk through ideas together. Sometimes sparks fly and memory synapses light up through discussion.
  2. Brilliance lives in the revision process. Revise. Edit. Repeat.
  3. Devote time to this process. Don’t rush it.

Trust your child. Their instincts are golden. Give them agency through your support and willingness to listen, but allow the student to do the driving. Happy writing.

Stefanie Goldenberg is the owner of New Heights Learning, a tutoring service that specializes in literacy services, most notably admissions essays. She is a member of The Tutoring League of NYC. Prior, she spent 15 years in the classroom as an English and History teacher. Stefanie currently resides in New York City with her husband and two children. Writing, traveling, and crossword puzzles are some of her favorite things to do.

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