Why the College Essay Can Make or Break Your Teen’s Chances for Admissions

The dreaded college essay. It is one of the top three things (in addition to GPA and SAT/ACT scores) that college admissions officers use to consider for admissions, so it’s vital that your teen gets this right.


Why Is The College Essay So Important?

The goal of the essay is to set your teen apart from other students. When comparing students with similar GPAs and test scores, the essay can be the catalyst that makes or breaks it with admissions officers. Students need to demonstrate why they’re a good fit for the school and how they’ll contribute. They’re selling themselves here in a big way.

Imagine that Jade and Delilah each have similar GPAs, academic rigor and SAT scores. That essay will be the determining factor that sets them apart from each other.

What Should My Teen Write About?

When the Common Application announced the 2019-2020 prompts, they shared that they were actually re-using the 2018-2019’s prompts. And this is not the first time they’ve done this, either. For this reason, I always encourage my juniors to start thinking of topics they’d like to include in their essays right now, even if the questions end up changing slightly before they start their application process.

There are one of two themes your teen should consider including on the college essay – be sure to know what these are before choosing a topic!

When Should It Be Written?

The ideal time to have your teen complete the essay(s) is during the summer before their senior year. Don’t wait! There are too many distractions once school starts again and, with everything else that your kid will need on that application, it’s best to get it done sooner rather than later.

Remember This…

Some colleges require essays in addition to those found on the Common Application and others only require responses to their school’s essay prompts. Be sure to check directly with each college’s website or admissions office to verify what they require. You don’t want to find out that your teen missed an important piece of the application after the fact!

HOT TIP: I know it’s going to be tempting to help your high schooler write their essay. DON’T DO IT! Sure – you can help with brainstorming topics, creating an outline, and proofreading, but don’t write the thing! College admission officers can smell a parent’s involvement from a mile away and it’s a huge detriment to your teen in the long run.

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The 2 Best Ways to Make the College Essay Stand Out

College admissions folks are serious about the essays they read on applications. After checking out your teen’s GPA, academic rigor, and SAT/ACT scores, they’ll look at that very important essay to be sure he or she is the right fit for their school.

There are 2 themes that I always recommend a student considers gearing their writing toward, because either one of these will help showcase exactly what officials want to see:

1. How your teen has developed as a leader over time.

Admissions folks want students with a go-get-’em attitude who will be a leader at their school.

My youngest daughter has been passionate about theatre since she could walk. When she was in high school, she was taking voice, dance, and acting lessons, fundraising for the school theatre and choir departments, and costuming, choreographing, and rehearsing for shows both at school and at our community theater. It was pretty clear that she was dedicated and had developed as a leader in this area, which made her really shine on applications.

Your high schooler likely has something he or she’s been involved in for quite some time, either in school or out of it. Think of any volunteer work done over time, passions pursued, activities or sports participated in. Are there themes that can be linked to show growth in that area? How has your student grown in maturity and become a leader?


2. How your teen has overcome adversity.

Successfully getting through tough times almost inevitably builds character and allows a person to develop in maturity. College officials consider students who show this kind of grit in the face of hardship as leaders and doers – and they want them for their schools.I’ve worked with students who’ve overcome a variety of hardships, such as taking care of a terminally ill parent or grandparent, overcoming a learning difference, recovering after a severe injury or illness, taking care of a younger sibling while a single parent worked. Even with these challenges, the students conquered and came out better on the other side in some way.

Regardless of the essay prompt your teen chooses to write about on the application, applying one of these themes to it will ensure they’re looked at seriously by colleges. Talk to your teen about their experiences so far to get their minds churning!

How has your teen developed as a leader or overcome diversity? Share your story in the comments below!