Coaching your child through the college admissions essay

By Mary Fallon

The most important element of your child’s college admissions portfolio is the college entrance essay. This is the piece that can distinguish your child, helping him or her stand out as an applicant the college will want to have as a member of its community.

What can you do to support your child in the writing of this all-important piece? Start by educating yourself. The best college admissions essays:

Explain something about your child that might not be evident in the admissions packet. What does your child love to do? What challenges has your child met or overcome? What has your child learned from failure? What lessons have been learned about life, caring, courage, love?

• Show rather than tell. Your child should employ all the sensory impressions of an incident in an effort to put the reader there. What did your child see, smell, feel, hear, taste?

• Have a grabber lead—a great beginning—so the reader wants to continue. Consider the difference between these two approaches:

I am going to write about an important challenge I met in grammar school.

I was nervous. I had never done it before and now was the time. She was sitting next to me, and I was looking into her eyes.

• Use simple language. This is not the place to display SAT vocabulary. Your child should write in a voice that sounds natural.

• Use specific descriptions. Instead of “the dog charged,” “the pit bull charged.”

• Use strong verbs. Verbs make writing come alive; they make writing palpitate with life. A car doesn’t just come down a road. It “clunks” or “sails” or “screeches” or “pounds.”

• Avoid stating the obvious. You don’t have to punch the reader in the face by writing something like, “This significant event shows that I am able to meet a challenge through hard work and dedication.” The essay should show this.

• Express the truth. Readers are moved by authenticity. If the message seems phony or pretentious, the sense of self your child wants to express will be lost.

Once the essay is drafted, suggest your teen read it aloud to some trusted adults who will be honest with their feedback. It should also be reviewed by a couple of people for punctuation, spelling, grammar and typos. It should be perfect.

Keep in mind that the college application process is fraught with emotion as both parents and teens anticipate the looming separation. Sometimes the best help you can offer is to step out of the picture and find a neutral adult to guide your child through this process.

Mary Fallon.

Mary Fallon is a Scottsdale writer who is an award-winning teacher, English department chair, and curriculum author with a specialty in the writing process. She has employed her expertise in the teaching of writing for more than 25 years and has overseen the development of hundreds of highly successful college entrance essays. Contact her at 603-998-4743 or


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