Parents of Students Writing Personal Statements for College Admission

Dear Parents,

“Adolescence, roughly defined as the period between the onset of puberty and maturity, may last from age 10 to age 25. During this period of rapid growth, American adolescents live in a precarious middle ground between the innocence and immaturity of childhood and the responsibility and accountability of adulthood.” (ADOLESCENT BRAIN DEVELOPMENT & JUVENILE JUSTICE FACT SHEET )

True story: Parent-teacher night at a large suburban school where I have been teaching for five years. Parents of senior enter:                                              

Mother: Did you approve the topic for his college admission essay?                  

Student: Sorry Ms. M.                                                                                               

Ms. M: That’s fine. I did. He’s writing about why he wants to be an actor.            

Father: The essay is about drug use.                                                                      

Ms. M.: Well, recovery. The drug use was in junior high.                  

Mother: How can that be an acceptable topic?                                                           

Ms. M: Well, he said it was the most important thing that happened to him, recovering and deciding to be an actor. It’s a wonderful essay.     

Father: Should the school know that he ever used drugs?                    

Student: Dad, I want to get into a college that accepts me for who I am now.

The student’s decision to be honest about his past while focusing on his future produced an essay that was one of the best I ever read. His voice was powerful and attention getting and it was hard for me to imagine a school where he belonged rejecting him based on past mistakes.

However, this is a tricky business. If your son or daughter can focus on an experience that is less controversial, that is probably a better choice.  No matter what, the college admission essay must reveal something unique, significant and interesting about the candidate.

Good writing is not based on what(community service, near death experience, finding out you’re adopted, deciding to be a teacher)but on how (interesting, well-written, effective use of detail, focused, answers the prompt, sounds like the applicant.)

How can you help? Make some suggestions for a good topic. You know your kid better then anyone and so you can help him or her decide what to write about. However, be prepared to be ignored. My son will attend college next year and he rejected every suggestion made by his journalist father and myself. His essay was pragmatic, down-to-earth and a little edgy, about how he worked in a bike shop, which helped him decide he wanted to become an engineer.  Its great strength?  His essay sounded like him and he used concrete examples to make his main point: I am an excellent candidate for your college.

Pitch Perfect: How to Write a Successful College Admission Essaywill also help. The book is written for the student to help them find and use their authentic voice in a focused, persuasive personal essay. The adolescent brain is bombarded with conflicting impulses and this book deals with that energy channeling in a positive, productive fashion.

The organization is simple, how to begin, how to keep going, how to finish. Also, the book is about strong writing, all writing, not just this one essay. Your student needs to know that good writing emerges from abundance, from allowing the imagination to flow before focusing on a topic.  Once the topic is chosen, the book will support your writer throughout the process of writing the essay. If your son or daughter is willing to share their essay with you be prepared to discover something new and different in them, something you can appreciate because your child is ready to start a new chapter in his or her life.


Molly Moynahan