The Essay that Starts with a Dialogue with the Police Or How a Parent can Make an Interesting Essay Ponderous

Psychologist and counselor Jeanette Spires joins us again this month to talk about the essay, why it's a good idea to avoid too much "help" from parents, and what it means to show a college what matters to you.

What feels most out of control in the college admission world?   The winner may be the essay process. There is plenty of research indicating that the rigor of high school classes and the grades earned by students are the best predictors of success. But essays do not lend themselves to statistical study. Years ago when I began as a college counselor, there was something of an honor code about essays for competitive colleges. Today, checking search engines leads you to sites offering to take care of that onerous task for you.  "Harvard writers!"  Now why would a high school student want an essay written by a college graduate?  Ding-dong! The admissions reader isn't stupid.

Those of us who have read thousands of essays can tell you that at times an essay can be read in one glance. "Oh, I get this one…"  Because we, too have read the "essays that made it" books.  You may notice that some colleges now point out that they will access the writing sample from the ACT or SAT.  Even though that piece is a rough draft, it is still in your vocabulary, your thought patterns, and your style. The essay that gets through to the reader can only be written by YOU because no one else has your quirky mind or your inner thoughts. The word authentic leaps to mind for the reader of an essay that shares your heart and mind -- and ideally both.

Every person to whom you show your essay draft may feel obligated to react and give you some advice.  Many of these people are adults who are not going to say, "Dude! Great job!" but will search for some way to tell you how to improve it.  Soon that l7-year-old voice is gone as words like "comprise" or the dreaded "plethora" are infused into that great statement about your old bicycle or your job in a hardware store. Obscure quotations “added by my tutor” feel out of place to the reader. My "favorite" essay change came from a student who started his essay with a short dialogue he had with the police who had arrived at his home at his request after he had invited four friends over to watch a game and a crowd of uninvited people descended on the house.  The dialogue caught the reader’s interest right away. When his father decided to work on it, he began, “Adolescence is full of many bittersweet lessons.” Before you hit send on your essays, ask yourself if such helpful suggestions mirror the way you think and write.


If you have parents who are supportive but hands-off, count yourself fortunate these days. A parent recently reported that she could not sleep because of worry about her son's essay topic.  Counselors report that parents are pressing students to have their essays done in the summer when your body would like to use your brain for other purposes. A good essay is incubated and given birth in timely fashion. Look at your classmates and figure out how your story may differ from theirs. Creative work is really helped by being back in school as a senior, listening to friends and teachers talk, and figuring out what you are looking for in a college.

Relax and be yourself.  Show a college who you are and what matters to you. Can you get your heart and mind together on one page? I'll bet you can.

Jeanette Spires is a nationally certified school psychologist and counselor who has worked in varied educational settings, from running a dorm at Penn State to serving as a college counselor in the American community high schools in New Delhi and Buenos Aires.  She has given many training workshops for counselors at national and regional conferences. She currently consults on transition issues for young adults who are having difficulty in finding a sense of direction.  Working privately in the Chicago area since 1981, she follows a developmental model with the student: “Becoming an Expert on Yourself.”


Add comment