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A Parents Guide to the College Admission Essay

My son started with Taekwondo when he was five. A few weeks ago, he was invited to test for his black belt. It’s a big accomplishment and he’s definitely excited. My wife and I are proud of him (and honestly kind of proud of ourselves too- that’s lot of driving, watching, and paying over the past six years).

Before a student can officially participate in the test, there are two final assignments to qualify.

One- you must build a carrying case for an egg and carry it around without breaking it for the week prior to the exam.

Two- In order to receive said egg, you must write a 3-5-page essay about your journey to this point, lessons learned, and how Taekwondo has impacted your life.

Now, I’ve seen him spar against black belts and get knocked down pretty hard numerous times. I’ve seen him get verbally lambasted by the master in front of the entire class and on-looking parents. He’s twisted ankles and bruised ribs along the way. But nothing has made me question whether or not he can actually achieve this more than the 3-5-page essay assignment.

While he has seen friends test for their black belts in the past, somehow this facet of the process escaped him too. “3 pages?!” he said exasperated and then went rolling onto the couch and smothering himself with throw blankets and pillows. “Oh… my…. gosh!” he said with a mix of desperation and exasperation.

As he continued muttering incoherently, my wife looked at me with her head slightly tilted, nodded in his direction and mouthed, “Have fun with that…” (I mouthed something back, but this is a PG-ish blog, so I’m leaving that out.)

Are you with me?

If you are the parent of a senior, you may have experienced some of this same joint angst in recent weeks or months. The likelihood is that with more deadlines coming up for colleges, it’s not quite over either. Sorry to broach this if you were having an otherwise carefree and blissful day (please go immediately back to sipping your chamomile and mindfulness practices after you’ve read this).

Whether it be for college, Taekwondo, scholarships, job interviews, etc., as parents we simply want our kids to meet deadlines, write well, put their best foot forward, and not procrastinate. We know we should not do the work for them, but it is admittedly tempting.

Before you lose your mind in or snatch their laptop in frustration and begin writing or re-writing your daughter’s or son’s essay, I want to give you three tips to help them improve their essay and get it done, and then two others to help you keep perspective and sanity.

TIPS FOR STUDENTS

Have them voice record. My son had literally no idea where to start. The mere mention of three pages sent him tumbling over furniture and burying himself in a mixture of fleece and wool (not really the stuff of black belts, but I did not mention that to him at the time).

Whether they have not started on their essay, are merely brainstorming, or if they have been looking at a blinking cursor for the last three days, verbalizing their thoughts both changes and improves their writing. Suggest they grab their phone and simply get ideas out. This is not supposed to be perfect. Just words, phrases, quick sentences. Totally fine if they are not in a particular order or connected with perfect conjunctions or transition words. Just start expressing. Note: This is also helpful when they are done (or think they are done). We have all read an email or report we’ve written and thought it made perfect sense. Then, after hitting send, we realize we’ve left out a word or transposed two. As we know from reading books out loud to kids, there is great power in reading aloud. Suggest that before hitting submit, they print their essay out and actually read it again out loud.

Suggest they move around. In most cases, students are using mobile devices to apply—laptop, IPad, etc. If they’ve come into the kitchen eight times for snacks over a 47-minute period, you can officially diagnose them with writer’s block (citation: Dr. George P. Burdell, 1885).  You’ll need to find your moment, but encourage them to change locations. Go out on the porch. Head to a coffee shop. Find a table at the local park. Change of scenery does us all good. Charge the device and go.

Tell them to be specific. Many admission readers are reviewing between 30 and 50 essays a day. At Georgia Tech right now, we have 22,000 Early Action apps to consider before mid-January. That is a lot of different students, situations, lives, and stories. Think about the last time you watched American Ninja Warrior or the Bachelor (insert your show of choice here where multiple people are introduced). What helps us remember who is who? Specifics. We remember the guy from Indiana who grew up boxing with his cousin. We can vividly recall the picture they flashed on the screen of the barn with the Sharpie stenciled sign behind their makeshift ring. Why? Because it is specific. One of the best ways you can help your son/daughter write a “good” essay is by insuring that it is specific and unique to them. This is what admission folks mean when they say, “We just want to hear their voice…” or “tell us about your passions…”

Initially, I asked my son to simply type out what he wanted to say. Here are three verbatim sentences he wrote (and when I say verbatim, I mean I literally copied and pasted): Taekwondo has not always been easy. There have been times that I have wanted to quit. I like sparring.

He’s eleven. I get it. So after I read his first draft (which took him about thirty minutes to come up with and only included about four other sentences), we went for a walk. I brought my phone and just asked him a bunch of questions. Anytime he gave me something general (see above), I asked him to tell me a story: When did you want to quit? Who do you like sparring with and tell me about a specific time- what kicks and punches did you use, etc.? I understand that you are likely not going to be strolling your neighborhood asking your 17-year-old these types of questions, but the concept is the same. Be specific. Give details.

Parents are often tempted to re-write or edit essays by inserting multi-syllabic words or focusing on the transition from one paragraph to the next. Those suggestions are not entirely unhelpful. But what a reader is looking for is detail. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. They have already read 37 other essays that day. Daylight savings has kicked in and it’s cloudy outside. They just had their 2 p.m. coffee and are thinking about the text they just got asking if they can swing by the grocery store on the way home later.

Tell them a story. Be specific. Be memorable. “Taekwondo has not always been easy”…not memorable.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

It’s a thing. But it’s not the only thing. Yes, colleges require essays. They read them. They matter. Yes, readers want them to be good. They score them. They make notes and bring the subject and insight gained from essay up in committee. They are expecting them to be grammatically sound and flow well. However, the truth is they matter less than most students/parents think. For most schools if a student is solid inside the classroom, involved and impacting people outside the classroom, the essay is not going to be the tipping point. Decisions on a student like that are far more influenced by supply and demand and institutional priorities (where you are from, what you want to study, what the school is trying to increase or grow or achieve in their community) than an essay.

You’ll read on Reddit or see the video of a student on YouTube say, “Yea. I had seven APs and did well on my SATs, but I think it was really my essay that got me in.” No it wasn’t. That student was admitted because she had chosen rigorous courses and done well, had an impact on people outside the classroom in high school, and wrote an essay that was specific and (to use a very precise term here) not bad.

Similarly, my son’s essay for Taekwondo matters. His master is going to read it. It needs to not suck. But as long as he’s put solid effort and thought into it, the decision on whether or not he receives his black belt is going to come down to his performance and other factors (like that stinking egg).

Now, I understand you can read this one of two ways. A- What a relief! My daughter/son just needs to be specific and basically not write a bad essay. B- That is a bunch of crap. This is the magic bullet and everything hinges on it.

Admittedly, I am writing this to give you some solace. But I’m not going to lie to you. (Hint: The answer is A).

Simone Biles flipping before throwing out first pitch in GAME 2 of 2019 World Series.

Go off speed. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a Facebook Live interview with Grown and Flown (which is a great organization that produces a ton of good content for parents). At the end, for some reason my internet connection cut out. The question I was unable to answer was essentially, “What do parents do when their son/daughter has not finished their essay. Or when deadlines to schools are approaching and it feels like everything hangs in the balance?” Should you just finish it for them? Should you “make them” apply to two more schools or that one in particular. How do you motivate them to just get it done for God’s sake?!!

Maybe I’m being influenced by what I thought was a riveting World Series, but my answer is to throw an off speed pitch. The truth is that there is never a good time to have this conversation. If you bring it up again, things are going to go south quick. There is never going to be a “right time” or “right place.” So instead, I’m encouraging you to write also. Yes, it’s old school. Pick up a pen and piece of paper and write them a letter. This does not have to be an epistle. Simple is always best. Just remind them that you love them. Tell them you are proud of them and concerned because they have worked hard and deserve to put their best foot forward, i.e. you want them to succeed. Let them know you are there to help, but know you won’t be next year when they’re at school. And then have a glass of wine, go for a walk, i.e. let it go.

Tough for everyone but the truth is that the admission process is a necessary time for parents to also realize that kids will need to do their work, manage their time, and fight their own battles at college very soon- and certainly in life beyond. Put it down on paper. Find a good envelope and leave it for them to read on their own time and terms. Then, to reiterate, wine and a walk—very important.

The Power of “We”

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

My best friend loves soccer, so naturally we join the sea of Atlanta United fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium every time she comes to town. If you’re not familiar, allow me to introduce you: United is Atlanta’s Major League Soccer team. In their first few seasons they soared to the top of the league, broke almost every MLS attendance record on the books, and won the national championship. Today, they’re still one of the hottest tickets in town. The games are incredible, and the crowd of 70,000+ is electric. I’m proud of our team, and I feel like I’m a part of something when I’m chanting in the stadium. Sha-laaaaa-la-laaaaaaaaaaa!

We took to the field. It was game time. I went wild as Justin Meram made his first ever goal for Atlanta United. We let one slide in our goal shortly after that, but no big deal. Meram hit the back of the net AGAIN with just over seven minutes left. WE WON! Hugs with my best friend, high fives with strangers all around, Vamos A-T-L!

The next morning I dropped off my friend at the airport, refreshed the email on my phone and scanned new messages. Spam… 50% off takeout promo (save that) … Email from parent of prospective student. Click.

“I’m hoping to set up a meeting with you…. Georgia Tech is our first choice… we took the SAT in March…”

Woah. Ref shows a yellow.

I love when people refer to their sports teams as “we.” It comes from a feeling of belonging and years of dedication, commitment, and support. I understand that when parents use “we” with admission, it comes from the same well-intended sense of pride and love. There’s nothing more important than a strong network supporting students as they go through the admissions process, and parents, or those who act as parents, are the glue to that network. Parents are a critical piece of the support system. However, you’re supporting them through their journey, their game.

They’re the player, you’re the coach. As a team, you’ll have questions about applications, how to set up visits, and along the way you’ll want to learn about each college.

Now, forgive me if I side-step the sports metaphor for a little while (don’t you worry, we’ll come back to it), but what happens when your student doesn’t feel ready to ask those questions for themselves?

When They’re Anxious

I didn’t make my own dentist appointment until I was in college. And back when you had to actually, you know… call the restaurant and talk to someone to order pizza, I refused to do that too. I was terrified. The way I looked at it, there was one way those calls could go right, and a hundred ways they could go wrong. High stakes for pizza, I realize that now.

I completely understand when students feel that tension. In their eyes, admission staffers are the judge and jury, and a phone call might feel like part of the judgement (for the record, it’s not!). If your student is like me and feels nervous to dial or press ‘send,’ consider doing it with them instead of for them. Sit next to them as they send us an email. And do it sooner rather than later—you can’t sit next to them in the college library when they need to email their professor in a few years (at least you shouldn’t, though I do hear the occasional story…).

It’s also okay to prep for a phone call or conversation! To this day, I type out a script for my voicemail message in Word before recording it (I still never get it right on the first try, but I’d argue that anyone who does is superhuman). Same thing can apply for a live phone call, or an in person conversation. Calling an admission office may be a departure from a student’s comfort with text messaging. Communicating about themselves and their questions in the admission process may be an even bigger departure from anything they’ve ever done. So, when they’re about to call, or we’re about to meet at a college fair, it’s okay to write notes down. It’s okay to help them practice. Speak with them, not for them, and they’ll grow.

When They’re Unengaged

I distinctly remember wandering the gym floor during a college fair at my school and grabbing a few obligatory pamphlets in colors I liked, but not talking to a soul—an ironic twist of fate for someone who now stands on the other side of the table! I wasn’t nervous, and I wanted to go to college, I just had no idea what I was doing so I checked out.

If you’re speaking on behalf of your student because they seem unengaged, it might be worth a pause to find out why. It may not be because of lack of interest. Are they unnerved by the application or at the prospect of rejection? Maybe they’re overwhelmed or frustrated by it all.

Again, it might seem easier to take over, but the we’s enable a student to check out of the process. After all, we’ve got it handled, right? Sure, your email or phone message is intended for the college admission recipient, but the choice of pronoun also communicates a lot to your student.

Consider bringing them into the mix and encourage manageable conversations with current students and peers who may seem more approachable and can raise their confidence.  An appointment with their college counselor can demystify the process, or a quiet self-guided visit to a local college can help them see the big picture without becoming overwhelmed.

When They’re Busy

Students are busy. Period, end. Last year our supplemental essay asked students to share their typical day, and many leave home long before the sun rises and return long after the sun sets. In other words, their availability is the exact opposite of admission offices across the country. And understandably, sometimes an email or phone call just can’t wait until the next time you sit down together between 6am robotics and 7pm ravioli.

If this sounds familiar, consider CC’ing your student on the next email you send to a college. It’ll help keep them in the loop so they can jump back in when things slow down, and it enables me as an admission counselor to address both of you in my response.

When there’s a little more flexibility in their schedule, consider making a small reoccurring admission appointment on your weekly calendars. You can honor that appointment as distraction-free time to sit down, work on applications, answer questions, and communicate together. Scheduling a regular time to talk ensures the college “to-dos” won’t get lost or overpower the countless other “to-dos” going on that week.

We.

United has been privileged to have excellent coaches. They’re involved, and they’ve given their players the best shot at success without actually stepping out onto the field. As a parent, you’ll be involved too—the admission process is a family process, and there will be a lot of “’we’s.”  But plainly put, we can’t admit you, the parent.

To be clear: there is no problem with parents contacting admission offices. In fact, it’s very normal! My hope is simply that, overall, we all be mindful not to exclude a student from their journey and to engage them if they struggle to do so on their own. Recognize and celebrate your student’s achievements as such (she got X on the SAT vs we got X, he was admitted vs we were admitted… you get the point). Include them, trust them, and empower them as an adult with your language, and they’ll mature as an adult through their actions. And when you step back and let your child lead, you may be surprised to learn what they truly want, discover the complexities of who they’ve grown to be, and, fingers crossed, you just might grow a whole lot closer as a team. Admissions, United.

Sammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for four years. A newly-minted southerner, she moved to Atlanta and joined Georgia Tech two years ago as a senior admission counselor on the first-year admission team. She now uses her millennial-ness and love of working with students, families, and counselors to interact with the GT Admission community through our social media channels. If you’ve gotten this far, send her questions about admission or Netflix recommendations on twitter or Instagram- @gtadmission.

 

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