Editor's Note: I am most grateful to Kate Fisher, who is an expert in admissions essays with Noodle Pros, for explaining how to handle the inevitable essay portion of your child's private school admissions application. ~Rob
If your child is applying to a private middle school or high school, he or she will likely have to write an admissions essay. It is important to remember that this is not a college admissions essay, which means that the standards used to assess your child’s writing ability are lower. However, this also means that it’s much easier for admissions officers to quickly identify essays that a parent, teacher, or tutor has had too heavy a hand in.
It is extremely difficult to disguise adult involvement in an essay that is supposed to be written by a child applying to middle school or high school. You may feel uncomfortable allowing your child to submit his or her essay without reading it over. If you choose to help him or her by proofreading or editing it, remember to make sure the language, syntax, and sentence structure remain age-appropriate. No private school admissions officer expects a rising sixth grader to write as well as an award-winning novelist, let alone a college-educated adult.
The best way to ensure the success of your child’s admissions essay is to show how to choose the right essay. Most private schools ask applicants to choose one prompt from a list of several. Helping your child brainstorm which topic to write about is a great way for you to be involved without heavily editing or actually writing the essay. When helping your child select a prompt, try to gauge which topic appeals the most. If none of the topics spark excitement which happens more often than not, try to determine what kind of prompt will best help showcase your child's personality.
While the list of prompts is long, most fall under a few broader categories, which I have listed below with some prompts I have seen over the past few years.
Prompts encouraging writing about others.
Who do you admire? If you were to develop a Mount Rushmore of the 21st Century, which four individuals would be represented and why?
The world's governments have decided to put a permanently manned colony on Mars. You are part of the advisory committee planning the settlement. You may select four people to live in the colony. What characteristics or skills would you want them to have to be able to influence the new Martian society?
Tell us about a fictional character in literature, comic books, film or television that you admire. What are the traits that this individual exhibits that make them worthy of your admiration?
The first two prompts are easy to translate into a straightforward essay structure, i.e., introduction, body paragraphs for each of the four individuals, and conclusion. But neither offers the applicant the opportunity to reveal very much about him or herself. In fact, most students choose the same people - Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appear on nine out of ten essays of this ilk that I have read - or people with similar roles - Steve Jobs and Bill Gates also show up on many essays with prompts like these.
While the fictional character prompt may seem fun, students often get distracted by providing context in terms of plot and don’t fully answer the question. Try to steer your child away from topics that encourage writing about other people.
Prompts which encourage writing about you.
What is the relationship between your life in school and your life outside of school?
Tell us about your best experience in school and your best experience out of school. What made each of them the best?
Of all of the things you are learning, what do you think will be the most useful when you are an adult?
What do you do in your extracurricular life that demonstrates a commitment to learning beyond the classroom?
These prompts all ask the applicant to relate his or her life in school to life outside of school. This allows the student to provide a more holistic view of who they are, not just in the classroom, but also in extracurricular pursuits. If your child knows what clubs or activities he or she wants to pursue in middle school or high school, topics in this category are a great choice.
Prompts requiring thoughtful, specific responses.
Who are you? You're writing the story of your life so far. What's the title? Why?
If your family had its own flag, what would be on it? If you had your own personal flag, would it be different from your family's flag? In what way?
Describe something you're hoping for, and discuss the obstacles or difficulties that must be overcome if this goal is to be achieved, either by you or by others.
Prompts like these can be a bit overwhelming for some students, and indeed for many adults given the almost existential quality of some of the questions in this category. It is difficult for a student applying to sixth grade to know what the title of the story of his or her life is so far. If your child chooses to write an essay on a prompt that describes who they are in the grand scheme of the world at large, make sure that the response stays specific rather than general.
Regardless of the topic your child chooses to write about, the essay is only one element of what is a highly-involved application replete with test scores, teacher recommendations, and on-site interviews. Try to present this writing assignment as a fun exercise which allows your child to showcase his or her personality, thereby standing out from the other applicants.
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