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The Holy Grail of College Admissions – The Essay

Helping Kids Write Essays for College Admissions

I was reading an essay about the college essay in the Time magazine and decided to share my experience as a mother of a High school senior in the middle of her application process. When we were in High school in India, we didn’t have much choice- we science students could choose to do Engineering or Medicine or God forbid, pure sciences. Those of us who happened to be good students in High school had no choice- we had to do Engineering or Medicine even if we were not remotely interested in those disciplines. So I chose Engineering because I was squeamish about blood and set about preparing for the IIT entrance exam called the JEE which was the holy grail of all entrance exams. To cut a long story short, I did not make it to the IITs but after a short though somewhat arduous (in those days) process, made it to the next best- an REC.

My parents were not even vaguely involved in this process, as far as I can remember. My brother who got through JEE was a somewhat reluctant guide in the process, and I somehow bungled my way through- luckily for us in India in those days, colleges outside the purview of entrance exams did not look at anything but grades and I had impeccable grades in school. So there ended the admission process- cut to the present: 30 odd years later, when my younger daughter is applying to college (the story of my older daughter’s admission is now passé as she has already graduated from college and is a respectable member of the work-force and I am not allowed to make fun of her).

So Akshita is a High school senior applying to colleges in the US of A and the US of A only (for reasons best known to her and having something to do with a ‘liberal arts’ education, she is not applying elsewhere as the US of A is the Mecca for liberal arts). Her grades are very good, she has exemplary extra-curricular activities, she has reasonable test scores (but so do several students from her school ) and she has picked a list of somewhat exclusive schools, though not in the HPY league (ha ha figure that out) but still exclusive enough, where the admission process is highly ‘selective’, as they call it. So, the yardstick to differentiate themselves from the other hundreds (or thousands) who are competing for the same spot is the admissions essay- or so they are naively led to believe.

The essay writing thought process begins approximately a year before the actualWriting Essays for College Application writing. The students start mulling over topics for about a year- how do I sound bright, smart and witty without coming across as an arrogant know it-all is the dilemma they face. Parents suggestions on topics are welcome but will be accepted grudgingly or sneeringly, because, hey, you never went through this- you are a lame loser who copped out and did Engineering when all you were interested in was Journalism. We even spent huge bucks a year ago and she attended a summer program on Creative writing in an Ivy league college. To this day, I do not know what she learnt at this course except that she has 50 more friends on Facebook. Whether the course actually helped her in her essay writing is a mystery to me because she gets very indignant when I ask her about it. Anyway, armed with this summer program, she mulled over the essay for about a year and started writing it this summer.

There are some topics which are no-no: travel experiences, as they do not reflect your character, but only your upbringing; project work, as thousands will be writing about them; community service, as you will seem like you are trying too hard to impress and several more of that ilk which make one seem like a very accomplished, yet very humble person. You have to impress but without seeming to do so. Her first attempt was about her experience at the Harry Potter premiere at Trafalgar Square this summer and much to her chagrin, her counselor ripped it to shreds as she thought it was too ‘fluffy’. I actually thought it was quite cute, but apparently I am clueless. After debating over whether to write about her experience taking part in the 10K segment of a marathon; about being a teen Yoga enthusiast; about her long and arduous Hindustani vocal training, all of which were shot down by the counselor, she decided to write about her theatre experience in school.

She wrote a wonderful piece about her experience doing improvisation- there was a lot of back and forth between me and her (my editing skills are valued even if my ideas are not) and the final essay, after much whittling down (500 words, remember) was submitted. The counselor approved and it went into the Common Application form. And it has been submitted to College no: 1 for early decision. While we await the decision, she is preparing for the regular deadlines. She is a very conscientious child and never indulges in procrastination and according to me, Universities should fall over themselves for kids like her, but I am an indulgent mom and there are many like her competing for the few coveted spots. As she prepares for her regular deadline submissions, I am keeping my fingers crossed hoping she gets what she wants.

Time will tell- meanwhile, I am glad I am parent now, I love this involvement and the sharing of joys (and angst) and am vicariously living through this whole admissions process that I never went through!

Also Read : College Applications: The Personal Essay: Tips


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Renuka Vaidyanathan, an erstwhile finance professional, opted out of the corporate rat race and now likes to think that she wears many interesting hats. She is an events’ organiser in the cultural space and also writes every now and then about people, places and events. She is an avid advocate of 'green living' and dabbles in some sitar-playing as well, albeit as an amateur.

3 thoughts on “The Holy Grail of College Admissions – The Essay

  1. Sukanya

    Very well written Renuka! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this especially since I am going through a very similar experience with my daughter:)). Looks like teens are the same whichever part of the world they are in and mothers too…

  2. Gayatri

    Good article, Renuka – definitely struck a very loud chord! I really don’t know how a teenager is supposed to have these life-altering and ‘deep’ experiences that will shine through this all-important essay….

  3. Kritika

    Interesting article Renuka. And you will be surprised to hear that in the upcoming issue of our magazine, our “Education Across the Seas” article actually talks about the preparation and steps involved in applying to a university abroad, including the all-important essay! You may find this of interest and relevant.


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