How to Write a Private High School Application Essay Worth Reading

by / Tuesday, 31 October 2017 / Published in Private Schools, SSAT, Test Prep, Writing

high school application essay image 1If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember:

Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.

Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.

But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.

Remember Your Private High School Application Essay Audience

The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is. Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.

This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before. It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.

high school application essay image 2

One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you.  You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.

But all too often students, especially in the application process, forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.

The Importance of the Essay Topic

What is the root of this cause? The topic.

If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.

So, how do we accomplish this?

It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.

Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.

“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”

Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”

While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.

What Your Topic Should Be Instead

When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”

Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.

So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.

The Essay’s Opening Paragraph

Don’t believe me?

Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?

1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”

2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”

Next Steps: Your Perfect Admissions Essay

Okay now you have the framework.

First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.

Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.

Good luck! And let us know what you think in the comments below.

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32 Responses to “How to Write a Private High School Application Essay Worth Reading”

  1. John Kim says : Reply

    Thank you!!!

  2. Thomas Connor says : Reply

    Great advice. Thank you!

  3. Daniela Rodriguez says : Reply

    Not helpful. Doesn’t explain the key components of a good essay, only gave examples of a good introduction and who is reading your essay.

    • Ann Dolin says : Reply

      Hi Daniela – thanks for your feedback!

      Just to clarify: our intention with the post was to provide some high-level guidelines, that paired with standard best practices for essay writing would help to produce an admissions essay that stands out from the crowd in a way that most students’ essays don’t. And the introduction example was more-so to illustrate those points rather than instruction on how to write the introduction itself.

      That being said, we’d be happy to consider expanding the post to include some more tactical elements like you’re referring to, or at least provide our favorite references for high quality essay writing. Do you have any specific recommendations?

      Thanks again!

  4. Randolph Smith says : Reply

    Yeah, It needs to take about how to write the actually essay itself.

  5. just to clarify, an application essay doesn’t have to be written about one specific thing? anything out of the norm?

    • Ann Dolin says : Reply

      Correct! As long as your essay still follows general best practices for a high school essay, the more interesting or unique the topic the better.

  6. potato says : Reply

    Hi! So I’m applying to Cardinal Spellman and they want to know why I want to go to the school. One of the things that I am most interested in is Drama and Art, and also creative writing. Have any ideas about how to start the essay?

    • Ann Dolin says : Reply

      Is there anything you’ve experienced or accomplished in Drama or Art that you could talk about? Are there any books or plays or movies that are particularly inspiring for you and have changed your life in some way? The best place to start is with your own experience, so see if you can brainstorm some ideas around those.

      Hope that helps!

  7. Ron says : Reply

    Hi, I was wondering how i should start my essay. I am applying in engineering.

  8. Quincy says : Reply

    What format do you suggest we use

  9. Brooke says : Reply

    Do you think a good topic would be suicide and mental health or is that too much?

  10. What should I do if they were to say “if one of your friends asked you why you wanted to go to this school a what would you say” please help me.

  11. Amy says : Reply

    Thanks for the advice!
    One question: are you allowed to write your essay in a letter format? I would want to write my essay starting with
    “Dear Future Self,”
    is that okay?

    • Joe says : Reply

      It’s an entrance essay, not a letter to yourself. If, you want to write a letter to yourself, don’t make it your entrance essay.

  12. Catherine says : Reply

    how many words should each answer for a question be including the writing sample/essay?

  13. chloe says : Reply

    What should the end of an essay be about?

  14. Mya says : Reply

    Hi there, I am applying for an environmental program. They give us prompts for each mini essay, so I don’t know how to make mine stand out! I feel like I’m repeating myself! Thanks

  15. Gio says : Reply

    Hi, my name is Gio and I am applying for High Tech High and they want to know why I want to join. I’m really interested into arts and crafts. Just do it in my own yime, but I’m really good. And I need help writing the 5 paragraph essay. Any help/tips??

  16. Gio says : Reply

    Hi I’m applying for High Tech High and they want to know why I want tonjoin, and I need a lot of help. I love arts (drawing) and crafts (origami). Any help????

  17. An Anonymous person says : Reply

    Hi, i’m writing for the Knox Scholarship, any tips?

  18. weihua says : Reply

    Thank you for the very helpful article. I forwarded it to my daughter who is struggling with her applicant statement.

  19. Joshua says : Reply

    i am confused on which of the two sample is better. They both look too wordy and the second one seems to be braggy.

  20. Student says : Reply

    Hello, I am applying for the Scholars Academy, known as the most rigorous school in the district, and the first question asks why I think I am a good fit for the school. I do not want to give a common, generic response. How do I make my answer stand out?

  21. Janna Dantuono says : Reply

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  22. Aarav Rekhi says : Reply

    How would it impact the essay if we put in what we’re interested in and how the particular school we’re applying to can help us in achieving it?

  23. Maddy Anna says : Reply

    I’m applying for a scholarship at a private school. (1) would this advice apply to this situation? (2) I’m only allowed to write a 300-word essay about myself, how can I make sure to get all the information they need about me but also seem original and stand out in such a short essay?

    I would really like a reply but I know that this was posted a while ago. so, i don’t think it’s going to happen… ;-;

    thanks to anyone who does happen to reply!!

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