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Private School Admissions Student Essays: What Do I Say?

One of the most stressful parts of the private school admissions process is the looming idea of writing an essay, or even multiple essays. In many ways, the essays make this process feel much like the dreaded college admissions process, even though you may be in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade now. I work with lots of students facing this very challenge, which become especially acute around the holidays. Right now, your fall semester is mostly behind you, you’re close to finished with standardized testing, and the only thing looming between you and a restful holiday break is a stack of essays.

Here are my tips and tricks learned from years of reading admissions essays on the school side of things and from supporting students on the application guidance side of things.

An essay is not your autobiography. You do not need to share everything you have ever done or every aspect of who you are. The goal is to introduce yourself to the admissions committee. Make a few key points and give yourself space to expand on those points.

Your essay should not feel like a list (even of accomplishments). It is tempting — understandably! — to feel like you need to write about everything you have done to demonstrate that you are worthy of admission and ready to take on the next level of school. You probably want to impress the admissions readers. But remember: those readers are people! They’re people who have chosen to work in schools because they love getting to know students. They want to read this essay, so it should feel like an enjoyable read. If they wanted a list of accomplishments, they would have asked for a resume.

Make sure it feels like an essay. Use your best writing skills! Think about transitions and style. You want your essay to reflect your voice, to feel authentic, and be interesting.

Use examples. Even though you DON’T want your essay to read like a resume, you DO want to be concrete. Abstract ideas are a start, but if you want to be memorable, you need to offer a tangible sense of who you are. Writers often use a rule this rule: Show, Don’t Tell. Rather than telling the reader that you are kind, why don’t you share a story when you felt that your kindness made a difference?

Think deeply. This essay is your chance to introduce yourself. Be reflective and thoughtful. A great way to accomplish this kind of reflection is to take a look at every point you are making and ask yourself, “Why?”

If the school asks what kinds of books you like to read, choose a few titles you like and ask yourself if they have anything in common. Maybe you like adventure books, or maybe you like books with great main characters who you can really get to know. That’s the first step. But the second step is “Why?” Why do you like adventure books? Why are great, strong characters appealing to you?” Write a few sentences about the books and then think about adding something that begins with “because.”

Consider your values. While you are thinking deeply about your ‘why’s, make a list of what is important to you. Every school has a sense of its mission as a school. They’re trying to get a sense of your mission as a student and as a young person. Think about what is important to you and then share those thoughts. Maybe you are super-committed to service, so you want to be in a school with lots of opportunities for volunteering and serving your community. Think about what makes you happiest, whether that’s learning, athletics, leadership, the arts, or something else altogether. Whatever it may be, spend some time on it. Sharing your real sense of who you are and what makes you thrive will help the school the reasons you could be such a great student.

The essays or short-answer questions on the private school application can seem daunting. But if you are thoughtful and true to yourself, you’re sure to find a great spot.

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