Fans of This American Life, a weekly public radio show broadcast, might have recently heard Episode 504: “How I Got into College.” One of the show segments featured a college admissions officer from Georgia Institute of Technology talking about some of the most misguided things people do when they’re trying to get into college. No. 1 on the list? He and his team regularly receive phone calls and emails from parents who are pretending to be their own kids — and they can always spot an imposter. How? They throw the words ‘awesome’ or ‘cool’ into the conversation to “feel like they are covering their bases on impersonating a high school student,” noted Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions. “Ironically, I almost never see [those words] in an email from a high school student.”
Duplicitous parents take note: admissions officers are on to you. Lynn Lorenz, a parent from Pennington, N.J., was never tempted to take such measures to help her kids get into college. But she has certainly invested a lot of time into college admissions-related endeavors in the past few years. Lorenz is mom to Karlie, Jeff and Drew, triplets who are seniors at Hopewell Valley Central High School.
The Lorenz gang is currently focused on one big goal: finishing their college admissions essays.
The college essay is a written statement submitted by prospective college students as part of the admissions process. Colleges ask different questions of essay writers – everything from: Why do you want to go to our school? To more abstract topics like, “Why do you like or dislike Wednesday?” It’s fair to say that the Lorenz household has been busy – even chaotic – since this summer when college admissions applications came out and schools began to publish their essay questions. Each Lorenz triplet is applying to at least six schools.
And now, the deadline is near. Lynn Lorenz’s edict: All three teens must have their essays completed by Nov. 1 in order to submit their applications early, rather than wait until mid-January when many schools require them. “The problem with having triplets is that if you are getting all your acceptances and rejections in April, then you only have 30 days to figure out where you’re going (colleges typically need your final decision by May 1),” notes Lynn. “I didn’t want a 30-day window to make all these decisions. By getting in early, you can hear [back from colleges] by December or January.”
So, Karlie, Drew and Jeff have been brainstorming, drafting, deleting, revising and rerevising for weeks on what amounts to 10, 11, even 12 different essays apiece. Some schools require more than one. And while they aren’t always willing to let Mom micromanage the process, they all seem to appreciate her diligence in sticking to a strict schedule since freshman year, when they visited Penn State University for their first campus tour. “I feel like other kids are trying to go on tours, write essays, take SATs and apply in two months,” says Drew. “For us, it helped last year and the years before to get some of it done, so we had more time to focus on the essays.” All that focus has given the triplets insight into what works, and what doesn’t. Here are their top essay-writing tips:
One down, 11 to go. Writer Anne Lamott published Bird by Bird, a how-to guide for other writers. The title of the book comes from a time when her younger brother, then 10, was immobilized by the huge task of writing a report on birds. Their dad instructed him to “Just take it bird by bird.” Karlie’s best advice echoes this approach. “When you first start, you’re looking at a list of essays you have to write and all these prompts. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. I have to write 12 essays! When you set goals, it’s so much easier,” she notes. “Know everything you have to do, and then pick it apart little by little. Finish one essay, then move on.”
A critical eye and a creative spirit. “I write my essay once, then come back to it multiple times and edit it,” says Jeff, whose top school choice is Notre Dame. Building time into the process allows you to get some distance from what you have written, then go back to it to revise on a different day. “I also think it’s important to have a creative writing style,” he adds. Remember, admissions officers are reading hundreds of thousands of essays on the same topics. A unique and creative-writing approach will help you stand out as an applicant. For instance, when Jeff answered one essay question about why he wanted to attend a particular school, his main theme involved the shape of a certain pasta. Not expecting that? Admissions officers likely won’t be either.
Ride the winds of authenticity. Drew loves sailing. Throughout the application process, he often let that passion help to shape his essay answers. “It’s important to show yourself and not what you think the college wants you to say,” says Drew. “If you try to base your essay off something that is really close to your heart, it’s hard not to be authentic. But if you talk about something that isn’t applicable to your life, it’s pretty easy to get off-topic.” For example, University of Pennsylvania applicants are told the following: “While essays are a good indication of how well you write, they are also windows into how you think, what you value, and how you see the world. Your numbers tell us what kind of student you are. Your essays tell us what sort of person you are.”
As this long and twisting college selection and application process winds down, Mom Lynn is brimming with advice. She has guided three different paths, all lit with different interests, personalities, skills and life goals. In general, she says that regardless of how many kids you have, starting early is the key to success. As for the essay: “Take time over the summer to think about what schools you want to apply to and what essays they are asking for,” she suggests. “Brainstorm and put your thoughts on paper. Brainstorming ideas is the most important step. More thought goes into what you’re going to write about, than the time it takes to write it.”
Update: The Lorenz triplets have all started their college careers! Karlie is attending James Madison University, Jeff is a freshman at Penn State University and Drew is settled into the University of Miami.
What does it mean to always be authentic in your college essay? How does that relate to your voice?
Why is it important to revise something you have written?
Research college essay questions. If you can’t find any, here are a few: What is your favorite word and why? As much as things change, they stay the same — Describe what this phrase means to you. How do you go about brainstorming ideas for these questions? Why is this step so very important?