NEW YORK — With college application deadlines looming, the pressure is on for high school seniors to write the perfect essay.
But what are schools really looking for? And what role should parents play when teens try to sum up their lives in a few hundred words?
Here are some insights from admissions officials at The Ohio State University and at Oberlin College, along with advice from the author of "Write Your College Essay In Less Than a Day."
A good match?
Ohio State, one of the country's biggest schools with 56,000 students on its Columbus campus, gets 26,600 applications a year and admits more than 14,000 students. "When you're getting the volume of applications we do, you put the greatest weight on the high school transcript and performance in high school," said Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions.
But like a lot of colleges, Ohio State also asks applicants to write 300 words on why they are interested in attending.
"Our use of the essay is to try to determine if this is going to be a good match for an institution and a student," Freeman said. "We are a big public research institution, diverse and urban. For the right student, this is the right place. But for some students, it could be overwhelming."
She added that "the essay will never trump the transcript, but it can be the tipping point."
Students who are unable to visit the campus should try to find an online video tour and look at the college website and other material so they can show in their essay that they understand what the school offers and why it's a good match.
As for the 300-word limit, Freeman says, "Most of my faculty and admissions professionals are not sure that any 17-year-old has much more than 300 well-thought-out words to say on any topic. Make your point and be done. Organize your thoughts, make your statement and defend it. Why would this be a place that could help you be successful?"
What about the parent's role? "I'm fine with a student running the app past mom or dad, saying, 'Does this look correct to you? Am I saying things that seem right about who I am?'" Freeman said. "We're very concerned about the student who finishes at 1 a.m. and hits send without anybody looking at that app in the light of day."
On the other hand, parents must not be so over-involved that they write the essay. One year, Ohio State asked applicants to suggest a course they might add to their high school curriculum if they were principal. One writer suggested an advanced biology course, adding something like, "If my son had such a course, he would be in better shape."
"It couldn't have been more blatant" that the applicant's parent had written the essay, Freeman said.
Looking for a human
Oberlin College, also located in Ohio, is a small private school with 2,900 students. Oberlin received 6,000 applications last year, admitted a third and enrolled 700. Like hundreds of other schools, Oberlin uses the online Common Application, which includes six essay choices on topics like writing about someone who's had an influence on you or discussing an issue of personal, local, national or international concern. Oberlin also has a supplemental essay with a theme found on many apps: "Given your interests, values, and goals, explain why Oberlin College will help you grow (as a student and a person) during your undergraduate years."
"It is a way for our admissions committee members to get a sense of fit between the applicant and Oberlin, and allows us to envision how this applicant may become part of the fabric of our community," said Debra Chermonte, Oberlin's dean of admissions and financial aid.
She said admissions officers "aren't looking for perfection in 17- and 18-year-olds. We are looking for the human being behind the roster of activities and grades. We are looking for students who love to learn, whose investment in ideas and words tell us that they are aware of their world beyond their own homes, schools, grades and scores."
Essays also demonstrate writing skills. "We also want to see that a student is able to write that first paper for a freshman seminar while avoiding careless mistakes that will drive faculty crazy," Chermonte said. Parents, she added, "can be great critics and editors." In one essay Oberlin received, an applicant professed admiration for Julie Taymor, an Oberlin grad who created "The Lion King" musical. Unfortunately, the applicant spelled it as "The Loin King," an error that a parent proofreader might have caught.
Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, author of "Write Your College Essay in Less Than a Day" (Random House, $15), says the hardest part of writing a college essay is finding the right topic.
"Everyone has stories to tell, and you don't have to be the top student to have a great story," said Wissner-Gross, whose website is EducationalStrategy.org. "If you find that you're laboring over it, it probably isn't the right story. If it's the right story, then you'll be dying to tell it and it'll be fun to write."
She added: "The main thing colleges want to know is why they should accept you. You want your essay to tell them that as directly as possible."
Depending on the topic, "the best way to do it is to tell a real story that gives them one slice of your life rather than trying to summarize your life in 500 words. Think of a good story that shows your greatest achievement so far. It doesn't have to be that you cured cancer or published a novel. It could be an act of compassion or community service, or something related to a job, or how you dealt with a challenge or a hardship growing up."
Wissner-Gross says a typical five-paragraph, 500-word college essay "starts with the climax of the story — the most exciting or most confusing part of the story or the challenge." The second paragraph tells "who, what, when, where, how and why." The third paragraph continues the story. The fourth paragraph includes your credentials, and the fifth should "tie it all together" with a happy ending, punch line, moral or summation of "why I want to study this in college."
But students must keep the focus on themselves. "It shouldn't be a story they observed, but rather a story in which they played a central or pivotal role and saved the day or solved the problem." The essay should "show that you've grown through the experience."
Parents can help kids brainstorm essay topics. But avoid tales from early childhood, Wissner-Gross said.
She cautioned that "if a child is afraid to show the parent the essay, that's a light bulb. A lot of kids will use this opportunity to confess all their worst misdeeds. It's not a good idea."
While parents should proofread essays, their bigger role starts in ninth grade, by making sure teens have extracurricular activities, whether sports, clubs, work or volunteering.
Students who have the hardest time writing essays, Wissner-Gross says, are the "kids who have such outrageously sheltered lives that they never experience anything."