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.