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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Student Essays for Middle and High School Essays

How is applying to middle school or high school different than kindergarten? The student plays a more active role. Among the biggest time commitments are the student essays. 

Basic Guidelines for Essays 

Student’s Work. The essays must be the student’s work. While you can provide feedback, directly editing your student’s essays (yourself, AI, or through a tutor) will backfire. All schools take a writing sample, whether as a shared proctored writing test or during a visit to the school. The application essays must match the writing sample in terms of skill and style, or the application will be flagged. Some schools also use AI checkers to verify the source of the essay.

Tell a Story. The essays should paint a picture by recalling an event or a story. For instance, if asked what they enjoy in their spare time, rather than listing everything they do on the weekend, they should pick one or two favorite pastimes and describe doing them. The essays are the main way that a school can learn about their personalities, which is easier to do by reading about an experience.

Genuine Interests. Every essay should reflect the student’s true interests or passions. Schools can spot gimmicks because they don’t resonate. For example, if a student writes that their passion is volunteering or a social issue that they think admissions will care about, but in the essay they show little knowledge or excitement about the topic, the school will not be impressed. Similarly, during the interview, the student will often need to describe the passion, and if they are not truly educated or enthused about the topic, it will be obvious.

Answer the Question. A common issue, students write about a parallel topic but not the question asked. For instance, the question asks what is their passion, and the student explains in detail about how computer scientists create programs instead of why computer science is their passion. 

Student Independence. During middle and high school, the parent's job is to step back and allow their student to grow. By giving the student more responsibility in the application process, you help them learn to take responsibility. When a parent nags, helicopter, or gets too detailed, it will usually backfire.

Essay Writing Process

When I work with reluctant writers, I break down the writing into phases. This makes it less overwhelming and more manageable for the students.

Brainstorm Topics. First, I ask the student to brainstorm potential topics, up to 10 or 20 ideas. During this phase, I tell them not to criticize themselves or evaluate each topic. Instead, throw down anything they can think of that applies to the topic. This allows us to get ideas on paper.

Narrow Down to Top Three Topics. Next, the student picks three topics that they like the best, considering which topics resonate with them personally and feel true to themselves. At this point, they should spend a few days creating bullet points about each of the three topics that they could write about, ideally five points per topic. When creating these bullet points, they often will discard a topic and move onto another one, and this is a natural part of the process. 

Draft Essay for One Topic. After creating bullet points for three topics, one topic will usually stand out as something that your student both cares about and has something to say. This is the time to tell a story, to write in a way that can paint a picture, so that the reader sees things through the student’s eyes. Don’t worry about transitional words or perfect word choice, just about setting the narrative.

Polish the Essay. At the editing stage, you can give feedback like, “add a transitional word,” but do not directly edit the essay for the student. It is, of course, tempting, but then the essay will not reflect the student's writing or match the writing sample taken onsite. 

Role of a K-12 Consultant 

Most importantly, by hiring a consultant, a parent can preserve their relationship with their child. A consultant can directly work with your child to brainstorm, draft, and edit their own essays. The consultant can provide feedback on whether the essays read as genuine and how to shine during the application process. 

Want more input on K-12 schools?

Vicky consults with families to help select, apply to, and communicate with public and private schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Vicky maintains a principle of non-judgment. Hourly, VIP, and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, essays, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability. 

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools, and have received both accommodations and curriculum changes; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.

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