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The College Conversation: Juniors, start that college essay now

June 18, 2010|Lisa McLaughlin

While school is almost out for summer, there's one "class" that's just begun for incoming seniors. It will take all the energy they can muster. It will take courage. Demand patience. Require the art of self-discipline. Jog the memory. Encourage risk-taking. And test confidence.

In College Essays 101, your teenager will need to condense the past 17 years of his or her life into 500 words or less.

For some, it will be the first time they'll be forced to reflect on what matters, what's shaped them, and the experiences that have meant the most to them. They must also glimpse into the future — what they want to achieve and who they want to become. This can be intimidating.

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On top of that, what the students discover will be shared with complete strangers: the admissions officers who have 20 minutes to get to know them without ever meeting them. They might need to share what they would not tell their best friend.

Students will need to master the art of self-discipline. Nightly homework will not be assigned;they'll need to figure out what to do and set their own pace.

There will be times when their muse won't speak to them. The words won't flow from pen to paper. Inspiration will come at odd hours, as they wait for the surf to roll in, drive to school, listen to their iPods. Everyone writes at a different pace, but no one writes a successful personal essay the night before it's due.

Their judgment will be tested. Some topics will be blatantly inappropriate to an outside reader. The student's first draft may be therapeutic, but certainly not the final version. And, while the essay should read like a story, with anecdotes and in narrative form, students must separate truth from fiction. Now's not the time to tell little white lies. Honesty and integrity matter.

The student's personality must ooze from the page because the admissions officers will review thousands of essays, sometimes at midnight after a day of traveling. Hopefully, the reader will laugh, shed a tear, smile, or sigh.

And once the final product is submitted, they won't get feedback for months. If they've expressed frustration over that teacher who takes weeks to return exams and papers, this waiting game can be excruciating.

Encourage your teen to start the essays this summer, when they have fewer academic responsibilities. Expect that they will struggle.

Embrace their highs and lows along the way. They may not realize this now, but College Essays 101 will be their most gratifying course to date.

Class of 2011, enroll now or you'll feel overwhelmed come September.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder of a college admission counseling firm. Her column runs on Saturdays.

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