Tucked away at the back of many college applications is a blank page headed with a benign invitation to "tell us about yourself." A part of the admissions process since the post-World War II explosion in college enrollment, the essay or personal statement began as a gauge of student enthusiasm ("Why in particular do you wish to attend Bates College?"). Over the years, it has been called upon to do other work: to capture how the applicant thinks; to reveal how he or she writes; to uncover information about values, spirit, personality, passions, interests, and maturity.
My interest in the essay derives from the two decades I spent teaching English in New Jersey public high schools. I met many students who, despite years of exposure to a solid language-arts curriculum, saw the essay as an unlimited opportunity to "get it wrong." A frequent reaction was "I've never done anything like this before!"
I began to study the essay questions that colleges ask, and the processes students use to answer them. Later work as an associate director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College gave me insight into how colleges train readers of applications, develop their questions, and evaluate the results. But I continued to wonder what colleges thought they were evaluating, and whether students accurately understood that evaluative process.
In 1998, with the help of a student at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, I gathered data about those matters. Then, during the last academic year, with a grant from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, I was able to look particularly at the experience of students with fewer resources at home and in their schools. I wanted to know if the essay, a high-stakes test in its own right, put those students at an additional disadvantage.
My first question was "How important is the essay?" Admissions officers said it was "somewhat important." That was the case at the majority of the colleges I surveyed -- public, private, large, small, highly selective, and less selective. Students, however, thought the essay was "very important." Their estimation may account for another survey finding: Although admissions officers thought that students devoted, on average, four hours to writing the essay, students reported devoting 10 hours.
But different admissions officers put essays to work in different ways: to judge the basic skills of borderline applicants, to check for grade inflation on the transcript, to establish appropriate fit ("We are a Christian university that only admits students who possess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ"), and to differentiate among similarly qualified applicants. On average, the essay may not matter as much as an applicant's standardized-test scores or grade-point average. In an individual case, however, the essay can be crucial. A student's essay may not figure prominently in her application to College B, where her numbers are impressive. But at College A -- a more ambitious choice -- her essay may set her apart from other applicants and get her in. If an essay can do that, it is probably worth 10 hours of effort.
My second question was "How is the essay evaluated?" I knew that students felt comfortable writing about the most significant event in the life of Jay Gatsby. But many felt ill at ease when asked about the most significant event in their own lives. Even those eager to share with the University of Pennsylvania Page 217 of their imagined 300-page autobiography weren't convinced that their response should influence their academic future.
Those who said "I've never done anything like this before!" were right on two counts: They had rarely written personal narratives, and they had never been judged on their ability to do so. Were the rules for the application essay the same as for an essay in a high-school class?
For the most part, the answer to that question appears to be yes. Admissions officers, counselors, teachers, and students in my survey rated what matters most in an application essay. All four groups agreed that the most important criteria are correctness, organization, specific evidence, and an individual style.
Admissions officers cherish the image of a student who writes her essay in her attic bedroom and then runs directly to the mailbox with the finished product. So I asked high-school seniors if anyone had helped them with their essays -- and if so, who. I found that nearly every student had some help with the essay.
Parents turned out to be the most important advisers. Counselors were sometimes significant -- for example, 100 percent of the seniors at a highly selective private school recorded assistance from a counselor. But even for students whose schools provided substantial institutional help, parents were important. English teachers, outside as well as in class, were the next most common resource.
At high schools where many seniors go on to four-year colleges, students were particularly likely to turn to their parents for help. Seventy percent reported getting help from their parents, 60 percent from an English teacher, and 58 percent from a counselor. At high schools where more seniors headed to two-year colleges than to four-year institutions, 32 percent of the students I surveyed said their parents were their primary helpers.
Parents' race, first language, and level of education influence how much help they give their children with the essay. For example, only one-quarter of my respondents from bilingual homes turned to parents for help, while three-quarters of the students whose parents' first language was English did so. In one suburban high school with nearly equal numbers of students of color and white students, white students were 1.5 times as likely to use parental help as were students of color. On average, students of color reported two sources of help; white students reported three.
How important is the kind of help that parents provide? Most essays ask applicants for personal narrative and reflection, which means that students need advisers who know them well and who can bring mature objectivity to the conversation. Logically, parents come first. Then perhaps a coach, teacher, or friend. A counselor may qualify at a small private school, but probably not at a large, public high school where more than 200 students share each counselor. The focus groups I conducted with English teachers reinforced my impression that students want help with the thinking, not the writing.
Students who do not or cannot collaborate with their parents in the essay process, then, are missing more than a fact checker or a proofreader. They are missing a research librarian, a database, a source of conversation about their lives and plans and hopes that can't be supplied in the counseling office. The bad news is that not all students find someone to give them that kind of reflective input. The good news is that parents of students with little in-school guidance can be of enormous help.
Level of education, first language, race, and even socioeconomic level do not diminish a parent's potential value as a source of advice on the essay. Almost all adults are better than teenagers at assessing the meaning of the common challenges of adolescence: the season on the bench, the bad teacher, the disloyal friend. They know and care about their children.
Parents who are unfamiliar with the college-application process or who feel unqualified to help may not offer advice. Unfortunately, students whose parents did not go to college are also likely to attend schools without adequate counseling; thus, they are at a double disadvantage.
A couple of recommendations. Admissions officers and high-school teachers need to talk more. Students are asking teachers -- especially English teachers -- to help them with college applications. Admissions officers need to give the teachers a fuller understanding of the role of the essay, how it is evaluated, and what kind of assistance they can ethically give. Equally, teachers must show admissions-staff members how much effort students put into their essays. If admissions officers occasionally scheduled their visits to high schools to coincide with teachers' in-service training or faculty meetings, they could share useful information.
Even more critical, schools should prepare parents to help their children with the essay. Back-to-school nights at high schools could offer presentations to the parents of seniors about getting started on the essay; some sample questions and a word or two from the chairman of the English department would suffice. (Please, no models -- they just intimidate everyone.) Counselors' meetings with students and parents together should also address the essay, asking the students for preliminary ideas and about what they want to convey. Parents -- regardless of their education or fluency in English -- will have useful ideas of their own.
As an applicant's best chance to plead his or her own case, the essay is a valuable piece in the admissions puzzle. Students need the advice of someone who knows them well to put together a convincing case, and parents are great resources, with their firsthand information about and commitment to their children. We need to make sure that all parents know how they can help.
Sarah Myers McGinty is a university supervisor in the undergraduate teacher-education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was an associate director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of The College Application Essay (College Entrance Examination Board, 1997), a revised edition of which is forthcoming this year.