Writing High School Application Essays

By PALNYC Guest Writer Nicole C. Kear

Part of what binds us New Yorkers together is shared dread. We dread the train being re-routed when we’re in a rush. We dread the traffic disaster that is the Five Borough Bike Tour. And we dread the NYC high school application process.

I’m not here to tell you not to dread it. I’ve been through it twice – once for myself, a long, long time ago, and just recently for my son, who’s entering ninth grade in the fall. It is, as advertised, a time-sucking, stress-inducing, befuddling pain. That said, if you are open to being astounded, the array of high school choices in these five boroughs will astound you. Want to specialize in marine biology? Take your pick of programs. Want to study opera during your school day?  There’s a school for that. Want a planetarium on the top floor? No problem. It can be easy to take the diversity of choices for granted, but, truly, it’s incredible. There were moments I even managed to feel grateful for the experience. I’ve never seen so much of New York City, and I’ve lived here all my life. It’s not all bad, is my point.

One of the parts of the application process that’s not so bad — that might, in a different context, even be kind of cool — is the personal essay. Not a lot of schools ask for an essay but the schools that do are some of the most popular and competitive ones. Now, I’m a memoir-writer and memoir-writing professor, so I may be biased, but this was the part of the process that excited me. And while I couldn’t even begin to explain the DOE algorithm that places kids in schools (trust me, I’ve tried), I do know a thing or two about telling personal stories. So, if your kids are applying to schools that ask for personal essays, here’s the advice I’d like to offer.

1. Be real

The essay questions will be varied, but they are generally very open-ended, because what the schools really are looking for is a sense of who your child is as a person, so they can assess what they might bring to the school community and if they’ll be a good fit. Towards that end, it’s a good idea, before starting to write, for your child to answer this question:  what do you genuinely care about? What is a passion that drives you, a dream you strive for, an issue you can’t stop thinking about?

If this stumps your child, come at it from this angle: what do you think is cool about you – or what would someone who knows you well say is cool about you? There’s an exercise I like to do with my memoir-writing students which is helpful here, too. The renowned essayist Philip Lopate suggests that when writing about the self, we should start with your quirks — those unusual traits or idiosyncrasies that set us apart from the rest. For my son, this was his esoteric and old-fashioned musical tastes. In my college applications, I wrote about my love of Edward Scissorhands. my obsession with the Vietnam War and my passion for sesquipedalian words. It’s just a way of getting to something honest and authentic about who we are.

A word of warning. Your child should resist the temptation to answer the question: what’s impressive about you? In a process as competitive as this one, with so many candidates vying for the same seats, there is, of course, the temptation to highlight accomplishments and use the essay as an extended resume. The problem is, this pushes readers away, and what the essay should do is pull them in. It also usually gets in the way of communicating who you uniquely are — resumes, typically, sound very much the same.

2.Get personal 

The essay is a way for schools to get to know your child, so it’s important that they write it in their voice. The writing style shouldn’t be too formal, or overly polished and they should avoid the temptation to use lots of big words they wouldn’t ordinarily use. Neither, of course, should it be overly casual and read like an Instagram post. Ideally, what you want is a slightly elevated conversational tone. Whether your child’s voice is wry, earnest, reflective, or high-energy, the essay should reflect that.

Urge your child to open up, be honest, and get a little personal. I’m not talking about a scandalous tell-all — a little authenticity goes a long way. This isn’t always the easiest thing for 13-year-olds to do (more on this in a minute) so It may take a few revisions to get to something personal. Along those lines, your child shouldn’t be afraid to write about a time they screwed up, a time they were embarrassed, a low point. These are frequently the times when we grow the most and often provide powerful glimpses into who we are.

3. Be specific

This is the foundation of all strong writing – show, don’t tell. Whatever the essay question is, have your child choose a specific story or anecdote to anchor their answer. If the question is, what’s an extracurricular activity you care about?, and they want to write about soccer, they should pick a specific moment in a specific game in which they learned something or transformed in some way. They should paint the scene using lots of details. We, as readers, want to feel the temperature that day on the field, want to smell the grass, want to hear the voices in the stands. We want access to your feelings and the thoughts running through your head. We want to feel like it’s happening to us.

4. Show growth

The story you pick should be one that shows some kind of growth or transformation. Your child’s ability to be self-aware about their own evolution is a sign of maturity and having that kind of insight is something many schools value. It’s also essential to any good piece of personal writing. If the experience didn’t change you in some way, why are we reading about it? It doesn’t have to be a big, dramatic change – in fact, some of the best essays are written about small moments – but afterwards, the writer should be different than they were before.

It’s not rocket science, but writing a strong and memorable personal essay does take time and work. Something that hasn’t changed in the years since we went to middle school is this: social survival often necessitates the donning of a sturdy suit of armor.   It’s something young teens get habituated to, and it’s not always easy for them to shed.  To tell true, it’s not an easy process for any of us, even those that have left adolescence far behind. That said, I think it can be incredibly gratifying. No matter how old you are, it is liberating to tell your story, and be heard.



About Nicole C. Kear
Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (St. Martin’s Press), chosen as a Must-Read by People, AmazonMartha Stewart LivingParade, Redbook, and Marie Claire UK among others. Her six-book series for children, The Fix-It Friends, was published by Macmillan Kids’ Imprint, and she’s currently writing a three-book series, with Brian Weisfeld, The Startup Squad, to be published by Imprint in May of 2019. Her essays appear in the New York TimesGood HousekeepingNew YorkPsychology TodayParents, as well as Salon, the Huffington Post and xoJane. She teaches non-fiction writing at Columbia University and the NYU School of Professional Studies.

A native of New York,  she received a BA from Yale, a MA from Columbia, and a red nose from the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. She  lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three children and ridiculously fluffy teddy bear hamster.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: