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Independent School Applications: The Essay
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Independent School Applications: The Essay

Admissions directors offer insight into what makes certain essays stand out.

Gretchen Gallagher has two children applying to local private schools this winter: her 13-year-old twins Frances and Hugh. While the process has added an extra layer of stress to her already high-anxiety household, there is one part of the application that she and her children have found most daunting: the essay.

“It’s hard to know what these schools looking for besides an essay that’s free from obvious punctuation and grammar mistakes,” she said. “Both my husband and I went to public school, so we don’t really know what they mean when they say, ‘Just be yourself.’ With all the competition to get into schools here, I have a hard time believing that parents are letting their kids lay out the raw truth. They’ve probably hired two essay tutors for each application.”

While competition to earn a prized slot at one of the area’s independent schools is fierce, admissions directors say they want to read personal narratives that are genuine. When pouring over the sometimes thousands of essay they receive during each application season, one type of essay that won’t stand out is one filled with things the applicant thinks they want to hear.

“Give me insight into who you are, how you think, what makes you different,” said Elizabeth Crowder, associate director of Admissions, The Madeira School. “Do you spend your time thinking about quantum physics or the ingredients in your grandmother’s pecan pie? Why? What excites you? Disgusts you? Frustrates you? Scares you? Don’t blend in. Show me your personality. There is no one else like you, and you’re the one I want to know.”

The essay portion of the application process is an opportunity for students to share a part of themselves that the application committee might not otherwise learn, says Cynthia Bertolini, director of Middle and Upper School Admissions at Oakcrest School in Vienna. “This might be something interesting you have done, or something you are especially looking for in your new school setting,” she said. “Be genuine and honest. You might be nervous during your interview [but] the student statement allows you to reflect on what you want schools to know, and to polish how you express yourself.”

In an effort to offer applicants an even playing field and reduce anxiety in an environment where the competition is fierce for a few prized slots at the area’s independent schools, Rich Moss, director of Admission and Outreach, The Heights in Potomac, says he streamlines the process.

“Given that all of these applicants receive wildly varying degrees of assistance on their essays [and] the incredible stress that the high school application process imposes on [area] students, The Heights does not require the submission of a formal essay,” he said. “Applicants provide a short in-office writing sample during their family interview. This decreases the emotional and time burden on our applicants, and allows us to level the playing field by isolating the variable. [That is] we encounter the applicant, on his own, showing us what he can do with a prompt, a sheet of paper, and a pen.”

Still, there are basic recommendations that are common to most students who are working their way through the independent school application process.

“…My guidance to applicants is to know themselves, know their audience, and know the rules of punctuation and grammar,” said Moss. “There are no right answers, but there are wrong ones. More importantly, there are certain essays that cause a reader to sit back in his or her chair and chuckle, think, admire, or sympathize. These are the good essays.”

At Norwood School in Bethesda, which accepts students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, the essay is provided by each applicant’s parents. “We ask parents to write an essay about their child, and what we look for and what we truly value are stories about a child,” said Mimi Mulligan, Assistant Head of School and Director of Admission and Enrollment Management at Norwood. “It’s the stories that have the power to reveal the uniqueness of a child, his or her personality, interests, and even quirks. We encourage our applicant families to relax when thinking about the essay and just tell us a favorite story about their child. Stories are fun to read and truly serve to bring an application alive and distinguish it from others.”