Lessons from High School Application Essays: Interviews on Paper

I spent most of December helping my 8th grade daughter complete applications for high school. She is applying to private high schools, a process which entails responding to multiple short answer and essay questions in order to provide each school with a better idea of her interests, personality and the way she thinks.

These essays are an important way for the schools to assess whether an applicant will be a good match for the schools academic and social environment. And, they are a way for the applicants to show their stuff and differentiate themselves in a sea of candidates. Applicants have only a few sentences in which to convey a lot of information – their readiness for high school, their brainpower, and their social maturity. The essays resemble interview questions, on paper at least, and every word counts.

I believe strongly in the power of word and I rely on my writing for work to convey ideas, to persuade others and to demonstrate my knowledge and qualifications. But, I have a love/hate relationship with writing. I love expressing myself, especially when the words come easily (they don’t always). I love having a product to show for my time and effort. And I love applying the rules of grammar and communication that I learned from some great teachers and mentors.

To me, writing is like exercise; it is something I do regularly that ultimately makes me feel good, even if it hurts at the time. Good grammar is like a muscle, too – the more I use it the stronger it gets.

I forced my daughter (forced = her word) to complete three revision exercises for each of the high school application essays she wrote, to polish her grammar and to improve how she conveyed herself through her written words. These exercises just happen to be my “go to” editing exercises for anything I write – whether it is a CEO memo I ghost-wrote for a client or an important email I sent to a colleague.

  • Use short, simple sentences, especially when you have a complex or detailed concept to communicate. Explaining a gap in work history or the mind of a 14-year-old requires precision of thought. Ideas can get lost in long, rambling sentences, leaving your reader confused or unable to follow the point you are trying to make. If you do choose to go with longer sentences, make sure they follow the rules of parallelism by keeping verb tense and sequenced lists consistent.
  •  Use active voice; avoid “be” verbs (am/is/are/were) in their direct form or as helping verbs. For example, opt for “The dog walks” instead of “The dog is walking.” To improve my daughter’s writing, I had her identify all the “be” verbs in her essays and replace them with verbs that conveyed action. Action verbs enable your readers to see the words on the page transpire, leaving them with a mental picture to go along with your written sentence.
  • Use pronouns sparingly, and only rarely as the subject of a sentence. “We like to go the mall on the weekend,” is not as descriptive as, “My friend Nicole and I like to go to the mall on the weekend.” A pronoun should always refer back to the noun is replaces; if it is not clear to whom or what the pronoun refers, your readers will be left wondering.
Yep, those are my red pen marks!

We rely on our written words often to represent us to others – to colleagues, to clients, and to prospective employers (or high schools). When you are not there in person with your audience, you words on the page – or in your email – may be all you have to convey your aptitude, qualifications, or in the case of my daughter, personality and “fit” for a new school. I encourage you to select words that speak well for you and that leave your reader with a vivid mental image. Every word counts.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at hnelson@people-results.com.