Much has been written about how to write a parent statement or essay for your child’s applications to private preschool or continuing K–12 schools, but little has been written on what not to write.
For parents of preschoolers to students at older points of entry (and all the years in between), the finest example of admissions/application essay instructions can be found in the Common Application to U.S. colleges and universities.
The Common App asks applicants to write a statement of 650 words about anything — anything at all — so long as the statement is about them. You may think that sounds easy, but it’s not. For example, the finest Common App essay I have ever read was by a high school senior who, at age seven, started volunteering with kids diagnosed with cancer. The little girl became a national advocate for volunteering with sick children, appeared in the media, and won prestigious awards for her work. Over a decade, she worked with over 100 hospitalized children, befriending each one as well as their families. Her college essay, however, wasn’t about her work or the accolades she received for it. It instead detailed how she had stayed close to these parents and siblings, and talked about the emotional impact upon realizing that she was a link, often the final one, to the children the families had lost.
The same principles apply to parent essays. To make it easier, we ask parents to not use adjectives when they write and describe applicants. Terms like brilliant, gifted, caring, talented, and a host of others not only bore admissions committees, but scare them. If, for example, a parent genuinely feels his child is brilliant or gifted, is that same parent going to expect and demand “special" treatment for that child if and when she is admitted to the school, taking teachers’ precious time away from the class at large? That is how to get rejected on the spot.
For young children, a day in the life of your child is far more interesting and introductory than a list of his or her attributes as observed by Mom or Dad. For older kids, one or two academic or social experiences is a good suggestion for parent admissions statements, especially the effect these experiences had on the child’s development.
There is much to say about every child, but school applications may not be the venue in which to say it. If schools receive 900 parent statements for a particular point of entry, how much do you believe actually gets read if the statements are overwhelmingly long? More saliently: will it get read at all?
Usually when parents write to impress, it has the opposite effect. The “leader" who is always first to finish the reading or art or math project and “help" his peers in the classroom, while at the same time designs the group’s imaginary games and activities, is often perceived as demanding and overbearing. This is a more central question: can that same leader also assume the role of follower, giving others a chance to shine and create?
The kid who likes playing with a science kit is not necessarily destined to become a neuroscientist, just as the kid who enjoys writing about his summer vacation is not necessarily tomorrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
A child who donates his or her gently used clothes or toys to charity is not Mother Theresa helping the poor, or Jimmy Carter building homes for humanity. She is a kid learning about charity and community service.
Few kids, especially younger children, actually sit around all day trying to perfect a task or learned skill, whether that be math, writing, art, or computer science, and if they do, they are missing out on many other aspects that childhood and adolescence exist to introduce them to. Admissions directors are famous for asking the magic question, “What else is your child interested in?" Schools do not teach one subject; they teach many.
Your child’s interest in the ocean, marine life, and swimming is fine to write about as is his fascination with changing seasons, nature, and animals, as long as it isn’t preceded by the words: “At our vacation home ..."
Finally, an admissions essay is not the place to list the people you know who are connected to a school (parent, alumni, board member, etc.). For the most part, admissions directors do not like the “powers that be" to dictate which students to accept, and that is the subtle message of a parent statement that name drops.
We are taught to be ourselves at every turn. It’s hard to do in private school admissions, when you suspect that other parents are presenting better selves than they really are, and, of course, painting rosier, larger-than-life pictures of their children. Yet, being honest often yields the best results in terms of admission at virtually every point of entry. Think about the simple, beautiful message of the aforementioned Common App essay.