An Essay To Remember

An Essay To Remember

Local educators offer advice on acing independent school admission essays and interviews.

Students at Episcopal High School in Alexandria collaborate on a school project. Essays and interviews help admissions teams determine how an applicant would fit into the school community.

Students at Episcopal High School in Alexandria collaborate on a school project. Essays and interviews help admissions teams determine how an applicant would fit into the school community. Photo courtesy of Audra Wrisley

While many are knee-deep in wrapping paper and eggnog, some students are holed up with computer keyboards and books of quotations. In addition to driving to the mall for holiday shopping, some parents are throwing rapid-fire questions at their children to make sure they are fast on their feet.

For students and parents who hope for slots at the area’s top independent schools next year, ’tis admissions season.

“As a school we want to know what the relationship will be between what a student brings to the table and what we will need to bring to the table,” said Tim Simpson, assistant head of school and director of admission and financial aid at Bullis School in Potomac, Md.

Interviews are opportunities for admissions teams to get to know applicants and their parents, and share information about their schools.

“We try to encourage students to view the interview as a conversation,” said Julie Jameson, director of admissions at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac. “They should feel comfortable … be themselves … and feel free to ask any questions they might have.”

In fact, the interview is really a two-way street, says Ann Richardson Miller, director of admission and financial aid at The Madeira School in McLean. “The girl and her parents should be asking as many questions of me as I am asking of her,” she said. “After all, this will be her school for the next four years, and fit is critical, both for us, but also for the girl and her parents.”

“Learn as much as you can about the school before your visit and be prepared to ask questions,” said Scott Conklin, director of admissions, Episcopal High School in Alexandria. “This is also an opportunity to brag about your interests, talents and accomplishments. ... Be humble, but make sure you let us know all about you.”

That doesn’t mean you should ignore your flaws, however. “We look for genuine conversations that convey the student’s real interests and passions,” said Simpson. “We also want students and parents to be open to talking about strengths and weaknesses.”

THE ADMISSION ESSAY is another opportunity for students to reveal facets of their personalities that might not be obvious through test scores, transcripts and even letters of recommendation, said Patricia Harden, director of admissions and financial aid at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac.

“It should be a well-written snapshot of how an applicant thinks and how she understands some aspect of her world,” Harden said.

Some schools even require the admission essay to be completed in person.

“We want to see a student's true, natural writing ability, and we are interested in assessing their ability to develop and present a cohesive, thoughtful essay on the spot,” said Michael Cresson, director of admissions, Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington. “A polished essay prepared at home with lots of edits really doesn’t tell us what we want to know to best evaluate an applicant.”

No matter where the essay is written however, the same basic writing advice applies.

“We are looking for students to express themselves and give us an insight into what kind of person he or she is,” Cresson said. “My suggestions for students … would be … to proofread their essay, allow for enough time, do some research on the school and include that in the essay.

“These are simple suggestions, but it is disappointing as a director to read through essays and find simple mistakes and see that it was rushed.”