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Writing Your Essay: (Almost) Anything Goes!

Admission officers use essays to assess your writing skills and to compare your skills and potential with other applicants. They want to understand the influences that have shaped your life, your intellectual curiosity, and your enthusiasm for learning. The application essay is a chance for them to see who you are beyond your transcript, scores, and recommendations, and to understand your values, goals, and passions. By understanding what’s at your core, they can envision what kind of impact you will have in their private school community.

You won’t get admitted to a boarding school on your essay alone, but if you are a “borderline” candidate, a strong, thoughtful essay can move you up in the competition. Likewise, a bad essay can be harmful; it sends the message that you either have weak skills or you don’t care enough to do a good job.

Form and content are both important. Can you develop your ideas in a clear, organized manner, using proper grammar? Your ability to write an engaging and thoughtful piece will communicate that you can express your thoughts effectively.

First, choose a topic. Some of the best essays are written about day-to-day things, so don’t worry if your topic feels mundane. Effective essays should tell the reader something about you that they don’t already know. For example, if you are a star hockey player, private school admission counselors will already know that about you, so write about something else. Are you concerned about climate change? Do you volunteer at the local thrift shop? Has being the youngest in your family shaped your identity? Use the essay to add depth to your application.

NMH Humanities: Who am I?

Begin your writing process with some self-reflection: Who am I? What matters to me? What am I most proud of? How do I spend my time? What experiences or moments have shaped who I am? Some prompts: I love… I dislike… I value… I wish... I am inspired by… I admire… I am good at... I am saddened by…

Once you land on a topic and start writing, don’t get bogged down in creating a perfect first paragraph or opening line. It’s going to take several drafts to get it right, so plan accordingly. Put your first draft aside for a while, and return to it with fresh eyes so you can see and feel its strengths and weaknesses. 

Write, revise, and proofread. You can even ask a trusted friend or teacher to take a look. It’s not possible to knock out an application-worthy essay in one day. 

Hastily written essays are easy to identify. Here are some dead giveaways:

  • Responses are “safe” and predictable, ideas are common and/or poorly developed, reflecting little or no introspection or originality.

  • Mechanical errors (spelling, punctuation, tenses), typos, or sloppy handwriting abound, giving the essay a “first draft” look.

  • The tone is “chatty,” like a conversation with a friend.

  • Vocabulary is flat.

  • Poor taste in choice of subject matter, treatment, or language, giving the impression that there was no feedback solicited.

  • The essay does not hang together; the reader is left feeling that the writer did not know where they were going in answering a question, or, worse, did not answer the question.

Maybe you’ll find it helpful to talk through your ideas, as if you were explaining your story to someone. Or record yourself telling your story and then take notes while listening to it. If you get stuck, try to complete the sentence “What I am trying to say is…”

Another good approach is to free-write. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write non-stop about your topic. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation — just write to get the juices flowing. Do not stop for anything OR look at the clock.

The structure of the essay can be flexible. It’s OK to think beyond the standard five-paragraph essay. Consider using a narrative, journal-entry, or free-form style. In some cases, one paragraph might be all you need to answer the question. Make sure you read the directions before you begin so you know what kind of response is required.

Smiling girl with book

Once you’ve got a draft, consider these questions: Does my opening draw in the reader? Is the tone too formal? (The use of a thesaurus is never a good idea — your voice will be lost.) Is it too casual? Have I made my story interesting? Does the reader learn something about me? Could anyone else have written this or is it completely unique to me?

If you are applying to multiple private schools, it’s OK to recycle your essays, as long as they fit a particular essay question. Be sure you are answering the whole question and not just part of it. Do not try to tailor an essay if the questions are substantially different; you may end up with something that does not hang together well or fails to answer the question.

Solicit feedback. All good writers do this. However, getting feedback at the last minute is not helpful, nor is having someone rewrite your work. If you get too much help, the essay will morph into something that isn’t your own. Remember, the essay does not have to be a perfect piece of writing. As long as you are able to express who you are and what matters to you, and you take the time to edit your work, you will be successful. Good luck and have fun!

If you have any questions about your essay or the process of applying to private school, reach out to the NMH Admission Office. Our admission counselors work with students and families every day and can answer your questions about every step of the process. 

At NMH, we offer many opportunities to connect, including Open Houses and Class Visit Days. Admission counselors can set up tours and interviews so you can get a better look at what NMH has to offer, and our free workshops can help you navigate the application process.
Meanwhile, here’s an overview of the process for applying to private school. In other blog posts, you can read tips to find a private school that’s right for you and how to make your application shine.