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Holidays are good time for writing college essays

In the news

Love songs, poetry and gourmet cookies. Valentines Day? No, just the ways some high school students will do anything to avoid writing a college-application essay. With January the deadline for applying to college, admissions officers will be reading thousands of essays from high school seniors. Mixed in the pile will be a few out-of-the ordinary approaches:

  • The University of Chicago received a cereal box adorned with the applicant’s photo and list of accomplishments in imitation of a Wheaties box.
  • For her college essay, a high school student sent Southern Methodist University limbs from a mannequin adorned with her essay that began “I would give an arm and a leg to attend SMU.”
  • A Hamilton College admissions officer received a love song. The student was accepted but declined in favor of Juilliard instead.

Do gimmicks work?

Mindy Giles, SMU assistant director of undergraduate admission, says originality and cleverness may get a student an “E” for effort, but more is required.

“It’s not as important how the essay is wrapped, but what’s inside. Content is the trump card in this game,” said Miles. “Admissions officers can tell a lot about a student from the essay. For borderline students or those in need of scholarships, the essay is crucial. I look for well-written and emotional essays that are a window to the applicant’s personality.”

Do’s and Don’ts (really don’ts) of college essays

Giles reads hundreds of essays each and offers these tips to students who want to stand out from the crowd:

  • Proofread the essay before turning it in. A good piece of writing takes time and a good set of eyes.
  • Don’t just write about the first thing that comes to mind. Write it down, then write it down several more times. Randomly jot down ideas while going through life’s daily routines. The result will be something unique rather than a stale, run-of-the-mill college essay.
  • Don’t use static words. Students have typically one to two pages, double-spaced, typed to get their whole personality and message across. Economy of words is crucial. Students want to capitalize on every word and every sentence — make it mean something. Use emotions, action verbs, descriptive phrases and avoid clichés.

Time Out for Parents

Dealing with demanding parents ranks number one as the reason new teachers leave the profession, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. What can teachers do to resolve parent-teacher conflicts before they begin? Lee Alvoid, a former teacher and principal who now teaches at SMU’s School of Education, conducts seminars for educators. She advises:

  • Develop relationships with parents before any sign of trouble.
  • Encourage students to keep a record of grades, including incomplete assignments, so that there are no surprises.
  • Never begin a parent-teacher conference with negative news.

“Parents are more enraged when they come to school these days. They’re more likely to make personal attacks and question a teacher’s credentials. There is an overall lack of respect for teachers and civility in general.”

See the interview. video


The trend of older parents means more school-age children will experience the death of a parent or the death of a classmate’s parent. Death brings a whole set of problems for students and teachers returning to school. Teachers may see a noticeable change in a student’s attire and school work. Robert Krout, chair of SMU’s Music Therapy Program, works with grieving families. He wrote the song “Back to School Blues” to help children navigate this difficult transition period.

See the interview. video