The Essay Question

What do you think your child might be when he or she grows up?

Pick three words that best describe your child, and tell us why.


What does a typical weekend day look like for your child?

Private school admissions season is well underway in the Portland area, with most applications due no later than January. If you’re thinking about it for your child for the 2019-2020 school year, chances are you’ve already encountered questions like these, as part of the parent questionnaire that’s filled out during the application process.

Many people haven’t written an essay like this since their own collegiate applications, and while middle and high school students are generally responsible for their own essays, pre-kindergarten and elementary school student essays normally fall to parents.

Here’s a look at what you need to know about writing the essay for your private school applications.

Be Yourself


The first rule of essay-writing, local admissions officers say, is to be yourself, and write in your own voice. “There’s no formula to a good essay,” said Zoe Edelen-Hare, who is the Assistant Director of Admissions at Catlin Gabel, one of the area’s most selective private schools, which admits only about one in three of its applicants. “Any time a student is honest and writes about something that is truly important to them, we are moved. When they have stretched themselves and perhaps even been a little vulnerable, we are moved. The element of surprise can be fun, as long as it is authentic. And a good chuckle is always appreciated.”

Edelen-Hare advises parents to resist the tendency to embellish or embroider; admissions officers want to know more about you and your family and your real life, not the air-brushed, Instagram-ready version of such. Warts and all can be good!

“Don’t stand in your own way. Run spell check, sure, but otherwise let yourself tune into the question, and feel who your child is, because that is what I really want to know,” says Sarah Ross-Bailly, an Admissions Associate for the lower school at Oregon Episcopal School, a selective Independent school in the Portland metro area. “What we are asking for is an authentic, open and honest reflection of your experience, connection and understanding of your child in this moment. The best parent information that I get is when they allow themselves to take a moment that they haven’t taken in the four -to -12 years that this child has been alive, and reflect on them.”

Don’t Overthink

Your essay is only one portion of the admissions portfolio. Many schools also ask for in-person visits by you and your children, and recommendation letters from teachers. It’s all targeted at creating a well-rounded portrait of your child, so try to keep in mind that your essay is just one part of an important whole. And stick within the assigned page limit, for real! We could all wax about our children for 15 single-spaced pages, but admissions offers have a lot to process, and they’ll appreciate you sticking to the specified length.

No Magic Formula

That question about three words you’d pick to describe your child? That was a real one from the Oregon Episcopal School, and it was on the application for several years, until admissions officers realized that the same words were popping up over and over, often in accordance with the prevailing trends of the day. (For example, a surprisingly high number of kids were described as having “grit” and “persistence” — great qualities, of course, but not the only ones.) The moral of the story? There’s no surefire, cookie-cutter answer to an essay question. Instead, there are as many answers as there are families.

Hands Off, For Older Kids

Ross-Bailly says she used to have a student questionnaire for kids going into grades 3 to 5. But she stopped, she says, because it was clear that some parents were “helping” their kids, to a fault — a natural impulse, perhaps, but not helpful when trying to take the true measure of a potential student. Instead, she now has kids do a work sample on their own during a visit to the school. The lesson of the story? If you have kids who are applying to middle and high school, it’s fine to talk through the essay with them, but otherwise, it should be their work, not yours.

And if you do “help out” a little too much? Most likely it will backfire:

“The purpose of student essays is to help the readers learn more about the student and to provide evidence of the student’s ability to convey ideas in writing,” says Edlen-Hare. “The admission committees are made up of teachers who have a keen sense of a typical student’s writing ability in each grade, so in many cases it is clear when an adult has helped. Catlin Gabel also requires applicants to middle and upper school to complete a standardized admission test such as the SSAT, which includes an essay portion, so it can become quite apparent if the two levels of writing are substantially different.”

If English Isn’t Your First Language

Don’t worry! Admissions officers will work with you. Don’t forget, they are looking to build the kind of diverse communities that translate to a deeper, richer learning experience. You can write your essay in your native language, and admissions offices will try to find a translator or use Google Translate. Know too that at most schools, your essay will get read by two to three people, so that there might well be someone fluent in your native language.

Remember, It’s a Two-way Street

Even if you’ve poured yourself into the essay, remember that it’s not only about whether your family and your kid is right for the school in question, it’s about whether the school is the right fit for you, too. That’s why admissions officers from private schools around Portland advise visiting campuses, taking tours and connecting with current parents and, as possible, teachers, in order to figure out if it is the right fit on your end. “The power of exploration is so important,” Ross-Bailly says. “Yes, this is an admissions process, but you are also finding your community.”


Not every private school requires an admissions essay from family members. At The International School, a Pre-K to grade 5 language immersion school in downtown Portland that focuses on Spanish, Chinese or Japanese, officials say they have deliberately chosen to keep their admissions process simple. “We require no essays or long personal statements,” says Katharine Simons, the school’s marketing and communications director. “We accept students on a first-come, first-serve basis.” (That applies to children entering the pre-K or kindergarten program; those who start at grade 1 or later undergo a language assessment and must submit transcripts.) The school also does not require interviews with kids prior to admission, Simons said, believing that children’s moods are changeable, particularly in unfamiliar environments, though they do suggest that families tour the school before applying. Other schools, especially religious ones, tend to reserve the essays solely for middle and high school grade applicants.

Julia Silverman
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