College essays highlight military life

college essay

Our middle child, Anna, came home from school crying last week.

This is not unusual for teenage girls. In fact, it happens so frequently, that we sometimes have to feign concern. While we might gasp loudly and blurt with outstretched arms, “Oh, Sugar Dumpling, what’s got you so upset?” my internal monologue is really saying, Good Lord, what is it this time . . . probably boy drama, or another project is due, or skinny jeans went out of style . . . I’d better record “Survivor” because this might take a while.

But last week, Anna plopped onto the couch looking quite pitiful. With puffy eyes and a wobbling chin, she explained, “It’s just . . . everything! I have another paper due in English, a Stats test on Friday, the SAT this weekend, and I somehow have to upload my portfolio for my applications to Syracuse and Delaware. And between all that, somehow finish my college essay!” Her face contorted as tears plopped onto her sweatshirt.

Our daughter isn’t the only 17-year-old who is feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders. Many of the 3.3 million US high school seniors are under pressure from parents, guidance counselors, teachers and themselves to distill their life experience down to one single, flawless 650-word college essay.

But are the tears and missed “Survivor” episodes worth it? Do essays really matter all that much to admissions counselors?

There are varied reports on whether or not essays are seriously considered by colleges. Three former admissions counselors from Dartmouth College, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago stated in a Nov. 14, 2014 article in Time Magazine that they read and seriously considered every essay that came across their desks. However, they all acknowledged that no student with lackluster grades and test scores ever got into their schools based on a great essay.

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist who studies higher education, spent 18 months in the admissions office of a top-tier liberal arts school working alongside counselors through two full admissions cycles. In a Nov. 13, 2014 article in The New Republic, Stevens stated that the “hard numbers” – GPA, test scores, class rank, and number of AP and honors courses – reigned supreme in their admissions decisions. The applicants on the low and high ends of the school’s standards were decided upon quickly, but even for the middle pool of applicants, essays “rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers.”

Stevens said the factors that mattered more were: “How likely was an applicant to accept our offer of admission? Had we already accepted anyone from his or her remote zip code? Had the applicant received any special endorsement from a college alumnus or a faculty member? Did someone in the office owe a favor to the applicant’s guidance counselor?”

Furthermore, in its 2014 State of College Admissions Report, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that the most important factors in admissions decisions were grades in college prep courses (82%), strength of curriculum (64%), SAT/ACT scores (58%), and overall grades (52%). While opinions on essays were evenly spread, with only 22% reporting essays as having considerable importance, 38% moderate importance, 23% limited importance, and 17% no importance at all.

Regardless of this disheartening research, the fact remains that the essay serves as the one place on the Common Application (the online standard application accepted by approximately 500 US universities) where military children can set themselves apart. If there is a weakness in class rank, GPA, or consistency of curriculum; a personal essay that mentions moving three times during high school, living overseas, or a parent’s lengthy deployment, might not only catch the attention of admissions counselors, but also will spotlight the resiliency, adaptability and strength of military child applicants.

Military children in particular must seize opportunities to mention their uncommon experiences in their applications. Honor, sacrifice, service, hardship, adventure, and worldliness — these traits don’t show up in the “hard numbers” of a student’s GPA or test scores.

So dry your tears military high school seniors, and put your pens to paper. It’s time to give those college admissions counselors an education in military life.

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Comments: 6

  1. Colleen Terry October 12, 2015 at 8:37 pm Reply

    Lisa, thanks for sharing. Nate is a freshman at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. I know what it’s like to have your child preparing a portfolio, taking classes and participating in a Fall sport. The essay was a great place for Nate to share how living in Europe shaped his creativity. The supplemental was an opportunity to talk about moving in your junior year to a tiny town made up of very high achievers and virtually no artists. Any chance to tell a little about who you are as a person, is worth it. If you haven’t already, take advantage of National Portfolio Days. It was a big help! Feel free to touch base if you have any questions on the art route. Good luck to Anna. BTW- Thomas is looking at RPI.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari October 13, 2015 at 9:12 am Reply

      Thanks for this Colleen — I will heed your advice because Anna is working on her portfolio and supplements today because she has no school. The college counselors at school tell us, “It’s not a game, just be yourself, and you’ll find your school…” Blah, Blah, Blah. It sure feels like a game of chess to me!

      And WOOT WOOT on RPI – it is a math/science geek’s world for sure, but the academics are top notch!

  2. Carmen Richardson October 12, 2015 at 11:59 am Reply


    The college essay does matter. It is their interview for the “job” they are already qualified for, given, grades, SAT’s, etc. are all competitive. McKenzie (now a college Freshman), was a top student, out of the park ACT score, appointed by our city mayor to serve on a youth action council, the required gobs of community service, and to top it off she was selected for a prestigious high school summer internship offered to only select students in San Diego county to work in a research lab at Scrips Research Institute or the Salk Institute to do side-by-side cutting edge stem cell research (McKenzie is a molecular biology major and wants to study regenerative medicine). Anyway, despite all that in her portfolio, we were not certain it would be enough for her to gain admission into to a top University of California school (i.e., Berkley, UCLA, UCSD). We knew her only chance was her essay, a place to showcase her uniqueness as a military brat.

    I have an inside advantage. I volunteer every year for a very large philanthropic organization called the San Diego Foundation ( If you click on the scholarship link there is a short video and I am in the video (ok, it was a two second segment for my cameo). I am on the scholarship review committee. The foundation is the largest private scholarship provider in San Diego county overseeing 160 scholarship funds. This past year we awarded 2.5 million dollars in scholarships to 800 students. I have served on this committee for three year. I’ve read hundreds of essays. All things being equal, I can tell in two opening sentences (1) if I want to read more (2) they go into the “yes” pile for further consideration. During deliberations of the finalists, it all comes down to the essay – always.

    I read so many heart-breaking essays of struggles, but after a while I become numb to the stories of “poor-me and my background” and quite frankly view those students as those who could not change the world because they used their negative experiences to shape their lives, not the positive experiences. The best essays are when a student picks a certain life changing moment to turn the course of their passion and commitment to change the world and make it a better place. Funny essays were my favorite. They always made my yes pile.

    When McKenzie wrote her essay, the hardest part was selecting one of hundreds of experiences she has as military kid. Living in Europe for three tours and all the travel meeting people and seeing the world outside her immediate bubble works set her apart.

    In the end, she wrote about an incident on our Spring Break trip in 2011 while most of us stationed in Germany (all of Europe for that matter), were stranded somewhere on the globe because of the volcano eruption in Iceland and the airports were shut down. Instead of hanging out in the airport in Portugal to wait for a flight out, we hopped in our rental car and explored Spain, Portugal and Morocco (via ferry). The theme of the essay, sometimes the well thought out path of life throws you a “volcano” and you can either sit in the hotel and cry about it, or grab a backpack and take advantage of the new unknown opportunity before you and go exploring.

    She was able to successfully weave in the theme of the excitement of new discoveries that come when one opportunity is closed, keep searching, but the journey of discovery is the best part. Then she tied those rich experiences back and applied them to her passion for scientific research and new discoveries. A tiny bit cheesy, but it worked because it was sincere.

    The end of the story. McKenzie applied to: UC Berkley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and San Diego State. ****California has a special benefit for California residents who have a disability rating where the state pays the tuition for your children to any California public school or university – you just have to get accepted to the school. The benefit covers tuition all the way through graduate school, medical school and law school. As you can imagine, the Richardson family was not going to let this opportunity slip through our hands and the pressure has been on full-steam-ahead since McKenzie was a Freshman.

    She received a guaranteed admission from San Diego state in the fall of her senior year, so we knew at a minimum, she was going somewhere. Several of her high achieving peers were already getting early acceptance letters to UCLA, Berkley, UCSD and UCLA. She figured, she did not make the cut and while disappointed, moved along hoping she would get accepted to the second tier UC school, Santa Barbara, which would be great, but not the place that had the best program for her major.

    In the end, she was accepted into her #1 choice, UC San Diego – molecular biology. She also received acceptance letters from UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara & Cal Poly. Berkley and UCLA were no’s but she did not like those schools when she toured them, so that was almost a relief that she did not have to choose them.

    She was selected again this past summer to be a returning intern at Scrips Research Institute. That is offered to only the most select students of the program. She was talking to the director of the program and asked “Why did you pick me over all the other applicant’s this year? – I know there are students in there that are brilliant and I am smart, but I am not brilliant.” The reply…….wait for it…….your essay. “We loved reading about your experiences as a military brat, they made you interesting and that is what we were looking for.”

    Carmen Richardson
    Military Wife (Retired)
    Chula Vista, CA

    • Lisa Smith Molinari October 12, 2015 at 12:35 pm Reply

      WOW! Great “comment” Carmen — more like an essay! This is the kind of insider information you won’t get by reading the news articles on this subject. I am so happy that you told McKenzie’s story so we have a first-hand account of college essays making a huge difference for a military kid. Congratulations on McKenzie’s success!

  3. Michelle Mik October 12, 2015 at 9:46 am Reply

    This time is so stressful isn’t it? Tell Anna, Kaitlin and Kendra both focused on being a military child for their essays and we believe it had an impact. I would think a great essay would matter more for her given she is interested in creative pursuits. Creativity doesn’t always shine through with SAT scores or GPAs (even though I’m sure she has good grades.) In the meantime, stock up on the ice cream and Kleenex. You’ll both get through this just fine, and wonder in a few year what the big deal was, right?

    • Lisa Smith Molinari October 12, 2015 at 12:33 pm Reply

      Yes Michelle, it certainly is stressful. Anna is bogged down with lots of school work and sports, and somehow has to get her applications with art portfolios and supplements done. I am sitting down right now to help her! I remember all this with Hayden, but each kid is different, and in some ways, it is like learning the system all over again. Can’t wait for spring when we will know which spaghetti we threw stuck!

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