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How to Help Without Taking Over the College Essay

It is a rainy Wednesday in July 2018.  I am sitting with a Mom and her daughter as they share with me their hopes and dreams for college as well as their fear about the college essay.  When I mentioned the essay for the first time, Mom began bombarding me with questions:

“Does she have to write about the divorce?”

“How important is this essay?”

“Will it really help her chances of getting into the college of her dreams?”

My answers to Mom:

“No, she doesn’t have to write about the divorce.”    college essay

“Yes, the essay is important,” and

“Yes, it will help her get into college.”

After years of working with families, I am convinced that writing the college essay (or essays, depending on where you apply) produces more stress than any other part of the college admission process.

While it is true that the essay isn’t the only thing that matters to college admission officers, a great essay can actually compensate for less than stellar grades or test scores.  On the flip side, a bad essay can overshadow all of your child’s other accomplishments.

In general, a college essay is the only part of the application, aside from the statistics on the transcript or test scores, where she has the opportunity to show the college who she really is.  Her college essay allows her to write about something she is passionate about through a self-reflective lens.

Even if she is only applying to a couple of schools that she knows she can get into, it will serve her Scholarshipswell to write a thoughtful admissions essay.  Standing out from everyone else could put her in the running for additional scholarships and make a good impression.

As parents, I know that many of you have ideas and words of wisdom that you want to share with your child.  Some of you may even want to write the essay for them.  DON’T!  You should definitely take a back seat during this process, including choosing a topic.  I know it is difficult!

So how can you be most helpful during this time while allowing your child to have this experience?

  1. Offer encouragement –Take on the role of cheerleader rather than coach.  You are correct that no one knows your child better than you.  Encourage her to reflect and express herself in her own voice and in her own words.  She really can do this and needs to be allowed to do it.
  2. Be realistic – An essay should be a well-written piece that was composed by your high school student. Admissions officers can tell the difference between a heart-felt, well-crafted essay and a submission that is so polished it couldn’t possibly have been written by a 17-year-old.
  3. Get a head start – For many students, the college essay is the hardest and most anxiety-producing of the entire college application process. Don’t wait until September to begin. When I am working with rising seniors, I explain to them that we will take about 3 weeks during their summer break so that I can support them in writing their essay.  They pick which consecutive weeks in their summer to work and they usually completely write, revise and edit it, with my coaching, during that time.
  4. Read, but don’t criticize – If you want to read your child’s drafts, offer your opinion but not your criticism. Ask clarifying questions.  Engage in a conversation with your child to figure out what she is saying about herself.  Yesterday, in working with a student, I asked him what he meant by the word, ‘success’, which he had in his first draft:

 “What does success look like to you?  How do you know when you are successful? 

What have you learned about yourself because you strove for success?”

Asking these clarifying questions helps you to support your child in fleshing out a well-written, reflective essay.  No matter the prompt, a college essay is not about the person, the illness, the book, the job, or parent’s divorce; it is about the student and what he or she has learned, gained or realized as a result of this experience.  As a parent, you can help the most by keeping the child focused on the essay’s true purpose.

Need help with the college essay?  I can help!  Get in touch with me at 240-285-1920 or