In my last blog post, I offered advice to parents on how to help their children deal with stress caused by the college application process. One of my suggestions was that parents minimize their conversations with their kids about college, as constant parental nagging only serves to increase students’ stress.
I would encourage parents to take the same sort of minimalist approach when it comes to students’ college application essays. In a recent New York Times column, an independent college consultant like myself recounted experiences with parents whose attitudes toward college essays were as varied as they and their children were. At one extreme, there were parents who didn’t know how to help, and at the other, there were those who completely rewrote their kids’ essays. One father even offered to pay the aforementioned consultant $10,000 to write his son’s essays for him! (The consultant refused, and just in case you’re wondering, so would I.)
As a parent, you probably know your child better than anyone else does. Therefore, it is completely appropriate for you to make suggestions of what he or she might write about. You may remember or think of experiences that your child doesn’t. What your son or daughter sees as weaknesses, you may view as strengths. If your kid asks for help, this is the kind of assistance you absolutely can and should give.
What you should not do, as the author of the NYT column explains, is write your child’s essays for him or her. For one thing, it’s unethical. For another, admissions officers can sniff out a parent-written essay from a mile away. There is a significant and obvious difference between the “voice” of a 17- or 18-year-old and that of a middle-aged person.
Much of my work, especially at this time of year, involves helping students with their essays. I provide assistance with everything from brainstorming topics to developing content to editing and proofreading. Throughout the process, I am very careful not to drown out a student’s voice with my own. That is why I focus on asking questions, prompting students to come up with their own ideas and ways of saying things, rather than simply telling them what to write and how to write it.
I always tell my students, “I am going to make suggestions. Whether you take them is up to you. This is your essay and I want you to be happy with it.” Unfortunately, when parents edit essays, some students feel like they have no choice but to accept their parents’ changes. And if a parent “helps” too much, the student’s voice ultimately gets lost.
Writing a college essay can be an amazing learning experience for students. It forces them to reflect on their lives, and doing so may enable them to gain a new perspective. It is an exercise in growing up that students should be able to fully experience. They can’t do that if their parents are heavily involved in the process. So suggest some topics, and then, in the words of the aforementioned consultant, “provide privacy and a cup of tea” and let your child do the work.