Tips for Parents on the College Essay

Psychologist and counselor Jeanette Spires joins us again this month with advice for parents on the college essay. It can be helpful to parents -- as well as students -- to understand what the colleges are looking for and how important it is for the student to own this step in the process. Read on for more guidance about how to be involved "just right" and why weathering a "white knuckle" experience may be just fine.


"She won't even talk about it!"

"We have a great idea for him!"


The essay for selective colleges is often a source of frustration and conflict within a family. Understanding the function of the essay can be a calming solution to endless kitchen table "get off my back" discussions.

A tired reader hopes to know your student in a way that the glowing recommendations do not cover. How can I know this person better?

What would he be like to have on our campus? How does her mind work?

Years ago I took notes at a national college conference from a dean at one of the nation's most selective colleges: 

          "Don't try to anticipate our politics,,,don't patronize us...don't be terrified of offending us...don't read books of college essays; we've read them all.  It does not have to be perfect. We are here to help you grow. No vague generalities, avoid the boring or overused topics such as the D Words: divorce, depression, drugs and dog death. Humor is always appreciated!"

Parents, it is genuinely difficult to help your child with this project. A teenager is unaccustomed to writing a page of inner thoughts for public consumption. Even essays written in English class to be shared can be embarrassing.

I advise students to think about what they want a college to understand that will not be covered by recommenders. What do they think makes them likable?  It helps to remind them how much we admire others who can poke a little fun at their own failings. You may find that your child wants to keep all the first drafts completely private. It's actually a good idea. It may take five rewrites as each revisit of the piece finds awkward phrases or unintended implications. Be gentle. You are an adult who knows how to write adult output. Can you write with the level of insight available to a 17-year-old?

An essay that is too slick will send the reader to the recommendations or to the writing samples from the SAT or ACT. I have seen quotes added by tutors that a student could not even explain. If the essay causes us to want to know this student better it has done the job. The worst possible command is, "Go upstairs and write your essay right now!"  A good idea usually has an incubation period, then may come flooding to the fore in half an hour. In fact, and this is a white-knuckler: It may take the adrenaline rush of a deadline to replace everything already written with the last-minute terrific essay!

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