As a college essay coach I’ve found that parents often are the greatest stumbling block to a winning piece of writing. Here is my advice to well-meaning parents who are tempted to parachute in and take charge of the process.
- Keep Your Hands Off the Essay
Elementary school teachers often tell me that they can spot head lice at 50 paces. I can spot a parent’s touch on a college essay in seconds. It invariably contains such vague and cornball lines such as “We really are just all humans on the same planet, and we all have to deal with life and get along.” When I ask a student, “Who wrote this,” the answer often is “my Dad.” Not good.
You may have won a Pulitzer Prize or are the poet laureate of California, but please resist the temptation to write or rewrite the essay. The essay should sound like your son or daughter, not a 50 year old. Keep in mind that the first person to read the essay at many colleges and universities is a recent graduate who sounds like and can relate more to your child than you can. These gatekeepers can spot a phony in an instant.
- Skip the Trip to Kathmandu
A trend in recent years is for wealthy parents to fund a trip for their student to exotic places or countries that have suffered a natural disaster. The idea is for the student to volunteer at a local hospital or take on a character-building exercise such as mountain climbing. They then ostensibly have a topic to write about for their essay – a topic essentially selected by the puppet-master parent. While this may sound good on paper, the writing tends to devolve into an unbelievable account of how the student saved lives in tsunami-ravaged Thailand or scaled K2 with the help of Sherpa guides.
Sometimes the best “overcoming a challenge” stories are derived from everyday, age-appropriate experiences. One of my students won a scholarship after writing about his experience in a pizzeria. One night, the pizza maker quit and left this student alone with the task of making over 100 pizzas. He never left his post, valiantly turned out pizza after pizza and subsequently got a raise from the boss. He wrote about the pride he felt in tackling “a situation bigger than me.” The story was authentic and rang true.
- Don’t Consult the Committee
Some parents are hands-off with the essay until the last second. Then they panic and begin showing it around to get reaction from others, everyone from a neighbor to someone they know who actually got into Harvard or Stanford. Everyone has an opinion on how to make the essay better and it ends up sounding nothing like the original author’s intent. This second-guessing undermines the child’s self-confidence and is dishonest.
I also have encountered parents who pick the essay topic for their child, for example, selecting what they think is the most appropriate question from among the five or six topics put forth in the Common Application. I even had one controlling father who insisted that his son write an essay on each of the Common App topics. The father then selected what he thought was the best essay of the bunch. He did not pick a winner.
- Don’t Freak Out
This problem often crops up when a student puts mom or dad in the essay, sometimes in an unflattering light. These portrayals are often triggered by such questions as “pick a woman in history to converse with” or “write about a character you admire and why.”
Some of my students have used these questions to liken a parent to Lady Macbeth, the wife who goaded her husband into regicide, or Volumnia, the controlling mother in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” One used the “whom do you admire” essay to trace his father’s nightmarish descent into addiction and his subsequent redemption. This student got into Yale. The admissions officer wrote on his acceptance letter: “I have your essay pinned to my bulletin board.”
The smartest students do not let their parents see the final product and the smartest parents respect their privacy. But this may be the greatest challenge of all.
5. Don’t Follow Orders Out the Window
I’ve known U.S. Marines who live by this rule. It means that rules sometimes are meant to be broken. I remind my students of this saying when they think they can’t deviate much from a narrow essay question. If the question asks “Are you a dog or a cat? Coffee or tea? “The Great Gatsby” or “The Catcher in the Rye”? the advice to my student would be: “Why do you have to be any of those?” Parents should adopt this approach as well.
One of my bright students caught on immediately. In our practice session, he said he was “Pepsi with Pop Rocks – explosive and fun.” He said he couldn’t relate to Jay Gatsby, a bootlegger who fraternized with a gangster, or the neurotic Holden Caulfield in “Catcher ” – even though he wanted to save children. Instead, my student said he could relate more to Mercutio, the minor character in “Romeo and Juliet” who was neither a Montague nor a Capulet and could get along with both sides. That’s how this student navigated high school and that’s what he would write.
Thankfully, the Common App overseers are now coming up with a more sensible approach to essay questions. The essay prompts for 2017-’18 were announced recently and include this new question that should open up endless possibilities: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”
Coming up with a clever question will be a key part of this exercise. Students should be inspired by such offbeat essay questions as “What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?” (from the University of Chicago supplement questions) or “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?” (a recent question from Brandeis University).
- Don’t Hire a Proofreader
If you’ve been a hands-off parent up to the end of the process, resist the urge to hire a professional copy editor or proofreader to give the essay a little polish. The temptation to rewrite or over-correct becomes too tempting. This is often a major issue for parents of my students for whom English is a second language.
Colleges and universities understand the great pressure to write a winning essay and often run the essays through the computer to check for plagiarism. They also may compare the essay to other forms of the student’s writing, including the essay portion of the SAT exam. I tell my students that writing has “fingerprints.” Admissions counselors can easily spot a massaged essay.
When I work with a student on a college essay, my main objective is to help them uncover the best story to tell about themselves. It helps to have spent decades as a reporter because most people are too close to their own story to discover the gold. I spent lots of time with my students just listening to them talk about themselves and then helping them find the courage to tell the best story. I’ve had students write winning essays about dealing with fear in soccer competitions and how they overcame huge obstacles, including serving time in jail and failing classes.
A secret weapon for all essays is humility, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people.” A theologian also called humility “the grace of self-doubt.” The unexpected element of humility will stand out in a sea of essays that are little more than overblown resumes filled with accomplishments.
- Adopt a Zen Attitude
“Do the best you can and then let go of the outcome.” That’s should be the mantra for students and parents. After years of coaching students through the process, I’ve found that people invariably end up where they belong. I had one student who had his heart set on the University of Notre Dame. He didn’t make it and ended up at Michigan State University, where he spent several happy years and found a place on the school’s rowing team. He’s now bound for the U.S. Olympic Team and says he can’t imagine having gone anywhere else.