How to Help Your Child Tackle the College Essay

This in no way involves you writing it.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

Between the research I do for this blog and my experience working with high school seniors to fine tune their college admissions essays, I’ve learned the keys to helping students complete this often-dreaded task before the new school year starts. Read on to find out how, as a parent, to guide your teen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst things first The essay must be written over summer vacation. No waiting until classes resume and your son or daughter is too busy with homework, extra curriculars and college applications to focus on creating a solid essay. Save yourself the stress.

Review the essay prompts Begin by visiting the Common Application site with your child to review the application essay prompts [more than 500 colleges use the Common App]. Hopefully seeing the cues will take some of the mystery and anxiety out of the process.

The Common App prompts are general enough that your child can adapt his essay for almost any application.

Understand the prompts In his post on About.com, Allen Grove breaks down each of the five Common App essay prompts. Knowing what’s really being asked will help your student determine which one she can address the best.

Learn what admissions officers expect from the essay Stephanie Jones McCaine, director of admissions at Purchase College, SUNY, wrote this guest post for me about how to approach the essay and what she and her colleagues are looking for when they are reading.

Selecting an essay prompt After reviewing and understanding the prompts, your child can pick one. Sometimes it’s hard to decide between two or more. I suggest students make notes on the potential prompts to see which allows for the best balance of details and insight. The essay should reveal more about your son or daughter than what can be found on the application. Let your student try this on her own first, then offer to help if she’s struggling.

Taking a limited role as a parent Of course you know your child better than anyone, which is why you need to take a step back when it comes to the essay. I have an easier time working on college application essays with other people’s children than I did with my own.

As parents we know too much and our instinct is to suggest our kids include everything about themselves as they write. The reality is, our children have a sense of what they want to share and what they don’t. More importantly, the admissions office doesn’t need to read about each award your child has received since kindergarten (there’s a place for that on the application).

Start writing Use your most successful negotiating techniques to convince your son or daughter to produce a first draft of his or her essay. Come on, you know how to do this. Make sure those notes written earlier are handy.

If your child gets blocked, offer to brainstorm. By the way, that first try is not the final, so you’ll need to work your magic again to get your student to revise a couple of times.

Red PensThe importance of an outside reader Yes, you should read your child’s final essay—to learn something new about your son or daughter. If you have strong language and grammar skills, your proofreading assistance will be helpful, too. Any edits you suggest should be in line with the story your student is trying to tell.

Encourage your senior to share his essay with a knowledgeable teacher, guidance counselor or relative (if you don’t plan to use a professional editor), someone who knows your teen, but not as well as you do. Just be sure that the person reading understands what college admissions officers are looking for.

As someone who provides editing services to students for college admissions essays, I suggest that if you want to hire a professional, select someone with experience in this area and who makes the student write the essay. There are editors who will create essays for their clients, but beyond the ethical issues, the admissions officers I’ve talked with say they know the difference between an essay written by a student and one written by a professional.

Good luck.

Please share your advice, suggestions and experiences in the comments section below.

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One Response to How to Help Your Child Tackle the College Essay

  1. Fantastic tips, Anne! My oldest daughter (a college sophomore to be) was a self starter, and loves writing so the process was relatively smooth with her, but it will be a different process with my son, who will be a high school senior. I emailed him the prompts…that is as far as we’ve gotten. Thanks for breaking this all down. It’s very helpful!

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