Tackling the College Essay 

The complicated college application process can make your teen’s head spin. But one part of the college application process is strictly hands-off for parents: the college essay. Sure, parents have a small role. They can help with brainstorming ideas or providing feedback on ideas. But a parent writing or editing a college essay is a dead giveaway. Many admissions counselors know whether a teen wrote it themselves or someone helped them.

Here’s what teens and parents need to know about the infamous college essay:

Types of Essays  

The college essay is the students’ best chance to speak personally to the college admission counselor, providing a firsthand picture of that student’s personality. “Students should tell a story about themselves and go into depth about something meaningful in their life,” says Dana Rolander, founder of Midwest College Consulting.  

Most colleges will guide students about the topics they would like explored in a college essay. If a college requires the Common Application, look to their website for essay prompts. Other colleges may give suggestions on their sites. Most common essay themes run the gamut from writing about service-based activities to a significant event in the student’s life. 

How to Get Started 

The first thing a student needs to do is choose a topic or a prompt. The key: a narrow focus on a personal question to the student.  

“Parents can play a role in helping their student brainstorm, prompting them to think more deeply about themselves and their lives,” Rolander says. “Parents can also ask questions to help the student identify how experiences shaped them.” 

But if your student doesn’t want to share their essay with you, “don’t push it,” says Jane Hahn, educational consultant at My College Advocate. “It’s not personal. It’s hard to be vulnerable in front of those they respect the most.”  

The Writing Process 

Once a student centers on a topic, they should start early — summer is a good time — and write the first draft.  

Sometimes students mistake the college essay for a paper written for school. “Successful essays create a connection between the student and reader, Rolander says. Students want to show how they have changed, matured and learned something about themselves as a result of experience, she says.     

Using a Paid Writing Coach 

Admission counselors read thousands of personal essays each college recruiting season. “They recognize work written by a 17-ish-year-old high school student versus an essay written in the voice of an adult,” Rolander says. That also includes an essay written by a paid professional writing coach.  

If a parent finds themselves helping too much, consider this: What message are they sending? Submitting an essay written by a writing coach or parent represents a false picture of the student’s experiences, plus it could show a lack of trust in their student’s capability to write their essay.  

Editing and Submitting the Essay 

Students should never submit their first draft, and they should be prepared to write several drafts. Their essays must reflect a clear first-person point of view and descriptive phrases. Remember, this is a personal story. They need to “proofread, proofread, proofread,” Hahn says. “Also, read it aloud. If you are stumbling on a sentence, the reader will, too.”  

Students can solicit proofreaders from the family pool, but only if they are specific that all they are looking for is an editor, not a writer.  

Finally, students should remember that it’s their story to tell. What they have to say is essential and authentic. Often, what a student says in their essay sways the admission counselor because they see not just a collection of grades or standardized test scores, but a real person — someone the admissions counselor wants to know.  

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