How Parents Can Help with Application Essays

Applying to College, Essays and Personal Statements

For parents helping students through the college application process, the admissions essay can be a challenge. A fairly open-ended assignment, it is intended to showcase a student’s individuality and add depth to their application. Therefore, it must be a personal story that demonstrates insightful self-reflection and character. Many parents are left wondering how they can support their students in developing this very personal essay.

 Why an essay? What are colleges looking for?
Understanding a parent’s role begins with understanding the essay’s purpose: rounding out a student’s application to give it personality and depth. Much of the application is strictly data – grades, test scores, a list of clubs and accomplishments. These facts are all very important, but the essay is the student’s opportunity to demonstrate what makes them unique. Whatever the specific prompt, the real question being asked is: “Who are you? How are you different from the previous applicant, and who will you be on our campus?”

Admissions officers read hundreds, even thousands, of applications each year. Each essay is read quickly, efficiently, and sometimes only once. While glaring mistakes will stand out, the reader is looking for solid composition that reveals maturity and life experience. In flow and tone, admissions officers are also looking for the student’s own voice. Having read thousands of essays, they know exactly what an 18-year-old is capable of – and what they’re not.

An essay that has been heavily re-written by a parent or tutor ends up too formal, stilted, or academic, compared to one written primarily by the student. It certainly needs to be technically correct – with proper vocabulary, grammar, and structure – and parents can definitely help here. But the balance between light editing and re-writing can be incredibly delicate.

How much help is too much?
Certainly, students are encouraged to discuss their ideas or have someone give feedback on their writing. However, any edits should preserve the student’s voice. This key element is lost for some students when well-meaning adults step in to help.

It is also important to understand that US colleges adhere to a strict anti-plagiarism policy. Since the essay is an assignment for the student, any writing by someone else is considered unethical. The admissions essay is intended to reflect the student’s writing ability and be an indicator of the type of work they might turn in for courses. Therefore, excessive writing by anyone other than the student is entirely unacceptable.

How can I help?
First, let the student take the lead. Students are taking their first steps into adulthood. Within a year, they’ll likely be living on their own and responsible for their assignments, classes, and daily schedule. Help them prepare for this by encouraging them to take charge in this process. While it may be difficult to let them turn in an essay you would have written differently, you are doing them a favor in the long run by allowing them to be in charge.

Second, talk with your student about the essay topic. You know them best; help them discover powerful personal stories and experiences that showcase their strengths. Here are some suggestions for what type of stories to look for:

  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Doing the right thing
  • Learning a new skill
  • Lessons from a failure
  • Any highly unusual achievements or experiences

For example, one parent helped their son discover a powerful layer of meaning for his essay. The son wanted to write about his extensive experience as swim captain and junior life guard. The father remembered that his son nearly drowned as a kid and suggested the son consider weaving that into the essay. The final essay was a poignant, cohesive narrative that went beyond the usual boasting of leadership roles in a favorite sport. So, parents should definitely discuss the topic and which stories might work together.

Third, offer light editing. While heavy re-writes usually mute the student’s natural voice, light editing for general structure, grammar and spelling is appropriate. Ideally, instead of editing directly, lead discussions about the essay. Appropriate discussions would include:

  • Should paragraph 2 be deleted?
  • Is the narrative cohesive / organized?
  • Does the ending link back to the beginning and give a sense of closure?
  • Is the tone personal and approachable, instead of awkward or arrogant?

Light editing should be saved for punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Try not to replace idiomatic phrases or slang with academic vocabulary. Remember, the goal is to preserve the student’s natural voice.

Final thoughts
If students are working with On My Way, we provide guidance on topics, structure, and editing. Because we understand what admissions officers are looking for, we are careful to give guidance while preserving the student’s authentic style.

Remember you are your student’s best cheerleader. The most important thing you can do is stay positive and supportive. Stimulate discussions on potential topics and look to the flow of the entire essay more than specific words and phrases. This should help develop an essay with depth, while preserving the student’s voice. They’ll appreciate it, and so will the admissions officers.