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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 view of that student’s personality. “Essential elements would include quality writing and editing, as well as information that is unique to that student,” says Rachel Schmidtke, executive director of admissions at Hanover College. “We want to learn more about that applicant, other than what’s already on the application.”

Most colleges will guide students about what types of 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 site. 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. Parents can help here. “Parents can be really helpful with this brainstorming, particularly if they understand the role of the essay in the overall application process,” says Amy McVeigh, founder of Smart College Selection, a Zionsville-based educational consulting firm. The key: a narrow focus on a personal topic. Students make a mistake when they select a topic that’s too broad or general, says McVeigh, so they should consider what personal qualities and characteristics the student wants admissions to know.

Start the Writing Process

Once a student centers on a topic, they should start early — summer is a good time — and write the first draft. “One mistake that students often make is starting too late,” McVeigh says.

Using a Paid Writing Coach

Admission counselors read thousands of essays. “They can clearly tell the difference between a 17-year-old writing the essay and a middle-aged parent,” McVeigh says. That also includes paid professional writing coaches.

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. They must show how their story evolves by using a clear first-person point of view and descriptive phrases. Remember, this is a personal story. 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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