I’m trying to be patient as I wait for a stack of emails from thirteen high school seniors to appear in my in box. In the next few weeks they will make their final decisions about where to attend college. These students are my clients; last fall they sat at my dining room table and I coached them as they wrote their college essays. When they don’t contact me to share their news, I’m furious and hurt.
I’m also embarrassed because I understand what’s going on here; My own nest is empty so I’m directing my emotions at other people’s kids. I try to remain calm and remind myself that the twenty-three years of nest-tending that encouraged this nasty habit also trained me to do a great job guiding kids as they attempt to present their best selves in 500 words or less.
Here’s what parenting taught me about writing college essays for admissions; from years of practice at sensing my own kids’ distress, I know when a dab of love is necessary before my clients can do their best work. Venting to me about his recent break up freed Alex to more fully explore his essay on recycling trash in his school cafeteria. When Becky arrived at our house every Sunday morning, she needed a quick plate of scrambled eggs and toast in order to work on a very funny essay about her love of rap music.
Being a mom made me a world-class listener. My kids used to tell me the plots of countless Sponge Bob episodes, and my attention communicated love. Today, I can listen intently to my clients’ anecdotes about community service and scoring the winning point. My focus conveys to them my absolute faith that any minute we are going to hit upon a story that will make a beautiful college essay.
Truth be told, though, my mothering mistakes crop up, too. Back in the day, I couldn’t resist rescuing my kids when they fell short. I patched up their solar system dioramas and emailed their teachers with airtight excuses for missed assignments. Now I find myself telling clients what points to make in every sentence and suggesting stronger verbs and better metaphors. This verges on questionable ethics, and I have deleted hours of overly edited prose. Students bristle when I commandeer their college essays. They roll their eyes or email me, as Ryan did, ” I’m not sure that’s anything I would actually write.”
My rescue missions aren’t just annoying. I’m sending the confidence-busting message that I don’t think my clients, and my children, are capable of rescuing themselves. This is a really bad habit. What kids need most, from the time they are little to when they head off to college, is the unshakeable belief that they can work out dilemmas on their own, and survive the consequences if they don’t.
So as I sit here waiting for those emails to come pouring in, I take comfort in the fact that my business has grown each year through word-of-mouth and younger siblings reaching their senior year. I also try to keep in mind that my clients are other parents’ baby birds, and when they fledge, they will, I hope, glance backward at their own moms and dads, as it should be. Still, nothing beats a handwritten thank you note, and in 2012 Yasmin brought over a chocolate cake when she got into Georgetown.
Karen Schwarz coaches students on their admissions essays in private practice and as a volunteer. Last year she was given the “You Make a Difference” award by Alexandria City Public Schools. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and on NPR’s thisIbelieve.org and public radio WAMU. She is the author of What You Can Do For Your Country: An Oral History of the Peace Corps (Morrow/1993). Her website is essaymom.net and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org