Former Duke admissions recruiter Rachel Toor wasn’t getting through. Her advice about an applicant’s personal statement was met with “slightly revised versions of the same vague platitudes.” So when she got a suspiciously impressive new essay, she was concerned. Had someone else helped him write the essay?
“No, he said. This time he didn’t let his dad touch it.”
Toor’s piece is a great reminder to parents who get so invested in their children’s college applications that they forget to let their children participate.
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If your child doesn’t ask your advice, leave him alone: it’s his job to find a creative way to showcase himself in 500 words. But if your child does ask for help, you still need to keep your hands off of their essay.
The work of the application essay, Toor argues, is “an exercise in emotional archaeology.” Your child needs to do that crucial digging himself. But you can help him do that digging by being his mirror. You, who have spent more hours watching your child than anyone on earth, can reflect back to him what you know to be true but he may not have realized about himself.
Here are four hands-off methods for being your child’s mirror.
4 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids Write Their College Essay
1) Encourage an early start on the college essay
You can’t make your child start early. As Kathy Bates has taught us, forcing people to sit down to write is a cocadoodie way encourage good prose.
But you can have an early conversation, ideally in summer when there are no meetings or practices or homework assignments.
Ask questions. Skip “What do you want to be when you grow up,” because every teenager has already learned a 15-second non-answer to this question. Ask him tough questions. What is your proudest moment? What do you think you’re really good at? If he can’t say these things about himself, ask him what positive reviews other people have given him. What’s the best compliment he’s ever received?
These questions will lay the foundation for talking about him, not what he thinks an admissions committee wants to hear about him.
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Depending on the personalities in your household, you can enlist a whole room full of mirrors. You might stage a “boast” dinner where your family shares stories about your applicant. Record the conversations or designate a notetaker. One of those stories may spark the perfect essay.
2) Study the genre
If your child has been well-trained in 5-paragraph essays, he may be surprised to learn that the formula for high school writing success is often the formula for college essay failure. Because the admissions officers are looking for personality, these essays offer a rare opportunity to play with genre.
Start by reading successful essays together. Start with the perennial favorite “But I Have Not Yet Gone To College.” The University of Chicago also has terrific essay prompts and sample essays that will give you and your child a sense of the range of possibilities.
After reading some samples, encourage your child to play around with genre. What would the essay look like as a movie review? A recipe? A tweetstorm? A letter of recommendation for the school? An invoice to the school from the student, detailing what it will gain from his attendance?
Don’t push your child to write a recipe if he’s not an enthusiastic cook or write an obituary if he hates dark humor. The essay doesn’t have to be funny. It doesn’t even have to be fun.
Depending on the subject, it might be cathartic, depressing, nostalgic, heartwarming. But as you look at examples, talk about how the genres enhance the stories the writers are telling about themselves.
3) Reflect the true-but-trite
Admissions essays are the most difficult things to write, next to maybe wedding vows. But with wedding vows, you can get away with trite but true statements like those that open with “I love.”
That will not fly in admissions essays.
If you read sample essays together, you and your child will learn that most successful admissions essays are selectively truthful. I defy you to find a winning essay that includes the sentence “my passion is to help others.” While that may certainly be true, it’s also true for everyone applying.
When your child asks for help on early drafts, reflect on any true-but-trite statements. Don’t all future medical students want to help people? Don’t all English majors love books? What about an essay from the English-major-to-be about why she hates books? Now that would get an admissions officer’s attention.
4) Do. Not. Edit.
A lot of well-meaning parents give terrible writing advice, mostly by focusing on errors far too early in the writing process. Grammar is not nearly as important as the story your child is telling about himself. You’re not here to be an editor, even if you are a writing professor who excels at pointing out dangling participles.
When it is time to edit (about 3 drafts later than you think), don’t forget your mirror status. Do not personally change a word of that draft. Instead print a copy for each of you and then read the draft out loud. Trust him to hear the parts he wants to change.
You can help in lots of productive ways, but don’t interfere with the product. If all goes well, your child will be at school 9 months from now doing all his own writing. By adhering to your mirror role, you’ll help him produce a strong piece of writing while also modeling the skills he needs to view his own writing more critically.