7 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids With College Application Essays

Right now, many high school seniors are dancing in the school hallways, celebrating their college acceptance letters. Your high school junior is anticipating their own victory lap a year from now, but until then, they’re knocking themselves out to keep their grades up, prep for the SAT or ACT, and study for AP and final exams. With this kind of pressure, why would I even suggest that it might be time to start thinking about college application essays?

How parents can help kids with college application essays

Here’s why: Your child might want to take advantage of the higher acceptance rates in the early decision round offered by many colleges. These applications are due November first, which is not so far off when you consider everything else your child has got going on. Before you roll your eyes, please read the next paragraph.

I’ve been helping kids with college application essays as a volunteer and in private practice for eight years. At this time of year, parents start calling to ask me if I would start working with their junior. “No,” I tell them, “Your kid has enough going on right now. But you should.” With not much effort, parents can actually help their child get ready for that victory now by helping out, quietly, with one of the toughest aspects of application essays – finding appropriate topics.

How to Help Your Teen With Their College Application Essays

1. Do your own research. Get an idea of the essays your child will need to write by creating your own Common App account and reading as many essay prompts as you like. You’ll notice recurring themes, like the value of diversity and overcoming failure, but there’s enough variety among colleges to make it worth your while to click around for an hour or two. Save a dozen or so essay questions in a file.

[Expert Help for Your College Essay here.]

2. Create your own fodder. Reflect on your child’s high school years and jot down instances when he or she overcame obstacles, assumed responsibility, and handled difficult situations with good judgment and maturity. Next, make a list of your child’s interests — in and out of school — that show their passion for learning and willingness to working hard. Now, see if you can correlate what you’ve written down with the essay questions you captured. For example, your child’s job as a lifeguard at a public pool might sync up to this essay question: “How do you participate in the life of your community?” This little exercise preps you nicely for the moment when your child whines, “I have nothing to write about.”

3. Read great admissions essays. Many colleges post their admissions’ staffs’ favorite application essays online. Check out websites for Vanderbilt, Connecticut College and Johns Hopkins to get started. You can also find anthologies of actual essays at Amazon.com, but I would start with the college websites.

[True Confessions of a College Essay Coach]

4. Keep it light. If you decide to bring up application essays with your junior, do it casually, in response to something else. Let’s say your child is complaining about how hard it is to nail that Mozart violin solo. You might reply, “your commitment to mastering that piece is really impressive. This might actually make a good college essay.” Then follow your child’s lead. If they don’t want to talk about it, drop it. It’s enough to have planted that seed.

5. “That totally sucks!” Chances are good that this is what your junior will say about your essay ideas whenever the subject comes up. My advice is to just let it go. Your dreadful ideas may spur your child to think up some ideas on their own.

6. “What do you think of this idea?” If your child asks your opinion, be thrilled that he or she is inviting you into the process. Then ask questions, as I do with my clients, that will help your child determine whether the idea is a good one or how he or she might tweak it. Here are my favorites: “What impression do you think that story would give an admissions officer?” and “How would that topic convince a dean that he or she should admit you?” (Notice these are not yes/no questions).

7. This last tip has nothing to do with essay ideas, and everything to do with real life. When your child starts planning their summer, encourage them (with all available leverage) to set aside a specific block of time to work on the college application essays. Students do their best writing over the summer without the demands of school robbing their energy and focus. Make the point, gently and firmly, that early decision applications are due a mere 8 ½ weeks from Labor Day.


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Karen Schwarz (a.k.a. Essaymom) has been coaching students on college admissions essays since 2009.   This year’s clients, who have been admitted ED/EA, have been offered 4-year merit scholarships totaling $920,000.  She gives free summer workshops and lunch-period help at her local public high school in Alexandria, VA. Visit her on Facebook and Linked In.

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