Parents walk a fine line when helping a child with a college admissions essay. Criticize too much, and they may freeze out your advice. Rewrite the essay yourself, and you risk editing out the student’s voice. Or stay hands-off and find out too late that they’ve blown a deadline.
But it is possible to use simple coaching to guide your student to a strong essay—one that tells a compelling story, meets the requirements, and, most importantly, is written in your child’s own voice. Follow these three tips to guide with success:
1. Identify the Best Parts
When offering feedback on writing, it’s wise to start with your genuinely positive reactions. Even if you feel the essay isn’t strong overall, there should be something you can point to as a strength, and this will soften the blow later when you bring up more critical points.
If some of the writing seems forced or uninspired, try looking for glimpses that you know highlight your child’s true personality. Then point out how those passages give the essay an authentic feeling. You might identify that the student has included an intriguing personal story, written a good introductory paragraph, or simply used clear grammar. Praising the essay’s best qualities first sets up your conversation in a positive way that can open the student up to listening to constructive criticism you may have as well.
2. Make Sure It Answers the Prompt
First, read the question/prompt carefully. Are there word limits or other basic guidelines? Break down every part of the prompt to make sure each part is being addressed. Take, for example, one of the prompts from the Common Application for 2016-17: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
This is asking for three things:
● Reflect on such a moment from your life. It should be a real moment, and a relatively recent one if possible, to set up an authentic answer
● Describe why it made you take action
● Analyze whether or not you would react the same way if given a do-over. And, of course, include an explanation of why or why not
An essay that fails to include one of these points, exceeds the requested word length, or otherwise ignores instructions makes it easy for an admissions officer to dismiss it.
3. Assess the Topic's Authenticity
You know your child—if he or she has chosen to write about something that isn’t truly a passion, it will probably show in his or her writing. But rather than picking a topic yourself, ask your child questions that will help set him or her on the right track. What experiences or goals stand out the most from their lives so far? What free-time activities provide a hint at their biggest interests?
Once you’ve helped your child identify an area to focus on, delve deeper to find an angle that will help the essay stand out from the crowd. Just saying you have gained invaluable experience from debate team, for instance, isn’t enough—encourage your child to detail a situation that personally inspired growth or a new perspective.
A final tip for the overzealous editor parents out there: Proofread, don’t rewrite. Admissions officers see tons of essays, and it’s a safe bet that they appreciate well-written essays that are clearly in the student’s own voice. Put away the thesaurus and lists of overused, inspirational quotes.
Look at your role as helping to drive the task, but not by actually doing the work—simply by encouraging your child to think strategically and creatively. That type of coaching will help not just with this essay but with all sorts of academic and professional challenges to come.
Lora Wegman is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.