The Parents’ Role in the College Essay

To the ever-under-appreciated parents of teenagers,

We know how hard it is to be parents. You’re walking a fine line between wanting what is best for your children and trying to let them make their own decisions (and, let’s be honest, their own mistakes). Your child will only apply to college once, and it can be difficult to know how to balance your parental instincts with letting your student take ownership of the process. The good news is that we are here to make your life a little easier by allowing you to take a step back while we harangue your child to help get him where he needs to be in the admissions process.

Let’s address what’s probably the most stressful part of our journey together: the college essays. We will tackle this in three parts: first, we will discuss how most kids approach their essays, how Passport Admissions works with your child on their essays, and the best role of parents in this process.

How Most Kids Approach the College Essay

Most seventeen-year-olds think, “What can I say that will make colleges accept me?” They write essays based on what they believe colleges want to hear. And as a result, most kids make crucial mistakes in their college essays.

Mistake #1 - Most kids brag too much in their college essays.

How many valedictorians apply to college? All of them. How many class presidents? All of them. How many team captains? You get the idea.

There is virtually nothing that kids can brag about that will sell themselves to an admissions office. When a student tries to brag about himself in his essay: a) it doesn't work, and b) the essay blends into the pile of all the other applicants who are trying to do the same thing.

Mistake #2 - Most kids write essays that look and sound the same.

A former admissions officer for UVA, Parke Muth, once compared the college essay to a Big Mac.  Not because the essays are tasty and not because they have layers (though it can be argued that the college essay, like the Big Mac, is hazardous to your health). No, the college essay is like a Big Mac, because no matter where you go, the essays look and taste the same. Thus, Muth coined the term McEssay to refer to the generic college essay.

McEssays typically fall into one of the following five flavors. You will want to avoid these topics at all costs.

  1. The hard work essay - "Being captain of the soccer team involved a lot of hard work, but I learned important lessons in leadership and perseverance."
  2. The family trip to Europe essay - "Going to France showed me just how different other cultures are."
  3. The summer program for gifted youth essay - "I am so fortunate to have been able to attend the National Youth Leadership Conference."
  4. The athletics essay - "We lost the championship, but we came together as a team."
  5. The saving the world through community service essay - "Building houses in Mexico was so rewarding."

We know these experiences have been meaningful to many of our students. But writing a McEssay makes a student blend in with every other applicant, so we have to find a unique topic.

Mistake #3 - Most kids polish all of the personality out of their essays.

Most students write their college essays by committee, seeking input and feedback from multiple teachers and parents, who - despite good intentions - will polish all of the life and personality out of the essay. Your teenager should sound like a teenager in his college essay. Consider the following excerpts:

"My nascent drum career began when I was twelve. Learning to play the drums was quite challenging at first, because I had little formal training and needed to learn more about rhythm and chord structure in order to contribute to my band. After rehearsing for innumerable hours, I eventually was able to keep up, but I still needed more help. I decided to get lessons to help improve my overall musical knowledge and particularly improve my music theory. In the end, the lessons paid off, and our band was better than ever."

"A band's drummer is the stupid one. He is the one paid not to write songs or to think, but to sit in the back and hit his instrument, as he is clearly far too idiotic to do anything more. I am a drummer, and while I like to think I am above this stereotype, I do sit in the back, behind all the “real musicians,” blissfully ignorant of ongoing deliberation over “What capo he needs to be in to be in the key of G”, perfectly happy that I understand none of it and absolutely satisfied with my lack of involvement, or responsibility to the band’s success. This being said, I am a good drummer, and when a musician needed a moron - I was a solid choice."

Which sounds like a high school student, and which like a parent? In revising an essay, it is crucial to keep the voice of the student and not to make it sound like it was written by a 40-year-old.

The Primary Purpose of the College Essay

The primary purpose of the college essay is to let the college get to know you and like you. That's it. When evaluating a college essay, we ask:

  1. What do we learn about you?
  2. Do we like you?
  3. Is it interesting?
  4. Is it generally free from grammatical and stylistic errors?

What role should parents play?

You know your kid a lot better than we do. We can't tell you exactly how much parental involvement will be the right amount for your student.

But we can at least share this insight about the college essays: the students who have had the most success have been the ones whose parents have been involved the least. Almost without fail, the students who have been accepted into their top choice colleges have been the ones whose parents have trusted their student to write great essays, helped their student only when asked, and otherwise stayed out of the process entirely.  And of course, these are the same families that seem to most enjoy the last year of their child living at home.

So there you have it. We hope that you are as excited as we are to help your student write the best essays she can write. Remember that we are not only experts on this stuff, but we really, really enjoy doing it. For us, editing is fun, and getting to know your student and his passions is what makes our jobs interesting and worthwhile.

If you have questions or want help with your college essay, schedule a free introductory meeting with one of our college advisors.