Parents often ask us, “Isn’t there a fine line between editing your child’s essay and writing it for her?”
It’s a common dilemma, especially for parents who would do anything to help their children get into the schools of their dreams. We all want our children to succeed; college is critically important. But the truth is, you should not heavily edit your child’s application essays, and you most definitely should not write them yourself.
So how can parents be helpful without crossing the line?
Offer encouragement. In this case, you are more cheerleader than coach. No one knows your child better than you. Encourage her to express herself in her own voice, in her own words. Yes, she really can do this. And she can do it well.
Be realistic. An essay should be well-written, but it should sound like it was composed by a high school student. Admissions officers can tell the difference between a heartfelt, well-crafted essay and a submission that is so highly-polished it sounds flat.
Get a head start. For many students, the essay is the hardest part of the college application process. The fall of senior year is a stressful, exciting time, not necessarily the best environment for students to sit quietly and write about themselves. Start in the summer, as soon as the essay prompts become available.
Read, but don’t criticize. Read drafts and offer your opinion, but don’t go too far. Ask clarifying questions. Engage in a conversation with your child to figure out what he is trying to say about himself. Save the editor’s pencil for misspelled words and grammatical errors.
No matter what the prompt, the essay is not about the job, the vacation, the illness, the book or the influential person; it is about the student – what he or she learned, gained or realized as a result of the experience. As a parent, you can help the most by keeping your child focused on the essay’s purpose.
It can be hard to write about oneself, especially when it really matters. We get that. That’s why we teach our students how to write their essays, using a straightforward, 10-step process. We help kids find their voices. They leave our workshops feeling empowered, confident in their own abilities, certain of their words.
It’s a good time to debunk some of the rumors about the college essay that spread like wildfire among the college-bound crowd and their families. Here are 5 college essay myths and facts to consider before getting started on your college essay.
Fact: You are impressive, not the topic. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what you’ve learned, rather than what you did.
One Wow student came to us confident that a trip to help the poor in Central America would stand out. We asked her what she discovered about herself on that trip. Through brainstorming, she discovered her most important moment during that trip occurred when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water.
“What does it mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.”
Fact: You should sound like a high school student. Not a professor or a famous writer. And not like your Mom, Dad, teacher or older sibling!
“They should be themselves,” said Andrea Nadler, associate dean of admission at Hofstra University. “The essay should allow us to use our senses to see, feel, taste and experience the kinds of things that are important to these students. If writing about a book they have read, we want to feel like we are in it with them. If writing about a meal they have had, we want to taste it.”
Fact: There is a fine line between getting help and getting someone else to write it for you. Admissions officers know when someone other than a student writes a story; they don’t like it, and it can hurt you!
College admissions professionals are smart, and they notice trends when they read essays. A few years ago, Erica Sanders, Director of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of Michigan, discovered two essays that sounded the same, word-for-word. Both candidates were rejected immediately without explanation.
You do not need to rescue a child from a house fire or teach a boy with autism how to swim to impress admissions officers. In fact, one Wow student wrote about the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admissions officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his college essay.
“Sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share,” said Jan Deike, Vanderbilt University, Assistant Director of Admissions. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can be a powerful essay.”
Give Yourself the Wow Advantage
Year after year, Wow students get into their top choice colleges, including the Ivies, prestigious liberal arts schools, and the best state universities. With a Wow coach as a guide, you can learn how to write great application essays and become a stronger writer. Reserve your coach now by purchasing 1 Complete Essay Package; that coach can be available to work on as many essays as you need.
Kim Lifton, a LinkedIn Top Voices in Education, 2018, is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.
Does your child think, “I can’t write”? Have you offered encouragement?
Year after year, we work with students who tell us they cannot write, or they despise it. We don’t believe them. You shouldn’t, either.
Before we start working with our students on the college essay, we remind them that this is their journey, and they should own the process. We also assure them that when they are done, they will be more confident, empowered writers, ready for college and their futures. Our message: “Trust yourself!” It’s important that every student trust their own words, style and voice.
Every year, we work with students who tell us they cannot write. But we know better. With instructions, anyone can learn how to write. We train educational consultants and high school counselors, coach professionals and adults who want to improve their writing, and we teach students. In all of Wow’s years working with students, we have never had a student who could not follow our guidance and complete an application essay.
David was one of those students who lacked the confidence to write his essay. Applying to college was stressful; writing the essays paralyzed him. He came to Wow convinced he just couldn’t write.
David had good grades in math and English, and scored well on the ACT (in writing, too). He spoke clearly and articulately. He had good reasons for wanting to study business in college. The boy who said he could not write was a sports reporter for his high school newspaper (and an exceptional varsity hockey player!).
Like so many students feeling pressure to get into college, David’s fear of writing this essay prevented him from getting the job done.
“Can you think?” we asked him.
“Um, yes,” he said.
“Well, then, you can write.”
Our mantra: If you can think, you can write. We talked about what mattered to David, and why. Why did he want to go to college? What did he want admissions to know about him? What made him tick? He said everyone thought of him as a gifted hockey player. But he had another side few could see. He was kind and compassionate with a soft spot for special needs children. That, he said, would be a nice thing for colleges to know.
We brainstormed ideas based on what David wanted colleges to know about him. David was afraid to write about hockey. “Everyone” told him not to write about sports. We explained that a college essay was not about an experience; it was about him – his insight into the experience, any experience. If David had a story about sports that demonstrated his kindness and compassion, then it might work.
In the end, David wrote about the moment that his cousin with Down Syndrome, who regularly attended his hockey games, held up a homemade sign to cheer him on during a game. “I just wanted to score one for my cousin,” David said.
David’s story about his relationship with his disabled cousin turned into an insightful essay that illustrated something meaningful to David that colleges would never have known about him. He used it for two different college applications. It was his genuine story, his idea, and no one else could possibly duplicate it. He was admitted to both schools.
That night, David’s mom called. She had never seen her son this excited about anything other than girls or sports. He finally believed he could write.
David listened to his writing voice, and he liked what he heard.
Your child can do the same.
The book costs just $9.99 and takes less than an hour to read. How to Write an Effective College Application Essay has been recently updated with explanations of the new 2017-18 Common App prompts, plus lots of others, including ApplyTexas, the University of California and supplemental essays from selective public and private universities, including the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the Ivies.
Is your son or daughter ready to get started? Sign up today to reserve a Wow essay coach for your family. We can help no matter where you are in the essay writing process. Questions? Email me any time.
Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that is a leading expert on the college application essay. Kim speaks with senior admissions officers from the nation’s most selective colleges almost every day. Wow works directly with students, and trains school counselors, English teachers and independent educational consultants who want to improve their essay-coaching skills. Wow also offers professional communication and writing services to businesses and nonprofits.
Join us for a free program, Write Your Way to College Success, this spring at two Metro Detroit libraries.
How important is a college application essay? What does it take to succeed on the ACT and SAT writing tests?
Come discuss the myths and facts with writing coaches who can help you make the most of your writing opportunities as you prepare for college and beyond. We’ll discuss prompts, voice, choosing a topic and how to stand out from the college application crowd. Bring paper and pen, and come prepared to write (you too, Mom and Dad.)
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