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College Essay: Parent Do’s and Don’ts

Posted on 10/16/2017, by Dr. Ellen Fithian to Parents of 12th Graders (0 comments)

Without question, writing college essays is one of the most daunting of college application tasks. If your senior has put it off, or his best effort so far is a two paragraph treatise that begins with a dictionary definition and ends with a cliché, what can you do to help?

Provide helpful resources

Most teens have no idea what they're trying to accomplish in their essay, so get them started with one of these introductory articles: 

The Essay (from The Sidelines: Parent Guide to College Admissions)

Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay (College Board website)

In a nutshell, a college essay should engage the admissions committee and tell them something about the applicant. How do you help your teen accomplish that?

Choosing the Topic

Do help your teen brainstorm topics and develop one

Have her generate potential topics by listing ten possibilities off the top of her head.Then, help her explore how each topic might be developed. For example, if she's considering writing about a mission trip to Appalachia that rocked her world, push her to explain exactly how. What did she see that influenced her? How did she view the world before the trip - and after? How did the trip make her a different person than she would have been if she hadn't gone? 

Don't steamroll her Into writing on a topic of your choice 

When my youngest son was applying to college, one essay asked for a short reflection on an important extracurricular activity. Since he'd been class president, student body VP and President, student government seemed the obvious choice to me. However, after several abortive efforts, he told me he wanted to write about soccer instead. Though he was by no means the MVP of his team, he had loved playing the game with his friends throughout high school. Once he switched to soccer, he was able to turn out a nice essay fairly easily. So while it's fine to suggest a topic, back off if your teen doesn't warm to it.

Another tempting topic to approach with caution is the saga of a relative's adventure. If Grandma escaped from East Germany in an air balloon, there's no question that the tale could make for a riveting read. However, if Grandma's experience really hasn't had much impact on your son, it's not a good topic for his college essay.


Do offer constructive criticism

Once your son or daughter has written a first draft, read it over to see if it's headed in the right direction. If not, say so. No writer likes to hear criticism, but sometimes the best favor you can do for your teen is to candidly point out that the essay isn't working. Even a topic that's been thoughtfully chosen and seems promising may just fizzle. Bottom line: It's less painful to start over after the first draft than the fourth or fifth.

Do proofread

Once the essay is close to being finished, proofread for spelling and grammatical errors, awkward transitions or words used incorrectly. I don't have a problem with parents providing feedback on content, either, as long as they make a conscientious effort not to go too far.

Don't cross the line into rewriting

While providing input on what your teen has written is acceptable, in my view, please tread carefully. With respect to the content of the essay, make sure you're limiting your involvement to helping him develop hisideas, rather than crafting the major themes yourself. 

Here are a couple of concrete suggestions to help you avoid over-stepping. First, when working on an essay with your teen, make sure she's the one sitting in front of the computer and doing the editing. This will ensure that she can actively decide whether to implement any and all suggested edits. And never make changes to the essay when your child isn't present. It's just too easy to start out correcting a few typos and end up rewriting substantial portions of the essay.

Finally, here's a practical tip for your senior: When the first draft is done, copy it and create a new document before making any changes. Save the first draft as Essay 1 and then label subsequent drafts consecutively (e.g. Essay 1, Essay 2, etc.) Why save each draft? Because it's not uncommon for students to radically revise an essay and later decide they liked all or part of an earlier version better.

In conclusion, writing a great college essay is daunting. Do help your teen choose a topic, develop his ideas and polish the final draft. But don't write the essay yourself - in part or in whole. The best college essays are engaging, well-written, and thoughtful - but still sound like they came from a teenager. 

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Posted on 10/16/2017, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)




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