My #1 Tip for Helping with College Admissions Essays (The younger your child, the more you need this!)
I was an English teacher for 25 years and worked as a writing tutor on the side, often helping kids with their college app, including my own three children. That experience has given me my own perspective on the college admissions essay process.
Hands down, by far the hardest part of writing the college admissions essay is finding something of significance to write about—and by significant, I really mean where the student can be emotionally vulnerable and share something which was a real learning experience or turning point.
One-sided People Can Only Tell One-Sided Stories
Unfortunately, today many students have spent so many years fixated on having the perfect resume for college that they have been living their life from a very safe list of activities. When challenges have been faced, their parents have swooped in with solutions and help, whether that is tutors or getting extensions from teachers. Many students have not had to face any actual struggles themselves. Some have been allowed such narrow choices, they don’t know how they truly feel about things. Students tell me it is easier to like something your parent will approve of than to fight for what you really want to do. It is easier to just practice the piano than to tell people how much you really don’t want to play it anymore. When kids get to this level of apathy about their own lives, they go numb and stop feeling. That is a major disadvantage when it comes to writing an essay: That flat, I-am-just-going-through-the-motions vibe comes through in their writing every time and is the kiss of death when it comes to writing an essay that will catch a reader’s eye.
The Stormy Seas Story Is Always More Engaging Than the Smooth Sailing One
This next advice I give only slightly facetiously: The best thing a parent could do help their child with their college app essay is to give them some hard life experiences. Kids grow when they do things outside their comfort zone—particularly when outside their academic comfort zone. My father was great at trusting me to do things, I wasn’t sure I could do myself. He was a contractor, and one summer I drove supplies to his job sites. I had a map, directions, and money for the payphone in case I got lost. I drove a big, manual shift pick up truck in around a 50 miles radius from his office. I remember being stopped on a hill in San Francisco one day when a fancy sports car pulled up behind me. My stomach fell and sweat began to trickle down my back as I considered how I was going to shift smoothly enough to move up the hill without rolling back onto that fancy car. My solution? Put on the parking break and start from there. It was an inelegant solution as I jerked my way forward—nearly hitting the car in front of me. But I did it. I made it up and down this famed hills of San Francisco. I learned more about myself and what I am capable of in that summer of driving around—especially in those few moments in S.F.—than in any of my high school classes.
Similarly, at the end of my freshman year in high school, I decided to switch from French to German and signed up for an intensive German immersion program in northern Minnesota. I had never been to Minnesota before, but I took the red-eye from San Francisco to Minneapolis, arriving at 4:00 in the morning, and jumped in a shuttle to the local Greyhound terminal to wait for the bus up to camp. I learned a ton of German that summer, but again, my sense of myself as an individual did not grow because of my academic experience but from having to navigate the world on my own.
If All Else Fails, Manufacture an Experience!
If I had a high school senior who was struggling to write something authentic for his essays, I would probably do something a little radical—like drive him a hundred miles from home, hand him sixty bucks and tell him I would see him at home. According to www.commonapp.org of the 800,000 kids who wrote Common App essays only 17 percent wrote about a lesson or failure and only 10 percent about a problem solved. Having to get from, say, Turlock, CA back to San Jose, CA could certainly provide the adventure which if not a failure might well be a lesson and would certainly be a problem solved. (By the way, I checked, and the Uber equivalent is closer to $100—that’s why I would only give them $60.)
What to Do Before Your Child Is Applying to Schools
Better yet, if I were a parent looking ahead to my child applying to college, I would go out of my way to provide him opportunities to figure things out—things that might be uncomfortable or a little dangerous or even a bit dicey. I would l let him use the stove and oven sooner and request that he make dinner. I would give more opportunities for and less assistance with projects like building a tree house or assembling a new desk. I would allow school assignments and Halloween costumes to be less perfect and more about the experience of creating them. I would even let him do things that might scare me a little—like letting him take the train to the city for a class he was interested in or even just to meet friends.
College admissions officers know that a child who arrives with a stellar list of academic accolades and no life skills is not going to fair as well as the okay student who knows how to take care of himself and how to figure things out on his own (or how to enlist college resources when he needs help). Colleges are set up to help kids succeed academically; they wish parents would teach their children how to live life.