For counselors: how to handle parent involvement in college essays

A counselor at one of my college essay workshops last week asked me how to deal with a parent who's pushing her own essay idea on her kid, especially if the idea is a cliche.

There's no magic formula, but here are a few things we do in these situations at Collegewise.

1. Ask the student what he wants to write about.

This is your first step whether or not a parent is getting involved.  It's the student's essay, not yours or the parent's.  But sometimes the student will shut the pushy parent down herself if given a chance.  Problem solved.

2. Don't argue. 

It's not your job to argue with a parent.  It's your job to share good information, to guide and to be vested in the outcome (the last part admittedly being the reason so many counselors feel forced to argue in these situations). 

3.  Tell the parent what you like about the idea.

When you immediately poke holes in the suggestion, it just makes the parent feel criticized (which is even worse when it's in front of her kid).  You've got to like something about the idea, even if it's a small kernel, or just the motivation behind it.  So focus on that part first.  It sounds like this:

"The Eagle Scout project really does show how responsible he is."

"It's touching that he was so affected by his grandmother's passing."

"There's no question he's had a lot of success in Model United Nations.  He should be really proud of that."

4.  Express your concern by focusing on the student.

Be direct about your concerns, but keep your focus on the most likely area of agreement–the fact that everyone involved in this discussion wants the student to be successful.  It sounds like this.

"I worry that if he writes the entire essay about the Eagle Scout project, he'll lose an opportunity to share some of the other great things about him that the colleges won't know already from the application."

"I'm concerned that if he writes about something that happened in sixth grade, they'll like the sixth grade version of him, but won't get the chance to appreciate what he's like today."

"He just doesn't seem that excited about MUN when he talks about it, and he's got so much energy.  I really want the colleges to know that about him"

5.  Remember that parents also have great insights about their kids.

It's easy for counselors to have a cringing reaction when a parent starts sharing college essay ideas.  But while the essays should always come from the student, parents do know their kids well.  And that familiarity really can add some value, especially when parents can share details about the experiences the kids choose to write about.  Our essay brainstorming questions at Collegewise invite kids to, "Ask your parents to share some of their favorite interesting or funny stories about you."  It lets parents be involved without taking over the process, and the students still get to make their own choices about what to write.