Parents and college essays: be afraid

Fear almost never belongs in the college admissions process. Collegewise counselors work hard to remove it. We commit to never injecting it. We want to help families embrace the journey to college as an exciting time where fear has no place.

But there is one instance where I intentionally instill fear because it’s both legitimate and necessary—when parents over-involve themselves in their student’s college essays.

What does “over-involvement” look like? Insisting (over the student’s objections) that they write what you want them to write. Rewriting portions in the way you think they should be written. Flat out writing the essay for your student. They’re all different versions of the same behavior—taking away the thoughts, words, and ensuing stories of a 17-year-old and replacing them with your own.

So, why should you be afraid to do it? Because when you over-involve yourself, admissions officers know it.

Admissions officers have read enough essays to know how students (and unfortunately, how over-involved parents) think and write. That sixth essay sense comes with experience. If you put 20 essays in front of me and asked me to pick out the one that was the product of an over-involved parent, I’ll bat 1000 on that exercise, every time. And I’ve read a fraction of the essays most admissions officers read.

Once the reader recognizes that an essay is not entirely the student’s, it triggers a cascade of negative application effects.

Now the reader is forced to question the integrity of the rest of the application. How much did Mom or Dad do? How much of what’s presented is unvarnished truth from a teen, and how much is over-polished (at best) or fiction (at worst) from the parent?

How often does this behavior repeat itself in the student’s academic work?

Will this parent take over the work once the student is admitted to college (no college professor wants to teach a student whose parents do some or all the work for them)?

Some parents might cry foul and claim this treatment isn’t fair. But the question of fairness isn’t the issue. It’s reality, and an entirely avoidable one.

And consider the effect this over-involvement has on your student. When you take over their essay, you’re telling them their stories aren’t good enough, that their writing isn’t good enough, and that they aren’t good enough. You’re telling them that they can’t get into college without you doing the work for them. And worst of all, you’re telling them that it’s OK to misrepresent themselves in the hopes that the end will justify the means.

Parents can absolutely suggest stories and approaches. You can correct grammar and spelling if you have that skill set. And you certainly know your student well enough to share feedback around questions like these.

But there’s just no nice way to say this. Parents, if you think your essay over-involvement is the exception, if you think you’re improving their essay and improving their chances of admission, you are kidding yourself. You’re making the essay worse. You’re making your student’s chances of admission worse. I know your intentions are good, but you’re making things worse.

If this sounds surprisingly critical or alarmist, that’s intentional. These risks are real. And if parents are going to take them, you deserve to know what you’re risking.

So if you’re afraid, listen to those fears. Step back and let your student get back to writing their own essays.

And if you’re looking for another voice to add to this chorus, please see this recent NY Times piece, “How I Know you Wrote your Kid’s College Essay.”