Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

Parents: How to Help with the College Essay — Without Taking Over

by | Sep 7, 2020 | Ask the admission office, Build relationships | 0 comments

It’s essay season! 

Itching to get your hands on your student’s application essay? Just once?

Don’t do it. 

Your child’s essay may be deeply personal. Unless your child offers you a share in the review, remain as hands-off during this process as possible.

What you can do: Go over the “rules” beforehand. You don’t want to be the parent who says, “Oh, by the way, don’t repeat any other part of the application, like your awards, grades or test scores. You’ve already reported those” — after your child wades through the essay.)

You’ll hear, “Mooo-om! That’s the whole third paragraph!”

Instead, intervene at the beginning if you want to help with the college essay — read this first!

1. What’s unique?

You know your child better than anyone else. You know what makes him tick (oooh, get rid of clichés!) 

He shouldn’t write about what he thinks will impress a scholarship committee or admission committee. 

In other words, your child shouldn’t write about world hunger if it’s not his thing. Let’s say his thing is caring for animals. Does he get up at dawn every day to birth calves with the veterinarian next door?

He should write about cow placentas if his life is all about cow placentas! Admission committees want to hear about unique interests. 

Can your child think of something unique — besides football, soccer or school subjects? (Overused topics.)

Maybe your daughter’s an Origami wizard. Maybe your son overcame OCD. 

Get your child thinking about his own passions — and how to craft these ideas in his own voice.

2. Writing can’t suck.

Obviously. It’s got to be interesting. Check out this intro:

Let’s acquaint. Born in New York City, I grew up filthy on the streets. Snowflakes landed on my dà pán jī and my sleeping bag in synchronicity. Mrs. Ming at Hou Yi fed me six times a day and I learned to swear in Chinese.

Just kidding. I grew up in Greenwich — privileged, yes, but check this out. I’m typing this essay with my toes. That’s right — no arms!

Wow, doesn’t that get your attention? 

Compare this to the first two sentences of my own autobiography (I wrote it in fourth grade): 

I was born on a cold, windy day in November. I was a greenish color and I cried when I was born. 

ZZZZZzzz. 

High schoolers sometimes can’t kick the passive voice because it’s easier.

Plus, bad English teachers + maxing out word count = raging passive voice.

How do you make sure your kid writes unlike he speaks? We all speak passively, and not everyone writes well. Remember those old summer vacation essays?

“We were on our summer vacation and Cape Cod was the only place I wanted to be.”

Yikes.

Get rid of clichés in your own speech and remind your high schooler. By the way, your child should strike anything redundant (extra words — yuck!) and ambiguous (give concrete details!).

3. Get someone else on board ahead of time.

Ask to critique his work and your kid looks at you, buggy-eyed, like you suggested staring at elephant poop. “Mom, you’re an insurance agent, not an English professor. Please sit this one out.” 

Sound familiar?

Get a third party involved wayyyy in advance, preferably someone who knows really good writing. Ask your copywriter friend, your child’s English teacher — someone other than you or your partner. 

(Even if you know your writing skills sparkle!)

Take control of the college search
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4. Encourage your essayist to take it slow.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. (No clichés, remember?)

The Common App requires a 650-word essay, so encourage your child to make them count — slowly. Let’s say your child must meet a November 1 deadline for School X.

Ask him to start the essay now. Why not write 100 words over the course of six weeks? (Beats writing it all two days beforehand.) Pencil it out, like this: 

  • Write 100 words: Week of September 13
  • Another 100 words: Week of September 20
  • Crank out another 100 words: Week of September 27
  • Get it! Another 100 words: Week of October 4 (Already up to 400!)

…and so on. There’s nothing worse than last-minute panic. You know that from personal experience, right?

Help your child map out the entire next six weeks — and make sure he or she ends up with more than 250 words. It’s tough to impress an admission committee in only 250 words.

Your child may fill out other applications instead of the Common App. Schools often offer a “suggested limit” — don’t go over that. Try to use the Common App’s 650-word limit if no suggested limit exists.

5. Add in buffer time.

Add in time for creative stewing. For Netflix spirals. For reading a book chapter, typing a sentence, reading another chapter and writing another sentence.

It’s impossible for most people to sit down and write in one sitting. (Right now, I’m watching T.V., reading and working on three other freelance articles at a time.) I can’t commit to one thing at a time — your kid can’t, either. The point is, within those 100-word weeks, add in lots of buffer time.

Don’t forget to have your high schooler put the essay down quite a few times — think cold eyes and lots of revisions!

7. Answer the prompt!

It’s easy for admission officers to throw out essays that don’t specifically answer the prompts provided. Maybe the prompt asks about your child’s achievements and he answers with a lengthy blow-by-blow of his latest breakup.

Not relevant. Furthermore, make sure he relates it to his future performance in college. 

Read the prompt, then set it aside for a day or two. You don’t want your child to misread the prompt!

8. Resist the urge to take over.

You can’t write the essay for your child. Not even a small sentence here and there. If you do, you might give yourself away! Many old-timers slip in two spaces after every period or exclamation mark. Nobody does that anymore. (And if you do it, stop.)

Designate yourself “Cheerleader Mom” and reach out to your already-appointed proofreader instead. Your copywriter friend offers a subjectivity that you don’t have. The copywriter friend you know doesn’t have the same “My kid’s a genius!” bent or ample criticisms. (And if he does criticize, he’ll use a diplomatic approach — “How ‘bout we say this instead?”)

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Help, but Stay Hands Off

Just like nobody warned you how hard it would be to watch your child fall down as a one-year-old, nobody warned you how tough it would be to keep your mitts off that admission essay.

Trust that outside advisor to walk your child through it — and if you need to, hire help! 

One last tip: Encourage your child to read great essays. Your child can glean a lot from samples, as long as he doesn’t copy them verbatim.

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