Parent’s Guide to Helping Students with the College Admissions Essay

By: Caroline Koppelman

The college admissions process can be just as stressful for parents as it is for students. Parents feel that they need to manage their child’s time, stress, schedule, and expectations, which can lead to tension. The college process requires students and their parents to be as unified and cooperative as possible. We’ve created a step-by-step guide for parents to help their children with the college admission essay. 

Step 1: Make sure they want your help
This is the most obvious and most important step. If your child doesn’t want you to help them, don’t help them. If you insist on inserting yourself in the process, you can create resentment. This can create negative feelings towards the entire college process and cause them to procrastinate. Many teenagers just don’t want to their parents to help them. While you can be adamant about the assistance you can provide, at some point it's completely up to them.

Step 2: Brainstorm a topic 
If they request your help, get ready to take notes. You are going to go through the common app essay prompts one at a time. Dissect each one and come up with the best possible answers. Many times teenagers don’t know the answers to the questions, or they think their answers might be “wrong.” It is good to let the questions marinate a little to allow your child to reflect. If the student gets stuck on any question, offer a personal anecdote, or remind them of a story from their life that may be helpful. The goal is to help your child be creative and find unique ways to answer the questions. 

Step 3: Choose a topic
We find that it can be easy to get stuck on a few stories from step two. Now that you have gone through all of the questions, dive into all of the topics and flesh them out as much as possible with outlines and bullet points. You want to choose the topic that shows the most depth and creativity, or showcases a unique world-view or a genuinely interesting story. One topic should quickly emerge as the best option.

Step 4: Prepare to write the essay
You want your child to write from the heart, which can be exceptionally difficult. There is no right answer in the first draft. You should encourage the student to wipe away everything she knows and start from a place of honesty and vulnerability. Originality comes easiest to those who aren’t trying too hard. The most interesting ideas are the ones devoid of cliches, and often are things you’ve never put into words because they seem too weird or obvious. 

Step 5: The first draft
With the topic in hand, the only concrete directions are to “tell your story thoroughly, with vulnerability, character and gusto. Add as many lessons and take home points as you can fit.” They can ignore length restrictions, SAT words, or “what the college wants to hear.” The first draft can be long, messy, and redundant. The more the student writes, the more you have to work with. 

Step 6: Edit the essay
You should edit the essay for content and substance before word count. Word count is important, but can be fixed once the structure of the essay is in place. There are many different types of college essays, but generally the essay should consist of about 60% story, and 40% concluding remarks, revelations, lessons, and overall take home points. If you’re using the failure prompt, make your child think about what she learned from her experience and how she would change what she did to benefit herself in the future. The story should flow as a flawless narrative, interspersed with bits of wisdom. Once all of the content is there, it’s time to fine-tune the essay. 

Step 7: Perfect the essay
Perfecting the essay includes cutting it down to the correct length, refining your word choice, and crafting a clear and concise narrative. Have the student show the essay to honest people and good writers, like teachers or college counselors. They can critique both the ideas and the writing itself. Tell the student to not look at the essay for a few days so that they can revisit it with fresh eyes. As the student continues to redraft the essay, you will find that it will get better and better, up to a certain point. Once the student has reached that point, there’s nothing more to do. 

Finally, keep in mind that at the end of the day, your child is the best judge of whether or not he or she has produced an inspired college admission essay. Your role is to guide and advise her throughout the process, helping her find her path to articulate her experience in the most insightful way. Sometimes, that may mean taking a step back and letting them figure it out for themselves.