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4 Ways Parents Can Help Their Teen With College Essays

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With millions of students applying to college each year, it’s necessary for colleges to streamline their methods of evaluating college applicants. For this reason, there are many ways in which the college application process reduces college applicants to a series of statistics. These numbers, from SAT scores to GPAs, become a large part of the screening process when a college reviews an application.


This might seem unfair to students who aren’t naturally good test takers or who stumbled midway through high school before finding his or her feet. Some parents might wonder if there’s any way for a student to redeem him or herself if the numbers don’t quite add up. Other parents might wonder if there’s any way to stand out in a field of applicants who are otherwise very similar on paper. Luckily, there is one part of the college application that allows your teen to speak his or her truth — the college essay.


In this post, we’re going to break down the purpose of the college essay, its importance in the application process, and four ways that you can help your teen as he or she tackles the college essay.



What Is the Purpose of the College Essay?

The college essay, also sometimes referred to as a personal statement, is generally your teen’s opportunity to speak to his or her unique experiences, qualities, or beliefs that aren’t elsewhere represented on the application. Though prompts might vary from the specific to the vastly broad, most give applicants the opportunity to break away from the data that defines them on paper and provide a glimpse into who they really are. In short, the college essay is the admissions committee’s chance to get to know the real person behind the application.


In a college essay, admissions committees are generally looking for something that sets an applicant apart. They are asking themselves, does this person write about something truly unique, or does the applicant write about something common in a new and interesting way? Does the applicant write about an aspect of his or her application that needs further explanation? All of these are great ways to maximize the potential of a college essay.

How Important Is the College Essay?

This of course varies from one college to another. At many large schools, a college essay won’t be reviewed unless an applicant meets specific screening requirements first. For example, applicants may have to reach a benchmark standardized test score to advance to another round of application screenings.


At other colleges, particularly those at which standardized tests are optional or at which admissions committees boast of a more holistic approach to admissions, college essays are a pivotal piece of the application.


The bottom line is that your teen can never know which element of his or her application will become a defining piece of it, and the college essay provides a unique opportunity to shine in ways not offered on other parts of the application. In short, the college essay doesn’t always determine whether or not a student is accepted, but it can and may and should be treated as such.


For this reason, we offer four ways to help your teen as he or she tackles the college essay.


1. Review and Understand the Prompts

One way in which you can prepare to help your teen is to read as many college essay prompts as you can get your hands on. Start with the Common Application. Anyone can open an online account to review the Common Application and doing so will allow you to read not only the essay prompts on the Common Application itself, but also the supplementary prompts required by many of the colleges that accept the Common App.


You can also find examples of past prompts and of previous successful college essays, often available on college websites. Check out the websites for Vanderbilt, Connecticut College and Johns Hopkins to get a good idea of what a strong college essay looks like.


Though your teen might not ever ask for you advice about his or her essay, if he or she does, you’ll be poised and ready to maximize the opportunity. And if he or she doesn’t, odds are that you’ll still be able to sneak some insights into your casual conversations.



2. Have a Conversation About the College Essay Timeline

The best time for your student to write a killer college essay is over summer break before senior year. While this probably sounds like a bummer to your teen, it is ideal in a number of undeniable ways. First, it means that your teen will have plenty of time to revise and refine the essay before submitting it, and won’t have to stress about Early Decision or Early Action deadlines if he or she chooses to go that route. Second, writing the essay over the summer means that your teen won’t have the usual distractions of other school work. Odds are that he or she will be able to find some dedicated time to focus on it 100% in a way that simply isn’t possible during the school year.


Lay this out for your teen during the spring of his or her junior year, and do whatever you need to do to facilitate a successful writing environment over the summer. This might mean allowing him or her a week off between summer programs or a week away from work in order to focus on the essay. This dedicated time won’t be available during the school year, so plan for it now, while the opportunity presents itself.



3. Be a Sounding Board, Not the Driving Force

Your teen’s college essay needs to be a reflection of who he or she truly is at this point in time. As parents, it’s our temptation to jump in and solve problems for our kids, but this is a time to step back and allow your teen to work through the challenge on his or her own.


Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t lend plenty of perspective and insight. Instead, it simply means that your advice should be a response to what your teen creates and thinks up on his or her own. Don’t be the one who provides essay topics and examples. Instead, ask provocative questions to get your teen thinking. Rephrase prompts to clarify their intent. Ask your teen to brainstorm times that he or she was challenged, stood up for his or her beliefs, or did something out of the ordinary.


You can help your teen to find his or her own direction, but resist your temptation to take the lead.



4. Seek an Outside Reader

The college essay is the kind of piece that gets worked over, read, and reread so many times that it can become stale to your teen and even to you. There are only so many times that you can read something with fresh eyes and provide renewed insights.


Of course, your teen should be the first to edit his or her work, keeping an eye focused on organizational details, grammar, spelling, and tone. Often, you will be the second set of eyes to review the essay, but beyond that, it’s wise to seek some outside help at some stage.  


Does your teen want access to expert college guidance — for free? When they create their free CollegeVine account, they will find out their real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve their profile, and get their questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Encourage them to sign up for their CollegeVine account today to get a boost on their college journey.

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.