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Should Parents Help Students Write College Essays?

What’s Covered:


High schoolers applying to college go through a lot—from filling out multiple applications, keeping up impressive grades and extracurriculars, and writing dozens of college essays. Parents might be tempted to help out their kids and ease some of their burden during this busy time. But, should parents help write their kids’ college essays?


How Involved Should Parents Be with College Applications?


When it comes to helping out with the college process, parents should act as more of a coach or cheerleader than a director. Rather than hovering over your student and telling them when to fill out certain applications, what to write in their essays, and what safety schools to apply to, take a step back and support them without smothering them.


As a coach, parents can guide their student to keep them on schedule, have productive conversations about different college options and financial aid, and offer feedback and edits on essays. It’s important that parents don’t step in and play the game for themselves, so to speak, but rather assist their kid in reaching their full potential.


Another role parents can play is the cheerleader: encourage them through this challenging time and keep them engaged even when they get burnt out. The application process isn’t easy for students or parents, but having someone in your corner to cheer you on will help motivate students to keep going.


4 Ways Parents Can Help with College Essays


Since parents should not be at the helm, they should not do anything active like writing essays. More importantly, a parent directly writing any part of an essay would be plagiarism, and admissions officers can pick up on it via software and their intuition. Essays must be written with the student’s authentic voice and ideas. Here are some things parents can do:


1. Proofread Drafts


Every essay a student writes will likely have to go through multiple drafts—each time tweaking grammar, cutting down words, adding details, moving around sentences, etc. Parents can help expedite this process by reading over the essay drafts and providing constructive feedback. Important details to check for include:


  • Are there spelling errors or typos?
  • Could the grammar be elevated with literary devices or different diction?
  • Does this sound like my student speaking or a thesaurus? 
  • Does the essay flow in a manner that is easy to follow?


2. Brainstorm Essay Topics


Figuring out how to answer each prompt can be difficult and exhausting when students have so many essays to write. This is a good place for parents to jump in and “coach” their students; sit down for a few hours and start brainstorming topics and themes that could work for various prompts. 


A good way to organize brainstorming sessions is to break down essay prompts into categories (“Why This Major?”, “Extracurricular”, “Community Impact”, “Overcoming Challenges”, etc.) and come up with five to ten stories or answers for each category.


3. Help Students Recall Childhood Memories and Stories


Along the lines of brainstorming, parents can play a huge role in reminding their students of anecdotes from their childhood that could make for a good essay. While you shouldn’t recount stories from your point of view that would color their perspective, parents can show pictures and videos, talk through some of their fondest memories of their kids, and fill in any gaps in stories kids partially remember.


4. Help Students Reflect on Who They Are


One of the important aspects of college essays is the ability to engage in self reflection and think about your character development and growth. This can be a lot for a teenager to do on their own, so it’s a good place for parents to provide some extra support.


Walk your child through some brainstorming exercises. Ask questions like “What three words would best describe you”, “What’s a good example of how you approach a challenge/new idea/etc”, “What are your personal and career goals”, and “How have you grown as a person since you were younger”.


4 Elements of a Good College Essay


Another way parents can help their kids is by ensuring they cover the bases that make a good essay. Make sure to check out our ultimate guide to college essays to learn how to write a good essay, but below are a handful of the things to check for:


1. Answers the 4 Core Questions


When it comes to a strong college essay, there are four questions that should be answered. These are:


  1. “Who Am I?”
  2. “Why Am I Here?”
  3. “What is Unique About Me?”
  4. “What Matters to Me?”


These might seem like daunting philosophical questions, but with an intentional, well-crafted essay, you’ll find that the answers to these questions come naturally. Perhaps a more helpful way to look at these questions would be the following:


  1. What are your personality traits?
  2. What was your journey through high school? What were you interested in and found meaningful? How have you evolved as you have grown?
  3. Between your interests, skills, way of thinking, and personality, why are you different from other applicants?
  4. What is something you care deeply about above all else?


2. Author’s Voice is Authentic and Approachable


Essays are the one opportunity for admissions committees to hear directly from the applicant. For that reason, the essay should sound like a high school student wrote it. Without being overly casual, make sure the tone of the essay reads like a conversation with a friend.


Don’t rely too heavily on a thesaurus and don’t worry about stuffing the essay full of metaphors and figurative language—this isn’t an essay for an English class!


3. Shows Instead of Tells


While the advice to “show not tell” in your writing might not be new, it could not be more important. What truly sets apart a good essay from a great essay is the ability to paint a picture for the reader with imagery. 


A sentence like this, “I love the thrill of competing in the Math Olympiad,” simply tells the reader what the student enjoys. However, look at the difference when a sentence shows us what a student loves: “Badum. Badum. Badum. The heavy thumping of my heart echoed painfully in my ears as a droplet of sweat made a lazy trail down my back. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I whispered “7?” as the time ran out.”


3. Avoids Cliches


Imagine reading through thousands upon thousands of essays every year as an admissions officer. After your 50th essay about scoring the winning goal at the soccer game, being changed by a volunteer trip to another country, or some other overused topic, you’ll no longer connect with these stories.


No matter how beautifully an essay is written, a cliche topic just makes admissions officers want to groan and get to the next one. Make sure your essay doesn’t fall into a traditional cliche topic to make it engaging and enjoyable to read.


4. Includes an Anecdote or Personal Story


Anecdotes bring excitement and personal depth to essays. They provide an easy way for a student to show what was happening in the moment that had such a profound impact on them. Including an anecdote also facilitates personal reflection because there is a solid foundation established. Once the reader can connect with a story, they are able to better empathize with the student and appreciate their character.


Where Your Student Can Get Their Essay Edited


Editing college essays is a great way for parents to get involved, but it can be time consuming to read through multiple essays. Luckily, CollegeVine offers two avenues for students to get their essays reviewed. 


Our free Peer Essay Review tool allows students to get a free review of their essay from another student. Students can also improve their own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 


If students want a college admissions expert to review their essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for your student to improve their chances of getting into their dream school!

Short Bio
Lauryn is a student at Cornell University. She has been working at CollegeVine for over three years as a blog writer and editor.