5 Traps for Parents to Avoid During College-Essay Season

You're not alone in feeling like you're walking through a treacherous jungle this time of year. When it comes to the college-application essays, many parents believe they're stepping forward onto firm ground, only to discover that they've landed themselves -- and their son or daughter -- in quicksand.
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In seven years as a professional application-essay coach, I've come across countless parents who, while genuinely wanting the best for their sons and daughters, hit one pitfall after another around the all-important college-application essays. And parental missteps this time of year can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection by their children's dream schools on Decision Day. To move smoothly through this tricky territory, become familiar with the 5 biggest traps for parents to sidestep during college-essay season:

  1. Counsel your daughter on her application essays. You want to help. SO much! It's completely understandable, especially with stakes this high. You may have an incredibly close relationship with your daughter. You may even work in a profession -- say, psychology or journalism -- that enables you to offer great advice on how to tackle this task. And yet, even under those circumstances, you're just about the last person who should help her with the personal statement and supplementary essays. You're simply too close and too heavily invested to be an effective sounding board or guide. Plus, you may not be aware of it at first, but your involvement in this particularly delicate area risks a subtle yet sizable buildup of pressure and resentment. Pitfall prevention: Take a step back, and you'll not only give your daughter a tremendous sense of empowerment but also avoid potential strain in your relationship with her.

  • Urge your son to spend most of his college-prep time on training for standardized tests. You're absolutely right that test scores, grades, and extracurriculars are significant pieces of any candidate's total application package. But the single biggest game changer for your son will be the essays. Period. His personal statement and supplementary essays are the most effective way for him to stand out from the crowd -- to highlight his best stories, forge a powerful emotional bond with the admissions committees, and move the needle in his favor. Pitfall prevention: Have a conversation with your son -- preferably early in the college-prep process and definitely in a relaxed tone -- to ensure he appreciates the role the application essays play in determining admissions decisions. This way, he can apportion his efforts appropriately.
  • Believe that the whole point of the application essays is to get your daughter into her favorite schools. Your daughter's application essays, if excellent, will certainly be her greatest ticket to admissions success. And yet the essays offer the potential to be so much more than that! The essay-writing process presents a singular opportunity for your daughter to engage in self-exploration and discovery -- to clarify her passions, ideas, and core values at this extraordinary moment of transition. Pitfall prevention: Cultivate an expansive view of the application essays' benefits. Results on Decision Day
  • of course matter enormously, but keep sight of how invaluable the essay-writing process itself is for your daughter. This exercise in self-exploration will make her more mature and far better equipped to maximize her opportunities in college.

  • Encourage your son to spend a lot of time on the personal statement and virtually no time on the supplementary essays. You understand how crucial the personal statement is for your son's admissions prospects. And yet the supplementary essays (written responses to most individual colleges' additional prompts) are just as important! Admissions committees hate coming across an application with a good personal statement and sloppy supplementary essays (or worse -- essays written in answer to other colleges' similar questions). They're looking for consistency and attention to detail. Pitfall prevention: In the same conversation as in #2 (the only pass you get in offering even limited advice!), inspire your son to invest as much energy in thoughtfully writing the supplementary essays -- and even the short answers to prompts about, say, notable activities or impactful books -- as he does in crafting his personal statement.
  • Enlist help from your daughter's English teacher or your cousin-the-writer. You may recognize that your daughter could use a hand with her application essays. Everything from brainstorming and identifying good ideas, to developing and drafting well-structured text, to paring essays down to fit the word limits can be extremely challenging, even for the most talented teenage writers. Recruiting assistance for your daughter is a wise intention, and finding the right person is essential. Pitfall prevention: Choose someone who's neither a relative nor a teacher but encompasses the qualities of both. You're looking for somebody who's curious, compassionate, literary, wise, and attentive -- and can create a safe, nurturing space for your daughter to explore her ideas. Consider seeking out a professional coach to shepherd your daughter across this tough terrain of finding not only her best stories but also her best words to convey them.
  • You're not alone in feeling like you're walking through a treacherous jungle this time of year. When it comes to the college-application essays, many parents believe they're stepping forward onto firm ground, only to discover that they've landed themselves -- and their son or daughter -- in quicksand. But with the above roadmap and a clearer sense of boundaries, you can successfully navigate your way around this season's hazards.

    [To read the companion piece, which addresses high-school seniors, click here.]

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