Whose Journey Is This Anyway
Last year, a young man who came to us to edit his college essay emailed a draft with a detail that didn’t quite fit. The story was about rowing and how it focused him. The out-of-place detail: the rower compared himself to a squirrel.
Aside from the squirrel reference, the student was off to a great start. His essay was clear and specific, and it told an important story about him. We encouraged him to cut the part about the squirrel.
When we discovered that the squirrel analogy had been his dad’s idea, we weren’t surprised. We see it all the time. Parents get their hands on their children’s college essays and start trying to fix them. Mom adds a little here, Dad cuts a little there, all in the name of love and literary improvement. This technique never works.
September is prime time for anxious parents of high school seniors engaged in the college application process. Our message to those adults biting your fingernails: Hands off! This is your child’s journey, not yours.
Sure, you still pay the bills, and you can make sure your kids meet the important deadlines. For the most part, however, students should complete their applications on their own, particularly when it comes to their essays.
You might be thinking, “How can I expect a kid who can’t remember to put gas in the car to manage the application process?” Good question, but we still recommend taking a step back.
What if your daughter wants to write about Dr. Seuss? Is that an acceptable subject for an application essay? Absolutely. It’s a great subject if she has a great story to tell.
What if your son’s writing sounds immature? What’s wrong with a little help during revision? Everything. He is supposed to sound like a 17-year-old. Those who read the essays can tell the difference between a teen voice and an adult voice. Your words don’t belong in his essay.
We all want our children to succeed; college is critically important. But the truth is, you should not heavily edit your child’s application essays — and you most definitely should not write them.
No matter what the prompt, a college essay is not about a job, a vacation, an illness, a book or an influential person; it is about the student — what he or she learned, gained or realized as a result of the experience. As a parent, you can help the most by keeping your child focused on the essay’s purpose.
It can be hard for kids to write about themselves, especially when it really matters. Done right, completing a college essay should leave students feeling empowered, confident in their own abilities and certain of their words.
And please, don’t suggest your child compare himself to a squirrel. Save the cleverness for your own prose.
Susan Knoppow and Kim Lifton are writers and journalists who co-own the
Wow Writing Workshop.