How parents can support kids applying to college — without driving anyone crazy
The College Essay
There is a secret to successfully helping your student with their college essays.
Before we get to it, we have 4 questions you should consider to help alert you to pitfalls that often plague parents who “just want to help” during college application season.
But before we even get to those questions, let’s begin with the bottom line: the best thing a parent can do for their teen applying to college is to be loving, supportive, and simply there for them. And that’s not easy.
Applying to colleges is stressful and often emotionally draining. As college essay coaches, we see this all the time. Make it your top priority not to correct grammar, improve writing, or get your kid into a “better” school, but to make this year as good as it can be for you and your teen.
3 great ways to support kids applying to college — without getting directly involved
Don’t worry. We’re college essay nerds. We’re not going to leave this article without giving you lots of concrete advice on how to improve your kids’ essays. After all, we’ve crunched the numbers to show that strong essays can 10x a students’ chances of getting in.
Nevertheless, we need to spend a hot second on the mushy stuff because we’ve seen how much students struggle when their parents are at odds with them. Obvious as it may seem, we must state it: students do better on their applications when their families are supportive.
We hope you’ll consider making it your priority this year to:
- Build the strongest relationship you can with your child — this is probably the last year they’ll ever live with you. Make the most of it!
- Help provide a break from stressful college apps and essays, but also
- Give your teen resources to help them do their best work and finish early. (See the last two sections of this article.)
The 4 questions to consider before you read your teen’s essay
Applying to college strains many parent-child relationships. Essays are a huge source of stress for most kids, and rare is the parent who can resist jumping in to “help.”
Yet, in their senior year, the last thing a teen needs is a strained parental relationship.
Is it possible that your relationship with your child — and thus their chances of having the emotional wherewithal to do well on their applications — would be better off if you didn’t get involved in their essays at all?
(Reminder: we are going to give you the secret for getting involved in a healthy and productive way, but bear with us here, as knowing about these minefields can go a long way to avoid setting any of them off.)
As essay coaches who see thousands of students (and their parents) every year, we promise you’ll find it instructive to think through these four questions:
Q1. How stable is your current relationship with your teen?
College essays are personal. They’re a space in which teens talk about their ambitions, their strengths, and their weaknesses. Are you and your teen fully aligned on their ambitions? On what their true strengths are? On their weaknesses?
To put this another way: How will you react when your child wants to write their essay on Kanye’s Graduation? Will you be cool with their anime references?
Helping your teen write about these private, contentious issues can place additional stress on your relationship.
As an alternative, you might consider supporting them in the college application — but without reading or giving feedback on essays. For example,
- You could research scholarships, or
- Take them on college campus visits, or
- Help them prep for admissions interviews, or simply
- Pamper them a little in one of the busiest and most stressful times of their lives.
Q2. Really, how does your teen take it when you give them advice?
Teenagers aren’t known for listening delightedly as elders give them advice. Your stereotypical teen doesn’t come with a pen and a notepad for writing down their parents’ pearls of wisdom.
That’s the cliche. But we’re talking about your teen here.
So how did they react when you gave them summer job advice? Gave them pointers for the road test? Shared your sartorial thoughts for their junior prom?
If things tend to get testy when you give advice, it may be that protecting your existing relationship should take precedence over things like providing feedback on their writing.
Q3. How much does your teen procrastinate?
Just one of 10 teens will get ahead of their college apps: over 90% submit their applications 48 hours or closer to the deadline. Which group does your teen fall into?
On the off-chance that they’re likely to cut things close, you may find yourself in the Nag Danger Zone (NDM). What happens when you enter this dreaded state is:
- You see the deadline looming;
- It makes you ask them about the state of their essays;
- That creates more anxiety in your teen;
- Conflict results.
Truthfully, even students who are usually highly motivated can struggle with college essays. It’s a huge task and one that’s also emotionally and mentally daunting.
Your task (also huge and daunting) is to stay out of the Nag Danger Zone so that you keep domestic conflict to a minimum. Staying away from essays altogether is one way to do that. You might also consider hiring an essay coach to help your teen stay on track throughout the process. (See our article comparing college essay coaching services.)
Q4. How long will it take you to provide your teen solid essay support?
Parents often think helping teens with college essays is going to be just like helping them with any other homework assignment. Not so. College essays are a much bigger, more complex beast than any single assignment your student has ever had, including that research paper and prepping for the school musical auditions.
To provide more than superficial support, you’ll need to give at least 5-10 hours. If your teen is applying to a few essay-intensive colleges, that can easily go up to about 40 hours.
If you’re going to help your teen out with essays, go in knowing what kind of commitment it entails. You don’t want to start helping out, then pull back because you’ve run out of time.
The secret to helping your teen with their college essays — in a fun & productive way
Now that you’ve read through our pitfall-detecting questions — and are more aware that “helping” with essays can (and often does) backfire — here’s our top-secret method for parents who want to also be great essay coaches.
This is the “I’m in it with you” Challenge.
It involves getting down to their level. Struggling — yes, struggling (we said “fun & productive,” not “easy”) — alongside your teen. Choosing to be just as vulnerable as they have no choice but to be.
Here’s how to do it:
- Set a deadline together with your kid: a time by which both of you will have written a college essay.
- Note the stress you feel at having added this burden to your busy schedule. That’s exactly what your teen’s experiencing. Congratulations! You’re already becoming a more empathetic and supportive parent.
- Go through the Common App essay prompts, and choose the one that most appeals to you. (It’s ok to go for a different one than your teen does.)
- Write the essay — do it from the perspective of when you were 17 or 18. This allows your teen to get a feel for what you were like when you were their age.
- Make a fun evening of revealing each other’s essays. You can read them out loud, or trade them and provide feedback.
By the end, not only will you have shared a true bonding experience, your teen will have a new level of respect for how far you’ll go to support them, as well as a deeper understanding of who you are. As for you, you’ll have gained a whole lot of empathy for what they’re going through.
Brass tacks: How to give your child resources so they can write strong college applications — by themselves
Whether or not you feel up to writing your own Common App essay with your teen, every parent should at least consider outsourcing the essay portion of their support.
(Remember, the point here is to make sure you can take care of your #1 priority — creating a loving, warm home atmosphere that your teen needs during this stressful time and that will make the most of your last year together.)
There are lots of great, inexpensive options out there:
- Essay coaching companies — which will help with the written parts of the application. (Our essay service comparison.)
- Or independent educational consultants (IECs) — who guide your teen through the entire application process. (Here’s a piece on how to hire a great IEC.)
- If you’re still not sure where to start with outsourcing, talk with your school’s guidance counselor, who is likely to have services they like to recommend.
We’ve worked with over 150,000 students on college essays. Here’s something we’ve noticed: few teens ask for help. They worry about bothering their parents and about wasting money.
However, we’ve also noticed that if you look into the options and offer your teen great support, they’ll rarely turn down outside help that can orient them on how to tackle this mammoth project, keep them on schedule, and provide the right feedback.
In conclusion, don’t be the one editing. Be the one celebrating. (We approve this tweet:)
For more advice on college admissions, check out:
- Work with an experienced essay coach
- Proof that strong essays can 10x your admissions chances
- College essay review service comparison - Which of these 4 services is best?
- Your complete guide to writing the Common App
- All about test-optional (and when you should submit scores)
- The 5-part strategy for great college supplements