How to assemble your college application “support team"
The College Essay
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already felt how stressful, confusing, and downright miserable applying to college can be.
Except that it doesn’t have to be.
The two things you need for a ⛱️ relaxed and productive ⛱️ college application experience are:
- Knowing what colleges admissions officers are looking for when assessing applications, and
- Having parents, teachers, and perhaps even an expert to support you as you do the hard work to get your applications tip-top this fall.
This article is about turning your support network (parents, teachers, peers, and experts) into a great essay team.
We're going to start with the dangers of having an ineffective team — hint: as college essay coaches, we’ve seen that the people you trust the most may not be the best essay supporters — but you can make them be! Then, we’ll discuss picking and training your team to support you without unintentionally leading you astray.
Working with adults and friends can lead to a subpar application experience
I’m going to start with a disclaimer. Your trusted adults and friends are probably great people, who know you well and usually give great advice on all sorts of things. Many may also be great writers. These things may make you inclined to trust them with your essays.
BUT THIS STRATEGY OFTEN FAILS.
Why? There are 5 main reasons those closest to you can lead you astray when it comes to providing college essay help.
Danger #1: supportive adults and friends are unlikely to have a deep understanding of how colleges evaluate applicants. If they don’t understand what your audience (admissions officers) cares about, how are they going to provide effective coaching and feedback?
Why this is so dangerous: Many people believe they know what colleges are looking for, but they don’t. For example, most college essay advice is summarized as “tell your story.” But that’s incomplete and misleading. Your essays need to “tell your story” that relates to experiences you’ve had that prove you’ll be successful in college and beyond.
Danger #2: They’re inclined to give “constructive” feedback. People want to add value. Yet, if they don’t deeply understand what your audience (admissions officers) cares about, their feedback often actively makes essays worse.
Why this is so dangerous: Some “constructive” feedback (ex: change your essay topic!) can shatter your confidence. You feel the need to make a change (“I trust this person!” “I can’t just ignore my parents!”). Unfortunately, we’ve seen that these kinds of changes often hurt the essay; the parent might be trying to tell “a great story” they like about you (that you’re a soccer star!), and lose sight of a story that highlights your college potential.
Danger #3: They don’t have enough time. At Prompt.com, our coaches spend about 5 hours working one-on-one with a student on a Common App Essay and as much as 50 hours of one-on-one work across all of a student’s supplements. We spend nearly an hour providing feedback on the first draft of a Common App Essay alone. Less time equals less useful feedback.
Why this is so dangerous: Essays are about content and structure. It takes deep thought to understand an essay, think through ways to improve it, and write up a plan that the essay writer can act upon. Friends, parents, and teachers tend to spend 5-10 minutes on essay review. That’s not enough to make meaningful improvements. (Though it can be enough to unintentionally hurt the essay, see Danger #3 above.)
Danger #4: Essays can create friction in your relationships. The biggest source of parental tension we see comes from deadlines. Students tend to procrastinate — a lot. In their admissions blog, Georgia Tech says, “over 2/3 of applications are submitted in the last three days before deadlines (and a few thousand in the last couple of hours).”
It turns out that parents get pretty stressed out when students procrastinate like this. Unfortunately, their gentle reminders/outright nagging/demented shouting rarely help get their kids motivated and productive. Most often, such parental behavior backfires, making students all the more eager to avoid the dreaded essays. This is why “outsourcing the nag” to an essay coach is a great idea for many families.
Beyond deadlines, parents and students excel at finding many other application-related things to fight about, such as what the personal statement should be about, whether to drop that senior year class you don’t like (or they don’t like), whether to take the SATs again, whether to submit them if the school is test-optional, which schools to apply to … and, well, much more.
Why this is dangerous: Applying to colleges is a long, hard, stressful experience. Having the support of strong family relationships helps students get through it successfully and in good mental health.
Danger #5: They may just want to “write it for you.” This is most common for parents. But having someone other than you be responsible for any of the writing in your college essays is not just unethical — it’s a sure way to a poor essay.
Why this is dangerous: Your essay loses your voice when it’s someone else’s words. As one college counselor has said, “Parents, when you mess with your kids’ pure voices, you’re actually co-writing terrible college essays.”
As you’ll see, essays aren’t about the beauty of the words. They’re about clearly and logically conveying the right content. The details of what you did also matter. Try as they might, people that “know you” won’t know all the little details.
THE SOLUTION: turn parents and teachers into fantastic, essay-supporting assets
The good news is there’s a way to avoid all these traps. You just need to actively manage your essay support team and learn to sift through the good and bad advice.
Solution, part 1: choosing your team wisely
What help do you need as you embark on your application? In our experience, you need 4-ish roles:
- Planning help — people who’ll act as a sounding board for your ideas about what to write about and how to structure your essays. (In this role, it’s important that the person knows what admissions officers are looking for.)
- Overall structure/coherence feedback — someone who can review your essay specifically for whether the content is compelling (again, this person needs to know what compelling content is), as well as whether you’re expressing it clearly, in a structure that follows logically.
- Sentence-level feedback — someone who can zero in on clarity (again), readability and grammar.
- Motivation — someone who can hold you accountable for getting your work done. And that should be well ahead of the deadline. (Did you know that over 90% of applicants submit their applications within 48 hours of the deadline? You don’t want to be one of them.)
With that in mind, let’s turn to the people who’re most likely available to help you:
- Parents (and family members). As a rule, parents really care about your essays. That’s great in that they’re likely willing to devote significant time to helping you. The problem is that they’re also likely to have strong opinions — and those opinions are often about selling the “great story” they know about you, rather than focusing on the kinds of 5 traits-revealing experiences that colleges actually want to see. (In other words, they need training.)
- Friends and peers. Having a peer group to bounce ideas off of can be really helpful. They also are likely able to devote significant time to helping you. (It might even be a mutual thing.) But, as with parents and family, they’re not likely to know what colleges look for, and so will need training.
- Counselors. Counselors tend to be more knowledgeable about colleges, but you have to respect their time. As you approach this relationship, make sure you understand how much time you’ll be able to get from your counselor, and what the focus of their guidance will be. At many schools, each counselor has hundreds of students, and they may not have time for all your essays.
- Teachers. As with counselors, these are people with full-time jobs. Except, for teachers, that job is not about getting you into college. So it’s important to be mindful of how much time a teacher might really want to devote to helping you on something outside of class. That being said, we’ve found teachers are often great at sentence-level feedback. With training, many can also serve as an excellent “audience” for higher-order feedback.
- Coaches. A great coach can be a one-stop-shop for all the support you need, with the rest of your team filling in as you desire. What’s great about a coach is that you don’t need to train them on what colleges want; in fact, they will be training you. Ideally, a great coach should be the most efficient, hassle-free route to an excellent essay. (See our article on comparing some of the biggest essay feedback services.)
Ultimately, it all boils down to the people in your life. Think about these roles, what you’ll need the most help with, and who can best fill them, especially as we tackle this much-touted “training” in the section below.
Solution, part 2: training your team
Coaches: Good news! If you hire a coach, you won’t need to train them (assuming you made sure they’re well informed on college admissions practices when you hired them).
Training for Planning and Structure/Coherence Feedback. These people need to learn what colleges are looking for. Show them our articles on the 5 Traits, the power of essays, and our Common App guide, and the guiding questions in our dashboard (or anything else you think is helpful).
In our experience, this is most commonly necessary for parents and family members (like Aunt Jane, the “great writer”), but don’t be shy to share resources with others who might benefit from them, like counselors, teachers, and peers.
Training for Sentence-Level Feedback. The key here is to let your reviewer know that their role is just that: just sentence-level feedback. You don’t want them “adding value” by suggesting better topics to write about or ways to integrate that “great story” that they love about you. Emphasize how much effort has already gone into the essay. You really want them focused on the clarity of each sentence, grammar issues, and the like.
Training for Motivation. This one requires a deeper conversation. What exactly do you want the person to do to hold you accountable? How will you work together? Realistically, will you get on each other’s nerves? (Author’s note: I’m not at all thinking about my own dad.)
Spend time early on agreeing on how this relationship will work. It will make things go much smoother later on, even if it means agreeing that a certain family member might not be the right one for the job.
Timing. In all cases (except with coaches), try to approach your chosen “support team” players early on in the process, and ask for their time in advance, so that they’re ready to help you.
Solution, part 3: using your team!
Here’s our 3-part advice for making the best use of your new carefully chosen, well-trained team.
First, brainstorming — use the language of the 5 traits when planning and discussing the content. Ask the person questions like:
- “Does this idea prove I’ll be successful in college and beyond?”
- “Which of these are the most compelling for proving my traits?”
To clear, “brainstorming” doesn’t mean “brainstorming together.” You should put your thoughts down first on your own, and then have your supporting person react to the work you’ve already put in.
Second, feedback — Never, ever hand someone your essay “for feedback” (except coaches, of course). Always do a little training first.
For the Structure/Coherence feedback —
For your first draft, ask your parent/teacher to answer these 3 questions:
- What traits do they see depicted here? What did they learn about you?
- What didn’t they learn that they wanted to know? What content do you need to add in?
- How can you restructure the essay to make it clearer? Is it readable? Is it easy to follow? Is it clear where this essay is headed from the start? Are there any confusing turns?
Tell your reviewer that you are NOT looking for grammar or spelling help at this point. It’s too early! You plan to do at least one more major revision. (They’ll love hearing how committed you are to incorporating their feedback.)
Be prepared: revising based on the first round of feedback is often a major revision. But a worthwhile one. After you’ve done it, try to get the same beloved adult to answer the three questions again. (It’s nice to stick to the same person because you don’t have to retrain them.)
At this second revision (or perhaps on the third one, depending on how it's going), ask your favored adult to focus on clarity as well. Tell them to circle unclear passages. Tell them to circle places where your essay doesn’t seem to flow logically.
This process turns teachers and parents with potentially dangerous essay ideas into clarity- and potential-honing devices — just what you need from your support team.
For Sentence-Level feedback — to reiterate, the most important thing here is that these helpers understand that they need to stick to the sentence level only. This can include highlighting areas that are unclear in the writing or less readable (e.g., finding their reading pace slowing down or really needing to think through something).
Be explicit that you don’t want them to focus on content/structure. Important point: only ask the sentence-level people to help once you’re set on your content and structure.
Finally, give deadlines. You don’t need to enforce the deadlines like a schoolmarm, but it is important to ask about turnaround time. You might ask, “When can I get this back?” Or, “Can you get this to me by Friday?” And if it’s been a week, remind them about the feedback you’re waiting for. Be respectful and polite, but don’t be shy.
Alternative solution: A college essay expert might be just what you (and your family) needs
You can do this without an expert coach. We’ve shown that above. But there’s no getting around the fact that a good coach will make the most stressful part of a stressful time in your life much easier.
First, a good college essay coach will save you time.
In terms of planning help, they’ll set you up to tackle all of your essays as quickly and efficiently as possible. In our experience, students on their own spend much too much time brainstorming unhelpful topics for essays (ones that don’t relate to the 5 traits), and getting to enamored of essays that might tell “good stories” or be “well-written,” but don’t do their job of boosting your application chances.
A good coach will know how to lead you through an efficient approach to all your essays, and a productive initial brainstorming session that can generate the content you need to powerfully fill all the essay slots available to you.
Time-saving also comes in with the overall structure/coherence feedback piece. Again, in our experience, a student who works with us as college coaches will only need one major revision if they’ve started the process with us. But if they come to us after they’ve done the first draft on their own, it will take at least 2-3 major revisions to right the ship of showing strong potential to succeed.
Second, in terms of sentence-level feedback, a coach will not only do an excellent, reliable job of this (which, depending on your circumstances, many family members/teachers might also be able to do). More importantly, they’ll also give you this advice at the right time — that is, after your content is as powerful, clear, and well-structured as it can be.
Finally, one of the best arguments for a coach is often motivation (aka “outsourcing the nudge”). For most students, a coach is a far superior accountability partner than parents, because the relationship is professional. They know when the deadlines are, and so can steer you to complete your work in time. But they won’t get under your skin.
And they free your parents up to play the role that you most need for them: that of loving family supporting you through a stressful time.
Naturally, many students worry about the cost of a college essay coach. But coaching services can be affordable. (Read our essay coaching comparison piece.) Prompt.com offers some reduced-cost options for students who need them (see pricing), and others likely do, too. Another way to go about finding a great, affordable coach is to talk with your guidance counselor, who likely knows some good ones.
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