By Gena Khodos, North Shore College Consulting Essay Coach 

Every year the New York Times publishes what it considers to be “...standout College Application essays….” Without fail I look at them all. I look forward to reading the student’s story, or reflection, or commentary on how he perceives the world. As an English teacher by trade, I note not only the content, but also the construct: how the essay is arranged in addition to what it says. And while the pieces are always impressive, what I am inevitably pleased to see is that they are not, strictly speaking, perfect. And it is that lack of perfection that makes them both wonderful and authentic. Authentic is the key here, because college admission essays are supposed to be written by the person seeking admission, not his or her parent. Although the essay is just a small piece of the overall application, it is the part that seems to cause the most anxiety not only for the student, but the parent as well. Parents can’t seem to help themselves, peeking over their child’s shoulder to suggest a revision, offer a better word, or to simply take over.

To be sure, there is not an insignificant amount of pressure. In 500-700 words your child has to highlight his strengths and accomplishments, but not sound arrogant. The student should be “unique but poignant, smart, but not smart-alecky”.  In just a few short paragraphs the student is trying to distinguish himself from tens of thousands of others, all of whom are doing the exact same thing.

Unless your son or daughter has an interview, the college essay is the only way that the admissions officer will get to know your child on a more personal level. It is really the only way for the students to “have a conversation” with the college and highlight their individual interests, ideals, and goals. As a result, parents have a tendency to get extra nervous when it comes to the essay portion of the application. And with the nerves, comes a tendency for some “heavy handed helping”.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Jim Jump, Academic Dean and Director of Guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and a past  president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says that “Parents think there has to be a secret handshake to get into college.” He blames essay obsession on an obsession with prestige. Most kids may be able to get into their local community college, and if they have the grades and a decent set of extracurriculars, they’ll probably make the cut at a state school.

“Where the essay really counts is if you’re a bubble candidate, where your grades are just so-so, and at very highly selective schools,” Jump says. But in all other cases, it isn’t a deal maker or a deal breaker.

Parents who may be tempted to get overly involved in the essay drafting process should take caution. There are some very obvious problems with getting too involved in the writing process. For one, it can become pretty obvious when an adult has had a hand in the writing and when it is student work. No matter how young at heart we may feel, we are not 17 young...not even on our best days. And so, despite our best efforts, adult thoughts and adult words creep in. As a result the essays begin to take on a conspicuously adult tone. There are several complications to consider:

For one, being in the business of reading the student voice, admissions counselors are quick to recognize something overly polished and New Yorker worthy. Essays routinely get flagged for obvious parent adult over-involvement. An astute admissions office will easily discern the prose of a 17 year old from that of a 50 year old. As such, too heavy a hand on the side of the parent can jeopardize the admission of the student.

And of course, there is the message that it sends to your child-that if something is difficult, mom and dad will take care of it.

If your son or daughter is struggling a better approach may be to connect with a trusted English teacher, a college counselor, or a writing coach. Most school faculty and essay coaches draw a very strict guideline between advising and doing all the work. Their job is to get the kids to write the essay themselves, just a better version than what they might have drafted alone. Essay coaches may introduce a writing structure or probe for further detail with open ended questions.

Good essays are hard to write, but you have raised smart children and you should trust them. They have had the benefits of excellent English instruction and should have the skill set to tell their story in their voice. It is difficult to abstain from guiding your children, but in some cases it is better to step away and let the kids find self-expression.

And at the end of the day,  if your kid is really struggling, it is possible he is just trying to tell the wrong story.