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  • Mike Demilio

How to Avoid Loving Your Child's College Essay to Death

When it comes to parents helping, sometimes less is more.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Essay ideas are like butterflies, and adults have hands like catcher’s mitts.

Truly remarkable college essays capture the most delicate moments of a student’s life in a way that draws the power of their humanity into sharp focus.

But they don’t start out that way.

Sometimes a great idea is like an annoying tickle on your ear. Your instinct is to swat it away because you are focused on something else.

If you are a teenager, you have the capacity to tolerate those little annoyances while also thinking of something else. We adults, not so much.

Let the butterflies land where they will. Your kids will know what to do with them, if they have enough time and maybe a little friendly advice.

The best thing you can do is to get your kids started early and don’t let them procrastinate. Creativity plus time and effort can produce something of value.

What might start out as an amusing anecdote could become a powerful statement of values and identity if your student has time to develop it properly.

Let them work through the process on their own. Some of the brainstorming exercises that generate great ideas might seem esoteric at first, but they really help.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes -- Then Remember To Take Them Off!

Stop for a moment and imagine you had to write one of these essays about yourself. Where would you begin?

Adults tend to tackle these questions as tasks, as problems to solve. They tend to frame concepts rigidly, to construct metaphors, to lead the reader to a conclusion.

Kids will do that too if they think it will get the chore over with quickly. But where did they get the idea that essay writing is a chore? That it’s not fun?

Let them be kids. Don’t let them procrastinate, but do let them dream, muse, play. To use their imagination. You’ll be surprised at what they come up with.

If you’ve read some of the articles about how admissions officers know parents worked on their kids’ essays, you’ve probably heard about the ‘two spaces after a period’ giveaway, or the sentences -- sometimes paragraphs -- that are jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the essay’s voice.

These are the lesser sins.

There are a few parents out there who try to hire people like me to write their kids’ essays for them. And there are a lot more who aggressively edit, or just write them themselves.

But consider the message that sends to a child. At their one unscripted moment, when they need someone to believe in their own voice, they get yanked offstage.

Hiring a ghostwriter, over-editing or writing your kids’ essays tells them that when things are really serious, you think they can’t handle it on their own.

What would they do if they actually got into that dream school? There will be serious challenges there. How would they handle those?

Your children may be capable of greatness. They may also fail. Either way, let them try!

People like me can guide them, but the best essays -- the most impactful ones -- are always in the student’s own words, cringy syntax and all.

Have A Little Faith In Them

I believe college essays might be the greatest -- and perhaps the first -- opportunity for your child to stand up and really be heard.

At a serious moment, they can declare in their own voice why someone in a position of power ought to take them seriously.

Why they matter. Why they are special, unique, valuable, worthy. Why everyone ought to trust them when the stakes are high.

In order to meet this challenge and write about themselves convincingly, they first need to believe in themselves.

They need to know that they matter more to you than the name carved into the gates of that school everyone wants so badly for them to attend.

They need to understand that those silly little butterfly ideas carry more weight and power than your best attempts to write for them.

It takes real work to turn those butterflies into essays that will touch the hearts of their readers. There is a craft, and a process through which we can guide your child.

But first, we need those butterflies. So please give them room to land.


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