Now that the Fourth of July is behind us, forward-thinking families are beginning to prepare for the coming school year. That means pulling out summer reading lists; encouraging kids to sharpen their math skills; and, for those whose children are rising high school seniors, starting to think about the college essay. It’s definitely not too early.
Senior year of high school is an exceedingly busy time for students. Clearing time during the fall semester to develop a thoughtfully crafted Common Application Essay—the notorious 650-word personal piece of writing that students hope will wow college admissions officers and secure them a spot at their dream college—suddenly becomes an enormous challenge in the midst of all the other academic, college-related, and social obligations students face during senior year.
If a full-to-bursting senior schedule doesn’t create enough stress in students’ lives, the increasingly competitive college admissions process, with its ever-earlier application deadlines, likely will. Some Early Admissions deadlines are as soon as mid-October, giving students hardly any time during their first semester of senior year to craft that winning essay. And, as even the most skilled and seasoned writer will tell you, it can be incredibly difficult to produce one’s best work under pressure. Need another reason to persuade a rising high school senior to get started? The 2019–2020 prompt for the Common Application, accepted by most colleges in the U.S., is currently available. So there’s really no excuse not to get started.
But, this being one if not the most important writing assignment a high school student has ever faced, finding the best approach can be tricky. While scores of parents take to prodding their teenager relentlessly about completing the college essay, it’s not always the best or winningest strategy. Other parents try the hands-off approach; after all, this is a child who’s close to, if not already, 18—by some standards, a legal adult. This, too, can backfire, especially if, like many adults, the high school student responds to stressful situations by procrastinating. Regardless of the tactics parents use to motivate their college-bound children to complete the essay, there’s no mistaking its importance.
“The essay is an applicant’s chance to step into the spotlight for a few moments and transform a collection of statistics and activities into a vital presence,” observes Michael Beseda, vice provost for Strategic Enrollment Management at the University of San Francisco. That’s heavy. No wonder parents are inclined to weigh in on this “transformative” essay.
But what happens when parents do provide input, from helping their college applicant generate ideas to suggesting smooth transitions between paragraphs to giving it a final proof? Somewhere along the way, unless the almost-adult child is extremely laid-back and/or malleable, the parent-child relationship may feel the strain of this input. After all, this is a personal and prideful statement being made to people who have the power to reject or admit this young adult to the college of his or her choice. Is a parent’s opinion welcome here? Are most parents qualified to act as editor-in-chief of this capstone essay? And, if the answer to either of these questions is yes, will a prideful teenager heed the input?
When contemplating the answer to these tough questions, I consider the advice that one very wise teacher gave me when my son entered high school: Let us do the teaching, and you just focus on your relationship with your child as a parent. Given that input, it may be best to find a trusted professional to work with the student; perhaps a favorite English teacher, the student’s college counselor, or even a relative in the editorial or college admissions business. If these avenues don’t prove successful, it may be worth exploring a college essay writing tutor.
Whatever the decision, don’t procrastinate too long. College application deadlines will be here before you know it.
Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and editor. She has published numerous essays in various media outlets including Newsweek and the Washington Post, and has served as an editor for teen writers of Imagine, a magazine published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. She also provides college-bound students with editorial consulting services for their college essays. To contact her, email [email protected] or visit her website at eheubeck.com.
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