There are some things you just can’t do for your child. Driving test. Summer job interview. Or the highly anticipated college essay.

While you can’t write it for him, there are things you can do to help. From supporting his research to double and triple checking for spelling errors, you can encourage your child to show his best self. Getting to know a bit about the process will provide the knowledge to guide him in the right direction.

Many applications provide several essay topics from which to choose. The trick is to pick a topic that allows him to best demonstrate his individual traits and strengths. The essay is his chance for the admissions officer to know him better.

Plan for Likely Topics

According to “The College Board,” there are three basic types of questions.

“Describe yourself” questions often take this form: “Please complete a one-page personal statement and submit it with your application.” If your child selects this question, encourage him to include information that was not already included in the rest of the application.

“Explain why you want to attend our college.” Your student will need to do some research to answer this question. Help him to focus on his goals and how this particular college can help him attain them. Have him consider what he can contribute to the college.

“Discuss an issue.” Admissions officers are looking for a good balance of intelligence and creativity. While the student is expected to express individual views, he is also expected to back up ideas with concrete examples and facts.

Generate a List of Experiences

How can you help your student get started? Encourage him to begin the process early. The idea generation may take time to process.

Sit down with him and brainstorm all the experiences he has had during his high school years. Be specific and include everything, even events that may not seem significant. Include activities beyond school, such as clubs, church events, travel, milestones or even a meaningful conversation.

Within this list, he should be able to identify events that have meaning below the surface, that represent who he is on a fundamental level, or have been life changing.

Helpful Tips

Share these helpful tips to guide your essay writer in the right direction.

Go deep, not wide. Avoid spreading the essay thin by trying to cover too much. Pick one or two main points or experiences and dig in. Ask these questions: How did your vision grow because of the experience? Did your goals and aspirations change?

Find something new. The admissions officer will have the chance to read about accomplishments in the fill-in-the-blank portions of the application. Use the essay to showcase what couldn’t be covered elsewhere.

Use an authentic voice. Skip the thesaurus. Be natural. Advise your child to let his personality show through. This is his chance to be creative. The essay should not be too business-like, nor should it be overly quirky.

Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University says, “I think it’s actually best to present yourself as who you are to a college, rather than how you imagine that they might want you to be. You want a college to take you, not your imaginary friend. Right?”

Watch the tone. Lynn Radlauer Lubell, founder of Admission By Design, a College Consultancy writes, “If you come across as a spoiled child, a stuck-up rich kid, lazy, sarcastic or a cynic, the admissions team might decide that you are not the right fit for their school. A bit of well placed humor is fine, but don’t try to be a comedian.”

Get the basics right. The average word count for college essays range from 250-600 words. Stay within the range.

If the essay is short, don’t fill it with fluff. Find examples that demonstrate your statements. If you state that you have strong leadership skills, explain what makes you an effective leader. Then discuss how you exhibit these characteristics.

If the word count is too high, find places you may have rambled on or gotten “flowery” with your language. If you gave three examples of experiences you have had, instead of cutting out detail, cut out one of the examples.

Proofread. This may seem like a no-brainer, but for goodness’ sake, have your student check the spelling, grammar and punctuation. Suggest that he read the essay aloud to himself. Encourage him to ask a friend, parent or teacher to double-check it.

Point out that some spelling mistakes won’t be caught by the software’s spell checker, and more nuanced errors can slip through, such as using the phrase “for example” five times in the same paragraph.

Above all, remind him that there is a college out there for him; the trick is to find the best match. While SAT scores and academics indicate potential, admissions officers want to hear how he stands out from the crowd.


Jennifer VanBuren, M.Ed. is an educator, mother of three and has recently added childbirth doula to her list of skills.

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