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Time to Write Those College Essays! How Parents Can Help Without Overstepping

The night before last year’s early application deadline, a friend called me in a panic. What if her son didn’t get into his top choice college because his essay lacked sophistication, or sounded like an immature 17-year-old boy?

 Her son’s essay was finished. And it was good. I had reviewed his final draft a month earlier. His story, about the night he learned to “just let it go” while doing a stand-up routine in a city comedy club, was genuine and hit the mark; it sounded like a smart, 17-year-old boy wrote it. I loved the story because he answered the prompt, demonstrated insight and wrote it himself. His high school counselor liked it, too. 

However, as the deadline got closer, his mom began to panic. She passed the essay around to other adults she trusted, even though none of her ‘experts” had professional experience with the college admissions process or the essay’s role within it. Even worse, her team of well-meaning adults was very critical, saying it was immature, pedestrian, and just not good. They were wrong, but my friend started to believe them.

She marked the essay up with a pen, suggesting word changes and rewriting complete sentences to help the flow. She assured me the piece still had the “essence” of his voice. That was not the case: she took his voice away. Essence doesn’t count. That story needed to be written by her son, in his own words and voice.

Fortunately, I was able to calm my friend. I explained why he should submit his own essay – the original draft I had read before this team of well-meaning adults ruined it. I remained composed and focused on what was best for her son, which was feeling confident. Thankfully, he submitted his original essay got the results he wanted: admission to his first-choice college, SUNY Binghamton. My friend has acknowledged her error in judgement. She made her son feel bad, and that was not her intent.

How to Help Your Child Write a Meaningful Application Essay

At Wow, we believe parents like you have an important role in the college application journey. Success on the essay begins at home — sooner rather than later — and with you, the parent, as the guide. You know your son or daughter better than anyone else. Who else would go to the moon and back to help your child prosper as an adult? 

The best thing you can do is help your child reflect before they start writing that first draft.

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. It’s a thinking task as much as a writing task. The college essay provides your child an opportunity to show people who may never meet her just what kind of person she is.

While there is no rubric for a good essay, the ones that stand out share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

  • Answer the question.
  • Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
  • Sound like a high school student.
  • Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
  • Demonstrate reflection.

Our Gift to You: Free Book for Parents

Learn how to support your child with their college essay without taking over in our book for parents, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. It’s yours FREE for a limited time only.

How to Write an Effective College Application Essay is a simple, straightforward guide offering insight from our decades of experience as writers and writing teachers; it provides tips so you can prepare your child to respond to any college application essay question. In the book, we clarify the mixed messages that confuse parents and students, to help families like yours make sense out of the noise surrounding the essay.

Get your copy here.


Questions about the essay? Contact Kim Lifton at


Kim Lifton is President and Founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company specializing in college admission and grad school application essay writing and professional training. She leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Wow’s team teaches students how to write application essays, and provides expert training on our unique approach to professionals who want to improve their essay coaching practices. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role inside the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites, including Link for Counselors and Carnegie Communications. Recently, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education.

Before co-founding Wow, Kim worked as a reporter and communication consultant. Highlights include: Co-producing a PBS documentary about teens and depression, No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness; writing “First Class,” a weekly lifestyle column about the area’s most successful businessmen and women for the Detroit Free Press; creating “A Small Business Adventure,” a 12-part monthly series about the perils and pitfalls of running a small business for the Detroiter Magazine; supervising a public relations campaign and accompanying print materials that attracted local and national print, radio and TV media coverage for the National Council of Jewish Women’s annual convention, celebrating its 100th anniversary.


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