The College Essay Guidelines For Kids

When I worked in admissions at Duke, I said a lot of things on the recruiting trail that weren’t exactly genuine: “Your combined SAT scores are in triple digits? Apply!” “We can’t get enough kids from northern New Jersey! Apply!” “You got a bunch of C’s in high school — at least you got a B in weight-lifting! Apply!”

But I did utter one true sentence: I told applicants that I was an astute reader and could tell the difference between the prose of a 17-year-old girl and that of a 51-year-old man. So don’t, I begged them, let your father write your personal statement for you.

I’d spent a dozen years working as an editor in scholarly publishing before I took a job in admissions. I’m not sure that all my colleagues were such careful readers; some were, I knew, occasionally hoodwinked. But since the essay is not that important a part of the application process, it didn’t really matter.

I emphasized writing the essay in my recruitment trips because by the time I was talking to these kids, that was the only thing within their control. Everything else — grades, course choice, SATs, extracurricular activities — were all done deals.

I wanted them to feel some degree of empowerment over this bruising senior year ordeal. I wanted them to understand that the process of learning to express themselves in clear, concise and lively prose could be an exercise in emotional archeology, an intellectual journey.

But then there were the parents.

Look, some of my best friends are parents. I understand that they want only what’s best for their offspring. This is a good impulse; it keeps the species going. But I’m not sure it’s always the right thing for the children.

When I do college counseling (which I do now mostly for the siblings of students I’ve already worked with), I see the dangerous good intentions these teenagers are up against.

One student kept writing the same bad essay. I labored to explain the fundamentals of good first-person writing: that it contains details that are specific and vivid, that it is honest.

He kept sending me slightly revised versions of the same vague platitudes and “Aren’t I great?” anecdotes. Finally I wrote him a harsh e-mail saying that he just wasn’t getting it. The essay was awful.

He started over, with a completely new topic — one he was passionate about — and it soared. Naturally suspicious and cynical, I asked what had happened. Had he been abducted by aliens? Or had someone else written it for him?

No, he said. This time he didn’t let his dad touch it.

Parents who have raised good kids should trust them. Because the essay is not an essential part of the process, and frankly, because most admissions officers know that they don’t know whose fingerprints are all over it, parental interference — except by people who really do know how to write — can be more demoralizing and divisive than useful.

It’s hard to come up with good topics. Parents who haven’t had the benefit of reading thousands of essays don’t know the clichés of the genre and steer children away from anything that might be “risky,” though essays that deal with hard stuff — sex, drugs, religion, family strife — are often the most affecting.

I can understand how difficult it is for parents not to be able to advise their children. But in this case, my advice is to step back and let them express themselves. If you’ve done a good job, so will they.

Ms. Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University and the author of “Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process.”

What are your thoughts on the notion of “parental interference,” and where to draw the lines between applicant, and parent of the applicant? Please use the comment box below to let us know.

In “Tip Sheet,” The Choice periodically posts short items by admissions officers, guidance counselors and others that might help applicants and their families better understand aspects of the admissions process. Click here for an archive of essays in this series.

Kim Lifton, right, and Susan Knoppow, authors of How to Write an Effective College Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents 

Authors Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppow, founders of the Wow Writing Workshop, both have daughters embarking on the journey to college this fall. But that wasn’t the impetus for their recently published guide, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents, a 51-page primer that aims to enhance parents’ role in the application process.

Instead, Lifton says, the inspiration came began with a conversation with her sister, whose son was applying to schools two years ago and who was “super involved” — and super worried — about the college essay. “She called me up and she was asking me questions about the essay, and I said, ‘You know what Tammy, I really think you should step away from this and let me work with him, because you don’t know what you’re doing.’ And I wasn’t very nice to my sister. I just said, ‘Step away, you’re too involved, and you don’t know how too help him, and this is what I do, so let me help him.’

“And she was very diplomatic, and she said, ‘You know Kim, it would be more helpful if you could tell me what I could do to help him.’ And that was the impetus for this project.”

As they have many times over years of collaboration, Lifton, president of Wow and a long-time journalist, and Knoppow, CEO and a writer and teacher, went to work together to craft a guide that would not only teach students to write an effective essay — a common goal of the self-help book cottage industry — but, for the first time, encourage parents’ involvement.


The Wow Writing Workshop is no newcomer to the world of college essays. Since launching in 2009, the Royal Oak, Michigan-based company has been in the business of helping prospective students, graduate students, counselors, and others better communicate via the written word. They developed the first self-guided online program for college application essay writing, and they conduct regular webinars on a wide range of related topics; the next, titled “Get In, Get Out and Get It Right: The 30-minute Essay Review,” scheduled for Aug. 17, will offer guidelines and templates based on the theory that “it should never take more than 30 minutes to review a student essay if you know what to look for and what to set aside.”

Experts they may be, but Lifton’s conversation with her sister sparked a new idea: Why not write a guide that brings parents into the fold, includes them in the process and values their input, rather than pushing them away? Parents have traditionally been urged to step aside as a way to let the students learn to stand on their own, but as Lifton’s sister said, “Everybody tells (parents) to stay away, back off. Nobody gives us anything that we can do, and all we want to do is help our kids.”

So Lifton and her business partner went about designing and writing a new kind of guide, keeping in mind the fact that, as she says, “Most parents really and truly just want to help, and it’s overwhelming.”


Lifton says it’s important for applicants, and parents, to be realistic. It’s simply harder to get into college these days, she says, pointing to the top school in her state, the University of Michigan, which accepted just 29% of total applicants in 2015. Not far away, the University of Chicago accepted a mere 7%. Much of the difficulty, Lifton says, lies with the advent of the Common App, used by nearly a million students a year to submit more than 4 million applications.

“All of the things that we hear about college are true,” Lifton says. “It is harder to get in, the Common App does make it really, really easy to apply — maybe it’s even too easy — and the admit numbers go down every time a new school takes the Common App.

“It is what it is. But as they open up admissions, as they make it easier with streamlined applications, it truly is harder (to get accepted), and I don’t think that we should be telling kids otherwise.”

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