4 Mistakes Parents Make While Trying to Help Their Teens with College Admission Essays


As juniors finish up their AP exams and finals, there will be more time to focus on college applications and with them, the notorious college admission essay. This essay is a critical piece of your teen's applications, so careful attention should be paid to how you address it with your son or daughter. Let's take a look at some of the most avoidable mistakes parents make while trying to help their teens.

1. They're confused about the point of the application essay

It may seem logical to assume that the college essay stands in the place of a formal interview with a college, but this couldn't be further from the truth.

The students who aim to impress admission officers tend to miss the mark--by a lot. And, parents who don't know what the college essay is truly about tend to offer advice for essay topics of moments that they felt proud of ("Why don't you write about winning that art award, recovering from that sports injury, or that summer you spent volunteering?"). Or, worse, they push their teen to use more SAT words in their writing or write essays that are anything but modest.

The real point of the college application essay is for the admission officers to gain a fuller grasp of who your son or daughter is outside of their SAT score, GPA, extracurricular activities, and leadership positions. They want a glimpse at your teen's personality.

The admission officers know where the applicant fits in relation to other applicants, so this essay helps them see your teen as a human instead of a dot on a graph. The college essay is also the chance for them to determine whether or not your child "fits" in with their campus's culture.

An outstanding college essay is one in which a student is able to convey a level of humanness through a carefully constructed story. Therefore, before your teen starts the college essay writing process, make sure you both know the purpose of the admission essay.

2. They're too hands-on

This is a pivotal moment in your teen's life. The college essay is a time for your child to be reflective and to learn the art of story telling, a skill that will not only help him with college admissions but with job and internship applications in the future.

Being too hands-on with the college essay is a temptation for many parents, but over the years, I've seen this go horribly wrong. Well-meaning advice from parents is often misguided, especially when parents aren't clear on what the point of the application essay is.

Some parents will go as far as to write the essay for or with their teen. What's lost here is the applicant's authentic voice, and one of most important aspects of the college admission essay is authenticity. And yes, admission officers can tell the difference between an adult's voice and a teen's!

Let your teen learn how to write this type of essay. You can provide support by agreeing to read over his essay to see if it portrays him how others see him or by finding free online resources or by hiring a college essay consultant.

3. They don't focus on mindset

There's a common myth that a teen's junior year of high school is the toughest, but in reality, her senior year is just as if not more challenging. It's likely she'll still be taking AP courses, and it's possible a repeat attempt at the SAT is in order. On top of that, college application season has arrived.

One of the reasons my first module for The College Essay Course is on mindset is because for years, the number one thing that got in my students way was how they presented the college application process to themselves. For students who are easily stressed, adding the college essay to the mix can be overwhelming. I've coached students through meltdowns by having them refocus on the things that were working instead of the things that weren't.

Encourage your teen to practice mindfulness and gratitude, to organize her time well, and to learn how to bounce back from setbacks more quickly by learning from her mistakes and offering a solution to prevent it in the future.

Teach her (and you) to think of the college admission process as a game instead of an obstacle; you have to go through the process either way, so you might as well make it fun! Teach her how to goal set, and aim for the stars with scholarship money (double points if she can write a scholarship essay that she can use as a college essay).

If your teen plans on going away to school, make this last year at home one in which she practices these skills that will benefit her in college.

4. They skip the scholarship conversation

Even the hardest working teens who know the value of a dollar have a challenging time grasping exactly what a $500 or $1000 a month loan payment is going to do to them financially.

If your teen is going to be taking out student loans or if you're footing some or all of the bill, do them a favor by pushing them to locate scholarship money. Each year, there will be more opportunities for your son or daughter to apply for scholarships.

Scholarships that require essays are more challenging, which implies that there will be fewer applicants. If you and your teen plan well, there may be opportunities for your college applicant to write scholarship essays that double as college application essays.

It's less daunting to apply for scholarships when you know the essay will serve multiple purposes.

Happy Writing!

This blog was written by Jaclyn Corley, Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook

The College Essay Captain helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.