Parents, stop writing your kid’s college essay

In the awkward span of time between Election Day and the start of next semester, I have increasingly found myself becoming the stereotypical writer-in-the-coffee-shop.

Normally my various muffin/tea/quiet jazz spots in Charlottesville are populated with teachers grading tests, job interviewers and people like me enjoying their “funemployment.” However, today I found myself sitting next to a high school senior as his mother and another woman were writing his college essays.

In the world of SAT cheating scandals, getting slightly more than a fresh set of eyes is hardly uncommon in the college application process, so at first I thought nothing of it. But it only took a few minutes of sitting one table over from the trio to realize that this kid was a) really smart, and b) learning all the wrong lessons about how to articulate how smart he was.

girl studying

Girl studying via Shutterstock

I sat and listened as this student talked through the irony of holiday shopping, sustainable agriculture and his personal connection with the college he was applying to, and I watched as his companions transcribed his story through their eyes. This kid had a great story to tell, but his reliance on adult supervision will prevent him from ever telling it. Whoever reads “his” essays may be impressed by his resume, his “passion” (by far the most overused word in college essays) and his legacy. But not only will they have no clue who he is, he will be less capable of articulating his ideas without his mother holding his hand when he does arrive at college.

As bad as cutting corners to get your child into college is, it’s arguably worse when your child doesn’t need the help.

This student was clearly smart enough and qualified enough to get himself into at least one of the prestigious schools I heard him mention on his own merits. Instead, by signing on to the self-image his mother was creating for him he was rendering himself less prepared to leave the proverbial nest. The ceiling of this student’s potential has been lowered because he has forfeited his right to speak and argue for himself.

The college application process was the first time I had to answer the question: “Who are you and why are you ‘worth it’?” It was the first real exercise in originality that I had gone through, and I benefited tremendously from at least starting the exercise on my own. Sure, I sought help with edits in later drafts, but only after the ideas and stories were already on the page. Not only were my essays better for it, so was I.

The American response to being overtaken by the Chinas of the world, in terms of math and science education, is to say, “sure, but our students know how to think for themselves!” We pride ourselves on students who go beyond simply solving equations, and instead have ideas. In American undergraduate education, being “right” is often considered less important than having an opinion, and being able to construct a logical argument around it.

Our competitive advantage ends here. If we keep our students from thinking on their own we will lose our ability to “out-innovate…our competitors.” So, for the love of God, let your kids be themselves when they apply to college. We, and they, will all be much improved.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • emjayay

    Back in the dark ages when I was applying for college, I’m not sure there was an essay requirement. If there was, it didn’t occcur to my college educated parents that they should participate. Now there’s the internet, where anyone can no doubt buy any kind of manufactured essay or some kind of help for however amount of money you wwant to spend. Plus any kid could have their parents or whoever write the essay for them, even before the internet existed. Or for that matter a savvy kid can make up an entire fictionalised essay. Unless it is an impromptu essay written in a controlled environment, the whole college application essay is a ridiculous idea.

    Admission to college is already a very education and income level of the parents skewed deal. The essay requirement just makes it worse.

    And about admissions people detecting and rejecting a fake or parent written essay: in some cases probably true. But not if they’re good.

    The other side of this issue is the perceived value of going to a famous name brand college, which now seems to be radically skewing the supply and demand curve. Even UC vs. State U in California at the undergraduate level – probably not that different for most students. I’ve taken lower level classes at even San Francisco City College fairly recently and they didn’t seem any easier or less competently taught than what the same class would be at State or UC. Except for the student environment of being among only the highest achievers or not. And of course the most important thing, making friends with future big time private and government cheeses. (Which is all another arguement against the existence of online “Universites” where there is no environment at all.)

  • Thanks, Jon. We tell parents all over the country THIS IS WRONG. We often wonder if Mom and Dad plan to go to college with little junior and then work.

  • Will

    Thank you for writing this piece Jon. I totally agree with you in that the college application process really is often the first time a student answers fundamental and challenging questions about who he or she is. Writing college essays that reflect who you are as an individual is by no means easy. I work with several students at College Creed, an innovative essay editing service that provides graduating high school seniors with a network of successful college student mentors, ensuring their voices are heard. It is not uncommon that a student begins the process writing subpar work from what they are capable of writing. Usually it is after completing two or three essays that the student begins to get the hang of writing college application essays. It’s really funny because once that light switch goes off these students create some of the most unbelievable works that even they never thought they were capable of creating.

  • Sally

    I teach private music lessons. One of my students was pushed by her parents to get into a “school to college’ deal her senior year whereby she attended a local college all day, took watered down high school classes her first term, then began ‘college’ classes last winter. She just now, at 19, got her drivers’ license. This second year is also being paid for by our state, as she is still tecinically enrolled in high school but earning college credit. I have been asking her all fall if she completed her college apps, as this college is little more than a glorified community college, and she is smart. She finally told me she is ‘working on them,’ but they aren’t due yet. Most of the seniors I know have been accepted to a couple of schools already. This girl is an only child, and not social. Her mom has basically crippled her (and even took a Latin class with her this fall!) I don’t see how she’ll function is she does leave town.
    Oh, and parents doing kids’ work is not new. My daughter had to take an art class in 7th grade, a skill she does not have. I picked her up at 5:00 the night before a sculpting project was due, and was amazed to find no teacher present, but plenty of parents finishing their child’s work. Laura got a C, and did it herself. Pitiful.

  • The answer to your question is no. that’s why we have office hours. Students bent on manipulating are not going to get anywhere. Students who want extra tutoring will get help.

  • mirror

    If I had listened to the “NOT getting too involved” advice people started laying down when my boy and his local peers hit middle school, he might not even be graduating from high school. Instead, he is a good student, going to college, and miraculously still on track pursuing his life’s dreams.

  • met00

    If my daughter did what I did back in the dark ages and went to her English teacher for the same help, would that be manipulating the system?

    The system is very broken. Enter “college essay help” into google and see all 68,000,000 returned items. Better yet, look at the ads at the top and along the side. Like I said, the system is broken. On the positive side the UC admissions officer I talked with was well aware of the broken system and from what I’ve seen they have a handle on how to determine when the essay was done by the student verses an adult. That means that my child has a fighting chance at having a level playing field.

  • met00

    Thanks. She’s a great kid and she works hard at being who she is (not always who I want her to be, but she does make me proud). I told her when she started that I was a resource. She used me like I used my English teacher back in the late 70’s when I was writing my essays. Not to advise on content, but to help with structure and clarity.

    The great part is that right now she has completed all seven applications and she is free to focus on other things. The bad part is that she is NOT good at waiting for the review and reply process.

  • met00

    Actually, it was less than an hour and a half of my time in total. All of it in “review”. With 500 word limits the idea is to express who you are as well as possible without duplicate work. Most of my “suggestions” were along the lines of “rephrase this paragraph”, “tighten this up”, “You are repeating yourself in paragraph 4 from parts of 2 and 3”. In one paragraph I highlighted a sentence and said “read this aloud” so she could hear how stilted it sounded.

    At no point did I write any of it, or even tell her what to write. So, the work was all hers in terms of content that she decided to put in, and my task was just to help her say it once, and suggest that she may want to tighten the work up.

    My job in this instance as a parent (and not much of a helicopter one – she has been responsible for her class schedule and choices since 9th grade) is to provide the wisdom of my years of experience in writing. Considering I have done some minor speechwriter work in three Presidential campaigns I would say that NOT coming to me for my experience would have made me a bit less positive about my daughters wisdom. She made good use of me as a resource (she came to me for help, not me going to her and telling her what to do). The hard part, as a parent, is NOT getting too involved.

  • Yes. I am speaking from a teacher’s perspective and in my day, as a faculty/administrator. Now a days, administrations are corporate entities and seem to me to be totally indifferent to the matrix of diversity among students and are hostile to faculty, who demand excellence over the bottom line of pushing lucrative mediocre students forward.

  • “I think you are being just as manipulative of the system” Absolutely and done so the correct way—-a way that enables the student to perfect her true potential and express it at the highest level.

  • Well done. That was the perfect management.

  • mirror

    Hey, folks, thanks for letting me rant below. This is really going to help me help my kid with an important college essay he needs to finish this week! It will stop me from doing the wrong thing when my instincts already had me doing the right thing.

  • mirror

    I’m bad, but I draw the line at helping with college work. That’s why I’m shipping my youngest kid out of town.

  • mirror

    I know I’m not that far off agreeing with your intent, but you did just say above, “Editing is a valuable learning process and central to pedagog,” suggesting that it was ok for parents to help applicants hide the exact kind of deficiencies you are describing. I do figure it tells something about you if you don’t know enough to have someone proof read your work when you have the opportunity, or know that you are the type of student who must ALWAYS have someone proof their work.

    On the other hand, someone has to tell them in high school that the little stars or hearts aren’t an acceptable standard form for college.

  • K_L_Carten

    My mother in law works for a state college in the library, and she sees this stuff all the time. As a matter of fact just yesterday she was telling me about a student and her mom doing the student’s homework. Several staff members couldn’t believe that her mom was doing the work and trying to prep her for the tests she was going to be taking in a few days. The girl didn’t have a clue about any of the work, what was a little scary was she was a nursing student. One screw up and you can kill someone, anyway, they see this stuff all the time, the parents with their kids in the college library doing the work while the kid is texting. I get to hear all about the kids that can’t read but are going to college and are surprised that they aren’t doing so well because they where honor students in high school. Except they can’t freaking read, that too me is unbelievable. I never asked my parents to do any school work and the ONE time I asked my dad help with a chemistry project I nearly got expelled. He was laughing and told me after that debacle, that he did get expelled when he did it for his chemistry project. He told me it was good to see I was a normal kid after all, after that I didn’t really take my dad’s advice with school projects. Ya think I would have had the good sense after he told me to ask my Spanish teacher what a word meant, it wasn’t a nice word either.

  • mirror

    I agree, although I’m not sure if it might not be a result of some kind of indoctrination, but I think the distinctions you are making are particularly misunderstood by many parents who then don’t help their kids or use it as an excuse not to help their kids. Helping is tiring.

    I think on moral grounds I have never been able to get too worked up about plagiarism. My problem is that plagiarism is boring. And I suspect that taking the ideas of others often makes them less interesting because most ideas aren’t so original in the first place.

  • KLG

    Just so you know, in those Admissions Offices that actually have someone read the essays, they can spot an EBM or EBD (Essay by Mom/Dad) from the next building. They do not help.

  • mirror

    The process you described for helping your daughter with her essay involved an enormous amount of input by you at every single stage, more than I’m giving my kid. You’ve given me some good ideas of how to help him. But, I think you are being just as manipulative of the system as any other helicopter parent – just being better at it. You also justified your efforts by showing us how the admissions evaluator believed it was ALL her work and also justified it by telling us how much she was otherwise qualified. And I think it is just fine.

  • met00

    As a parent who just did this with my daughter let me state that the colleges are looking at a number of things when they look at a student. They are looking at standardized tests. They are looking at GPA. They are looking at extracurricular activities, volunteer work and jobs. All of these things are very black and white.

    I talked to a college admissions officer and asked what they felt was the most important things and she told me that there are a bunch of clues that she uses in determining if a student is ready to get into the UC system verses going to a CSU.

    First, the GPA is NOT as important as what the student took to get that GPA. A student who took honors classes and AP loads and scored a 3.2 is worth more than the student who has a 4.0, but never pushed their coursework. A student who scored poorly on the math portion of the SAT/ACT and is going into social sciences and took average math classes and got good grades is looked at as far less qualified than the same student that got a similar math score on standardized testing, and had a lower GPA in math, but was taking advanced courses. In other words, the scores don’t stand alone, and the coursework, the school you attended and a large number of other factors also have influence.

    When we discussed the two essays that the UC system requires I was informed that she can tell when a parent wrote it within the first three lines. I asked “how” and she said that the classes in English taken, along with the GPA from those classes and the standardized scores give an impression for the language arts she expects to see on the essay. When a parent writes the essay she said that the expectations are way off the mark from what she is reading. Her comment was, “If you want to ensure that your students essay doesn’t get any weight, write it for them.”

    He advice to me was to have my daughter do an outline. Then go over the outline with her and discuss structure. Then have my daughter write the essay’s first draft from the structure. After the first draft is done, do NOT go line by line over it, but provide general critique as to form and style, NOT content! This should be done through two or three drafts. Then do one final draft with an eye on how to say something more effectively, so you get more “power” from the limited words you are permitted. Here you have the student rework passive voice and look for a more specific word choice that says the same thing in less words. Again, the student does this, the parent just points out the weak points. DO NOT supply content (ever)!

    By the time you finish the third would the student should have a good piece of essay in 500 words or less that allows them to provide insight into who THEY are. Not the parents.

    Following her advice with my daughter my daughter wrote both essays over a three week period. The final product was very impressive, and 100% of it was in HER voice. Anyone who would read the essay would know a great deal more about this student and where her interests and passions lie. While she was doing the rewrites and the final I took the starting draft and I rewrote it as if I was helping her. I then provided the final copy of my daughters work and mine to the admissions officer asking her which was my daughters work and which was mine. She read the first two lines of both and handed me back mine and said, “Your daughter is far more interesting than your description of her.”

    Two lines. Same concepts, but the difference between how we express it was so clear that it got nailed in two lines.

    When she completed she asked me what schools my daughter had applied to. I told her and she asked how many hours volunteer working with kids my daughter had (over 1000) and what was her planned program (an MSW), her GPA and test scores (I showed her the docs). She smoiled and said that she would give my daughter a 100% chance into getting into one of the three UC’s she applied to, and an over 80% chance at getting into the one she really wanted. She then smiled at me and said that show would have knocked that 80% to a 50% had my essays been used.

    Now comes the hard part. Funding the next six years!

  • mirror

    I’m surprised you aren’t looking more at the economic factors involved here in parental motivations. As the lower 2/3 of the middle class drops in economic condition, where and when one goes to college becomes increasingly important for determining which side a large number of individual people fall on this economic divide. Gone are the days when I went to college and you could afford to get your shit together in a year or two or few when you felt creative and inspired. Then go on to an awesome affordable romp through the college system, being yourself and lighting up the humdrum lives of professors.

  • Good work. When I first started out teaching my first University class, I discovered that 70% of my students simply couldn’t compose English sentences, or had any cohesive idea of how to punctuate. Thus, I often got little heart ‘periods’ at the end of rambling sentences and other odd symbols—-stars were also common. Part of the problem is the abject failure of America’s public schools to properly educate its students. The brilliant kids will always prosper, but the vast majority of kids are not fully prepared for the rigors of college level work when they first arrive.

  • I think you are a bit off base here. Editing is a valuable learning process and central to pedagogy . Helping focus, outline and organize are genuine educational processes. Having Momma and friends write the ‘self myth’ for her kiddy is plagiarism.

  • FunMe

    “funemployment”? I thought you were a student?

    Meanwhile I love your word … fun! ;-)

  • Good work Jon. It is this parental interference and marketing that probably accounts for the appalling entitlement exhibited by freshmen and their cohorts to the detriment of their maturity and learning. The constant battle of students to defend their average or mediocre work as excellent has resulted in the lowering of standards and encourages administrators to look the other way for income purposes. This is particularly true of foreign students and legacy students.

  • mirror

    As for college, I dropped out of high school and later as an undergraduate and graduate student my greatest failing was not going to seek help and talk things over with people early on in papers and projects. Some people do better left to their own devices, others learn bad habits that hold them back from achieving their potential.

  • mirror

    But Jon, why then did you take help with editing and rewriting? Aren’t those things an honest reflection of your abilities and who you are?

    Actually, I’m supportive of one of your points here, that one should tell one’s own story, but you buried that part in a sea of don’t-help-the-kids rhetoric. My own son benefited immensely by my not writing an important college essay for him, because his own product, after editing help, did a better job of showing both his strength and his weaknesses. In his case, it was actually important for various reasons for the college to know his weaknesses.

    However, I have seen many parents do a very poor job of helping their kids navigate the road to college, college scholarships, and life, because of too much adherence to the don’t-help-the-kids-or-you’ll-make-them-weak ideology. They focus on the critique of the helping in articles like yours and fail to notice all the helping that large numbers of successful kids get. Sometimes I think that people who had to do EVERYTHING on their own, like me, are jealous of those kids that get help and so they over-critique the potential pitfalls.

    In the Bush-Obama economy I don’t plan to have my kid confusedly wandering around the local community college if he has an alternative that relates better to his hopes and dreams.

  • percysowner

    My daughter always wrote her own essays and papers. Then I would look at them for spelling, and grammar, my daughter was better at punctuation than I was. I would often suggest a rewording of some sentences to make them, what I considered to be, more clear or to make them into active voice rather than passive. The information remained the same. But other than that colleges got what my daughter wrote. Maybe I had too much input, but everyone needs a beta or an editor on their work and I was my daughter’s.

  • Bose

    That’s taking helicopter parenting to an ugly extreme. Yikes!

  • omkara
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