by Julie Wolf, Guest Writer
“It was the worst part of high school, hands down. I’ve blocked it out.”
This is my daughter, now a junior in college, discussing the college application process, specifically the anxiety-provoking personal essay. Unfortunately, I haven’t blocked it out. As January deadlines loomed, she dug herself into a hole, with stacks of essays still unwritten. The two of us stayed home over the school holiday while the rest of the family made merry with relatives out of state. Our next student, a high school senior, already has a draft underway, hewing to the start-in-the-summer advice that my daughter largely ignored. The clarity of hindsight shows that I was too involved from the outset with his sister, offering help that she didn’t want but came to rely on, so with Student 2 I’m treading lightly. Occasionally I peek into his room and see him sitting on his bed, tapping away at his computer. I back away; I don’t ask. One night, though, my resolve broke. To my amazement, he let me read his essay; I promised not to say much.
Famous last words. I’m not sure exactly what I said that made him storm off from dinner, taco untouched.
OK, I know what I said:
“How much brainstorming did you do for your essay?”
Or maybe: “I’m sure you’ll add to it.”
Or else: “Well, it’s just a first draft.”
Yes, that may have been the clincher.
Of course, I was just trying to help.
This second time around, I swore I wouldn’t help unless asked (fact check: I wasn’t). I followed solid advice: Find a trusted adult to help with the essay. Teacher, friend, college counselor—the less connected by blood the better. I was fortunate to find just such a trusted adult. She sets deadlines and offers guidance and feedback on his essay—not insinuations that she might know more about what he wants to write about than he does. As an added bonus, she takes this burden off my shoulders.
The thing is, I don’t really want that burden lifted. Moms carry stuff. Jackets, water bottles—you name it, I’ve schlepped it. You get used to it. You call it “being needed,” when maybe you’re really just carrying things that your child could just as easily carry themselves.
I asked my college-enrolled daughter her thoughts on why a parent might want to “participate” in their child’s college essay. For her, the bottom line was literally the bottom line: “Because parents are usually paying the application fee.” In other words, a parent has “earned” the right to read the essay. That seemed too transactional to me. After all, the process isn’t just dollar signs and a financial investment; there’s also a huge emotional investment, and, as my daughter acknowledged, “I guess you just want to make sure we’re doing our best so we can get in where we want to.”
Sometimes my son asks me to read a school paper before turning it in. These are often on subjects about which I know nothing, yet he seeks my opinion. The college essay revolves around a subject about which I like to claim some expertise—my child—but… crickets. What makes sharing with a parent so hard, even a parent who promises they won’t change a word (although they might suggest one or two)? My daughter said there’s no common ground between a neutral research paper and a personal essay. Once a student finally feels proud of what they’ve written, she said, a question phrased the wrong way could undermine their confidence. Even constructive criticism of a student’s writing can hit especially hard when coming from a parent; “constructive” often translates to “negative” in the mind of the student writer.
I get the message. No matter how well you know your child, no matter how much you want them to succeed and be happy, perspective can help. Maybe it is truly best if the heavy lifting surrounding the personal essay comes from someone who can’t launch what seems like an ambush over dinner. But that doesn’t mean a parent has no role in the application process. Consider taking on some of the less from-the-heart parts. You probably have a much better grasp on your family finances than your child does; fill out the FAFSA. The same goes for your family calendar; help schedule in-person or virtual campus tours that won’t conflict with other activities or events. And of course be there for the important conversations. Ask them about their hopes for college, what their expectations and fears are. But remember: When they’re baring their soul to you, don’t correct their grammar.
About the Author:
Julie Wolf, the sole proprietor of Qwerty Editorial, is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Framingham, MA, with her husband and their three children: a high school sophomore, a high school senior, and a junior in college. She can be reached through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/juliewolf-editorial/.