A while back, my husband and I attended a late fall school parents’ night for our then fifth grader. Holiday “placemats” decorated by each student festooned the classroom walls. On those papers, students had written short essays about whom they would invite to their holiday dinners, and why, if they could choose anyone they wanted, living or dead.
As I browsed the essays, I noted that Abraham Lincoln, Jesus, and the occasional deceased relative predominated, all with similarly noble, teacher-pleasing explanations. Then I noticed my husband at the other side of the room, doubled over in laughter, and I knew that our daughter, marcher to her own drumbeat, had come up with something different. I admit that I might have murmured “oh no” as I headed his way. Her list was comprised of – obviously – Ashton Kutcher, Orlando Bloom, and Whoopi Goldberg – “to discuss the business.” After a beat, I joined him in laughter as another dad looked at her placemat, then at us, slightly horrified and thinking we needed to be reassured somehow, and said “Well, at least it’s honest. And it’s, uh, memorable.”
Indeed. That moment comes to mind when I start working with my students on their college application essays. Like all Collegewise counselors, I coach my kids to write conversationally and from their hearts, working from the inside out to answer essay prompts. Some students resist this, worrying instead about what the “right” answer is (which is whatever they think the schools want to hear). In those cases, I receive a lot of “Honest Abe and Grandma Betsy” drafts initially. Some versions read like recitations of students’ genuinely admirable community service projects, but they blur together because they are missing the context and feelings behind the involvement, while others are like highlight reels of outstanding activities that are filled with motion but lack emotion. It takes a fair bit of back and forth to help these students realize that it’s okay, and in fact necessary, for them to candidly include their unique and perhaps quirky aspects as they write.
There are other uphill climbs, too, like when a student has submitted a zesty and well-written essay that reflects their personality and captures the reader’s attention, only for it to disappear and be replaced with a bland and formalized version re-written by their well-meaning parents, returning it to Honest Abe-land. Parents, I understand the struggle. You want the best outcome for your children. You are just trying to do the right thing (but it is the wrong thing, of course, for many reasons). I get it, and I had trouble myself holding back when my children were writing their college supplements. But colleges want to get to know your children, as they truly are, through their essays. They want the spicy meatball. An essay written by a forty-five-year-old sounds like an essay written by a forty-five-year-old. When an essay is suddenly missing a section that had displayed deep vulnerability, or when it now includes words like “synergy” and “pivot” or becomes filled with transitions like the classic “henceforth,” I know that adults are working to fix something that isn’t broken.
Parents, allow your children the chance to stand out, to express their surprising and unusual and revelatory thoughts. Colleges want to learn about the teenager behind the grades and activities. More selective schools are painstakingly trying to build classes full of people that other people are interested in getting to know. Let your children tell you, and the admission committees, why they want to invite Ashton, Orlando, and Whoopi to dinner. They have their reasons, and by freeing them to speak their minds, you may just discover something new about a young person you love so much.
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