These tips are for anyone -- whether parent, teacher, counselor, coach, relative, or mentor -- who wants to help a student write a better college application essay!

On Becoming Obsolete

My dad always told me, "Your job as a parent is to make yourself obsolete." I think the same holds true for my job as a college consultant. If I really know what I'm doing, I should be able to explain it clearly enough so that any motivated person can do what I do. Isn't that what it means to teach?

This challenge got Phil and me thinking and talking over the weekend. What would happen if we wrote out a guide for parents who want to help their students with the personal statement? We would never say that our way is the only way or the secret way or the best way. OK, fine, I do claim that some of what we do is the "best" way, but really I just mean that as shorthand for "best way we've found so far in our experience." Best or not, I can at least say that our way is an effective way.

As Phil and I were trying to pinpoint what we do, we realize the process breaks down into three parts:

  1. Ground rules.
  2. Key concepts.
  3. Structured assignments.

5 Ground Rules

One common theme I hear from parents is that they don't want to be the bad guy when it comes to college applications. They don't want to nag. We can't eliminate 100% of the stress of college applications, but when parents and students have the right ground rules in place, life gets a whole lot calmer. Here are our 5 ground rules:

  1. The student has the final say on the personal statement.
  2. The parent may not make negative comments about the personal statement.
  3. The parent may ask open-ended questions about the personal statement.
  4. The parent may not initiate conversations about the personal statement except at agreed-upon times.
  5. The parent may not write any part of the personal statement.

By clarifying responsibilities and limitations, these ground rules help improve communication between parent and child.

5 Key Concepts

Another common concern I hear from parents is that they don't know what makes a "good" personal statement. It's as if the application essay is some kind of impenetrable cipher. It's not. When I'm working with students, I'm focused on 5 key concepts:

  1. The personal statement is more about character than achievement.
  2. The best way to reveal character in the personal statement is to write about conflict.
  3. The best way to write about conflict is to write as much as possible as fast as possible.
  4. Vivid writing includes sights, sounds, conversations, and thoughts from a particular moment.
  5. The best way to organize the personal statement is to put “what happened” first and “why it matters” last.

Once parents understand these concepts, they have the reference points they need to guide their child. I know, you're disappointed I have omitted any High Theory of Literature or Narrative or Some Such Vanity. Pardon us -- our preference lies with the practical.

Stop Procrastinating & Get Started!

If there's one thing I've seen in working with students on their essays, it's that writing has very little to do with getting inspired. It's more about perspiration than inspiration. Start with the perspiration, and the inspiration will follow.

If you want to learn more about helping your child with the application essay, please take a look at our book Writing the College Essay.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.