Dear Parent,

We both know what’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time before you get your hands on your child’s Common App essay. I’m going to share my thoughts with you so you don’t mess up your chance.

First off, forget about arguing over whether your child has chosen a good application essay topic. Yes, definitely ask your child whether the intended topic reveals the one most important thing for colleges to know about her. If it doesn’t, then why is she writing about it, anyway? If your child confirms this really is the one best topic for her, then ask her to tell you about any difficult circumstances or people she encountered. Hard things are more interesting than easy things. That’s why blockbuster movies are about saving the planet and not about walking to the fridge for a late-night snack.

Once your child has settled on a topic, though, forget trying to talk her out of it. Kids know what they want to say. (They don’t know how long it will take for them to say it -- hence, procrastination -- but that’s another story.) Only rarely do I witness a conversation where the kid says, “You know what, Mom? You’re completely right. I’ll write about your topic instead.” Actually, I’ve never seen this happen. It’s always either an irritated or patient, “No, Mom, we already talked about it, and I’m doing something else.” Let’s not waste time fighting hopeless battles.

I know. You probably went to some seminar or read some article about how certain topics are bad topics. Don’t write about sports. Don’t write about service trips. Don’t write about Grandma. Your concern comes from a good place. Your child is unique, and you want her essay to be unique, too. So you wonder, “Will the wrong topic sabotage my child’s chances of standing out?” In a word, the answer is “No.” Each year my students get into “top 25” schools with ordinary topics. How? Because uniqueness doesn’t come from the topic. It comes from how the student develops the topic.

What is topic development? I’ll tell you what it’s not -- it’s not finding a profound “lesson learned.” I bring this up because most parents love harping on the “lesson learned,” the big, amazing thing the student learned from the experience. I get it. Whenever you, I, or anyone else talks about parenthood, travel, work, or any other important life experience, of course we say what we learned and how it changed us. We get right to the point and explain how it’s made us less self-centered or more patient, and the listener appreciates the summary.

The problem is that all these profound lessons learned, though true and convenient, are not unique. Your child’s lesson learned from whatever experience will sound similar to every other applicant’s lesson learned from whatever other experience. “Experience X taught me Lesson Y” is universal, and we usually can’t escape it. That doesn’t mean we should give up on writing a stand-out essay. It just means we shouldn’t put all our faith in the power of the “lesson learned” to distinguish your child’s essay. “Lesson learned” is great for explaining meaning, just not in a unique way.

What makes your child’s essay stand out is not the lesson learned, but rather the circumstances leading to that lesson. I’m talking about all those nitty-gritty details. What specific moments are the highlights of your child’s experiences? What did your child see in those moments? What did she hear? Who else was there, and what were those people doing or saying? In other words, if someone had been filming your child’s entire life, what would the camera have picked up? Your child’s ability to describe the external details about the world around her will differentiate her essay.

Again, it’s not the lesson learned -- the abstract statement of what it means or why it matters -- that will set your child’s essay apart. Anyone can write, “I felt frustrated.” But only your child can write about a unique time and place, the sights and sounds, the actions and conversations, that gave rise to that frustration. So stop fussing over the “lesson learned.” It’s a dead end.

The path to originality requires you to ask about details who, what, where, when, why, and maybe also to inquire about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. You cannot have too many of these sensory details that relate to your child’s external world. The real danger is including too many details about your child’s internal world, about her thoughts and feelings; those abstract details lead to generic writing.

If your child is stuck with the writing process, the best thing you can do is to tell her to focus only on writing out all the details about the outside world. Forget about trying to find a profound lesson learned; that’s way too much pressure for most students, who are not used to writing personal essays. Just keep it simple. It’s freewriting. Quantity is a precursor to quality. The more details about sights and sounds, the more likely a new insight will emerge. I am always pushing my students to write more sights and sounds from specific moments.

After your child writes out all those sensory details about the world as she experienced it, one of two things will happen. The first possibility is that your child ends up with great sensory details and an ordinary lesson learned. Even if that’s the case, your child is still better off because now instead of ordinary details plus ordinary lesson learned, she has unique details plus ordinary lesson learned.

The second possibility is that your child actually comes up with a unique take on the lesson learned. Ideally, she gets to the point of insight; this is the point where she says, “I don’t actually know what I think.” That is where we get the good stuff. This doesn’t happen for every student; it depends on the student’s experiences and her ability to reflect on those experiences.

Nevertheless, you can encourage this self-reflection by asking, “What have you yet to learn?” or “What are you still working on?” Your kid is seventeen. No one expects a tale of perfect wisdom where your child starts off in ignorance and ends in perfect self-knowledge. Perfect self-knowledge, or the appearance of it, in a seventeen-year-old shows a lack of maturity. How many things did I “know” at age seventeen that turned out to be wrong? So many thing. Sometimes, the most effective form of advocacy in a college application essay is humility. It’s perfectly fine -- and I think advisable -- to conclude an essay with what the student is trying to figure out rather than what she knows for sure.

After your child has written all the details, you will find yourself with the chance to edit the essay. When you do, remember these words: “Do no harm.” You’ll be tempted to write a few words here and there. Resist this temptation. “What’s the harm?” you might wonder. The path is easy, but the results are poor. Soon one word turns into four, and four words turn into one sentence, and one sentence turns into two more. Soon the essay stops sounding like a high school student wrote it. It becomes a mishmash of writing by two authors at different points in life.

Colleges aren’t looking for polished writing. They’re looking for authentic writing. It should sound a little bit raw. It shouldn’t sound as if it were written by someone who graduated high school thirty years ago. This essay should amplify your child’s voice. When she reads it aloud, she should be able to say, “Yes, that sounds just like me.” I can tell when parents have meddled with students’ essays. If I can, then so can the admissions officers, who have read thousands of them.

You’re an editor, not a co-writer. Remember that, please. Plus, if you do too good of a job “fixing” your child’s essay by making it “sound better,” there’s always the risk the essay will sound much more sophisticated than your child’s English grades or ACT/SAT writing scores lead the college to expect. That’s not good for credibility.

To help you get the editing process right, let me tell you what I do and do not do when I edit students’ essays. I do check for grammar and spelling errors. If a sentence is unclear, I do explain why and ask the student to rewrite it. If certain material would be more convincing elsewhere in the essay, I do cut it and paste it to a new location. I do delete extra words and repetitive sentences. I do not write words. This method of editing takes more time than rewriting the essay myself, but it ensures that the essay retains the student’s voice. And it’s not cheating, which is also a plus in my book.

To recap, here are some questions you can ask your child to help her get the most out of her application essay:

  1. Does this topic reveal the one most important thing you want colleges to know about you?
  2. Have you described any difficult people or circumstances you faced?
  3. What specific moments do you want to talk about?
  4. What sights, sounds, conversations, and actions do you want to talk about from your specific moments?
  5. When you read this aloud, does it sound like you?

Just by asking these questions, you’ll be doing more to help your child write a great Common Application essay than most other parents. Good luck!


P.S. You might be thinking, "I'm tired of googling the answers to my college questions. Isn't there a better way?" If so, come join the conversation on our private Facebook group for parents: Free College Counseling. Hope to see you there!