Blog Post


Guiding your child through the college application essay 

Article and photo by Liz Stucke, owner of Admissions Prep


The University of Washington

Writing the college application essay can be an overwhelming experience for a student and nerve-wracking experience for a parent. For parents, it is like sitting in the white plastic lawn chairs by the pool as your young child struggles to learn to swim. You sit at the edge of the chair, trying not to tip it over, but ready to dive in to rescue your child at any moment.

Watching your teenager write the college essay is a similar nerve-wracking experience. Hunched over her laptop, mumbling, “what great failure have I overcome?” is the teenager you raised. You know her every success and blunder, her personality, and especially her potential. You know exactly how she overcame a failure. So just as a father is ready to rescue his drowning child, you may feel tempted to dive in, nudge your daughter off the computer and say, “What about something like this?” as you spend the next hour pounding out a “draft” of your daughter’s application essay.

Instead, how can you guide your child to write a successful essay without diving in?

1. Where to begin?

Begin with practice writing. Your teen will need to ask himself, Who am I? What motivates me? What do I care most about? These questions are difficult to answer at any age. So don’t start there. Instead, start with a quick exercise. My students use a writing exercise from Harry Bauld’s book, On Writing the College Application. Students quickly respond in writing to a list of about 30 terms, such as a smell or a specific memorable place. This is a great way for your child to quickly remember instances from her life.

2. What to write?

The college essay should reveal your child’s unique personality and character. Yet, how often has your child thought about his character or personality? This is where you can help. Whether in a meeting with his counselor or in writing, provide positive comments about the growth of your child. How has he transitioned over the years? When is he successful? Typically a story or two comes up that helps both the counselor and your child know what you think motivates him or demonstrates a pivotal moment. Your child may very well shrug these stories off and act as if “my mom is the most embarrassing person in the world!” But he will hear it, know that you are proud and gain more insight into what others notice about his character.

Then have your child choose three questions from the Common Application essay prompts, and write for ten minutes (more if they want) each night in response to one of those questions. Each question is answered three different nights in three different ways. The goal is to have your child flesh out a great amount of material in a short time without worrying about perfect writing style. This process forces a your child to look beyond the retelling of a story to begin analyzing underling motivations and revealing personality traits. It also quickly produces several possible essays topics.

“When reading an applicant’s essay, the admissions reader should be able to imagine the applicant right in front of her.”

3. Writing Style

First SHOW more than TELL. Second, include active DETAILs! When reading an applicant’s essay, the admissions reader should be able to imagine the applicant right in front of her. Recounting a story that SHOWS compassion, such as a story about a new student that quickly helps your son clean off his cafeteria issued uniform after flinging leftover spaghetti sauce all across the linoleum floor, is more effective than, “I learned compassion from many of my friends.”

Imagine the college admissions officer. She has worked all day reviewing college applications telling how they learned perseverance and leadership through their various accomplishments. It all starts to blur. It is late at night and she has time for one last read, and she picks up your son’s application essay. Will the essay keep her awake? Will it allow her to visualize a real teenager with fears and insecurities, but with the insight to know that it is part of growing up? Or, will it be the same old essay: “I learned perseverance by scoring the winning goal.” Will the essay make her laugh, hook her in to root for your child and perhaps even give his file a nickname, such as ‘cafeteria boy’ or ‘spaghetti flinger’? That is a college essay that adds personality to an application, full of facts and figures and one that she’ll likely remember.

Liz Stucke, President of Admissions Prep ( counsels students through the College Selection and Application process. Email questions or set up a free consultation: or call/text 865-951-0639.

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