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Should You Help With the College Essay? 4 Questions to Ask First

Guest Contributor


By Brad Schiller, CEO & Founder of Prompt

The college process can strain parent-child relationships.

There’s a list of colleges to make. There are conversations about staying close to home or moving away and about your family’s budget for higher education.

And maybe the most dreaded part of the process, there are college essays to write.

Although the college essay is a source of stress for students, it’s also a place where parents can’t resist jumping in to help.

Despite your instincts, I implore you to take a step back and consider your teenager’s situation.

By senior year of high school, many kids have their own identities and values, which may or may not align with yours. Your teen is getting essay advice from counselors, teachers, peers, family members, and maybe coaches or consultants.

Despite (or because of) all of this information bombarding them, your teen might not have the best understanding of what college admissions officers are looking for in an essay.

When you combine these factors, it becomes clear that parents can benefit from thinking twice about helping their kids with their college essays.

To guide you on the decision of whether or not to help your teen with their college essay, I have four questions for you to consider.

Answer These Questions Before Reading Your Teen's Essay

1. Do you currently have a stable relationship with your teen?

Senior year can be stressful for families. And college applications may not be the only area of conflict as your 17- or 18-year old becomes more independent and pushes boundaries.

If you’re going to try to help your teen with their college essay, consider the additional stress these interactions may place on your relationship.

You can support them throughout the college application process without being the one to read and provide feedback on their essay. They may need help researching scholarships, or want someone to go with them to tour a campus or two. Maybe you can help them prepare for an admissions interview. Or maybe they just need a little extra pampering as they juggle their busy senior year schedule.

2. Does your teen take your advice in other areas?

It’s not just you. Many teens have established their own ideas about what is right and wrong, good and bad, etc. They may be less likely to take your advice right now.

Look elsewhere: Do they take your advice when choosing a summer job? Deciding what they might want to study in college? Or even (gulp) how to navigate relationships?

Be honest with yourself and recognize that protecting your existing relationship with your teen should take precedence over your desire to provide feedback on their writing.

With that said, if you and your teen have a relationship based on giving and taking advice, and you are used to working with them on these kinds of projects, it might be worth trying to support them.

Still, be aware of the issues of time and deadlines below.

3. Does your teen tend to procrastinate?

Here’s a shocking statistic: 90% or more of college applicants submit their applications 48 hours or closer to the deadline. Only one out of 10 teens avoids procrastinating on college apps.

Which group does your teen fall into? This answer matters for your decision to help them with their college essay.

If your student hasn’t started working on their essay yet, and you remind them to do so, you’ll be seen as nagging. Every time you ask them about the essay, it can create more anxiety and conflict.

Even the most self-motivated students struggle with writing college essays because it’s such a mentally daunting task.

Fortunately, this may not be a bad thing. Researcher and author Adam Grant has noted that it can be beneficial to procrastinate on mentally daunting tasks because it gives the brain more time to cement its thinking.

That doesn’t mean your teen will be any less bothered by your nudges to get them started.

If your teen is a procrastinator and you feel it may get in the way of them submitting their best quality work, consider an essay coach to help your teen stay on track throughout the process.

4. Have you estimated the time it will take to provide solid support?

Parents often begin helping their teens with their college essays with the perspective that this experience will be similar to helping with a homework assignment.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Providing adequate support to your teen on their college essay will likely take between five and 10 hours at a minimum. If your teen is applying to multiple essay-intensive schools, you could be looking at up to 40 hours of essay support.

If you have that much free time to devote to the process, then providing help could be a good option. But you don’t want to begin helping your teen, then need to pull back because the process is taking too long.

A Fun, Helpful Way to Support Them With Their Essay

Despite these questions, many parents will still try to help their teen with college essays.

If you’re going to help, try this challenge, which can make the process better for everyone. Here’s how it works:

Set a deadline with your teen of when both of you will write a college essay. If this idea stresses you out because of how busy you are, you are becoming more empathetic to your teen’s experience already.

After empathizing with your teen’s stress about getting started, write your essay. Start by talking over the Common Application essay prompts and deciding which ones appeal to you. You might choose a different prompt than the one your teen will be working on.

Important: write the essay from the perspective of when you were 17 or 18. Not only will your teen respect you for writing your own essay, but they will also get a glimpse into the mindset of their parent from decades ago.

Then, when you’re done, make a fun evening out of it by reading your essays out loud together, or trading them and providing feedback.

At the end, you'll have shared a bonding experience, your teen will have a new level of respect for you and understanding of you, and you’ll have more empathy for the challenge they’re facing.

Make This Year as Good as It Can Be

For many families, a teen’s senior year of high school is the last time parents and child will live together full-time.

Whether that ends up being the case or not, take steps to make it an enjoyable year:

  • Reduce conflict, and build a stronger relationship
  • Avoid unnecessary stress about college apps and essays
  • Offer resources to help them do their best work and finish early

There are many options available today for parents who want to support their teens in writing great college essays, so teens can get into the target and reach schools on their lists:

  • Use an essay coaching company to assist with the written parts of the application. Explore this review of several essay coaching options.
  • There are also independent educational consultants (IECs) in your area who can help provide your teen with guidance on the entire college search and application process.

After working with over 50,000 students on their college essays, I’ve learned an important lesson that I’d like to share with you: Most teens won’t ask for help because they don’t want to bother their parents with the time or money it might cost to provide it.

But if you look into the options and offer your teen the help they may need, they’ll rarely turn it down. Take some time to decide on the best way to support your teen through the process, and make their senior year as stress-free as it can be.

Brad SchillerBrad Schiller is an MIT graduate, as well as the CEO and Co-Founder of Prompt, the world’s most respected and fastest-growing college essay coaching and feedback company. Visit the Prompt website, or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
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