How Can I Help? The College Essay Predicament When Your Parent Is A Writer
Some families know they’ll need outside help navigating the college essay, and seek it. Other families have help conveniently located at home– which you might think is a perk, or wish was your situation. But it’s not simple.
Here’s one [longer form] revelation of what happens when mom– writer Anne Anthony– has the very skills her daughter–Samantha Hess– needs when crafting her application essay, but their working dynamic becomes an emotional challenge. At the end, we invite you to share your (horror, triumph) stories of parent input.
Sara: Thank you both for agreeing to reflect on the college essay experience. I thought it’d be interesting to hear from a mother and daughter who’ve gone through it and offer a perspective (and maybe advice or guidance) to those starting that journey.
So, Anne, why don’t you give my readers some background.
Anne: I’ve loved to write all my life and value a well-written sentence more than most mothers do. So, my daughter faced a harder critic in me than she would have with a different parent. I’d worked as a technical writer and analyst. Putting together words in the clearest and most effective way– read, college essay gold!– was something I did every day. I wonder how my daughter felt about my ‘help’ with her college essays. Too much? Too critical?
Samantha: As the daughter of a writer, I always enjoyed reading and writing. English was my favorite subject in high school as it came naturally to me and I excelled at it. I took a lot of pride in my writing. Writing in general is also incredibly personal.
Anne: She was good. Maybe that’s why I expected a lot from her. I wanted to make sure anything she submitted would be her best. Sometimes I felt like I pushed too hard, expected too much. Maybe the way we worked together didn’t help. She’d send me drafts by email. I’d mark up the draft with my edits which always appeared in red on the page. We also sat down together to review the reasons behind the changes.
At one point, it seemed our relationship was falling apart. I was tired at the end of the day and being asked to critique one more essay which at first seemed half-assed kind of pissed me off. I knew how well my daughter wrote and what she lobbed over the fence, so to speak, seemed incomplete. I thought, I work hard all day, can’t you put some effort into this, Samantha? Maybe we shouldn’t be dredging up this difficult time.
Sara: I understand– it’s hard. I work with parents and high school students all the time who lock heads over their essays. Your insights will help me help them. So, Samantha, was your mom a real editing bitch?
Samantha: She was a tough critic at times but never an editing bitch. It was a difficult time overall: I was stressed out over AP courses I was taking, thoughts of going off to college and leaving all my friends behind, and trying to balance my extra curricular activities as well.
Anne: The problem, Sara, isn’t necessarily solely about writing the main college essay. It’s all the other one-off essays or questions to answer in addition. The concept of only needing to write one essay is just that, a concept. In reality, every college has their own tweak on the essay and wants different details. It felt never-ending and grueling at times.
Samantha: The incredibly vague essay prompts didn’t help either. It’s never been easy for me to sell myself to someone through writing. I would rather have my actions speak to my character and work ethic than write about it. It was discouraging to get my essays back and have them covered in red marks.
In hindsight, I definitely did not put the amount of thought or time into these essays but I wish there were some more positive notes to balance the edits.
Anne: I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing too much for my daughter, or not enough. Samantha, I’m sorry you found these edits discouraging. In looking back, I can understand how you would.
Samantha: I remember thinking, “Nothing I do is ever going to be good enough!” and being incredibly frustrated both with you and myself. I remember thinking, “Maybe I won’t even get into college. Do I even want to go to college?”
Anne: Wow, that’s pretty discouraged. Never crossed my mind that you wouldn’t go to college. I guess I got tired of seeing this subject line ‘look at these’ coming into my email inbox. Constant stream of new application questions. New essay topics. Oh my god, how did we get through this??
Samantha: Thinking back on it, I don’t know how you dealt with me and my teenage hormones. It was a rough and stressful time but we got through it.
Sara: Did it ever get easier? Less stressful?
Anne: It was towards the end of the college applications, after weeks of offering feedback, and wanting something better, that Samantha returned an essay for me to review that took my breath away. In that moment, finishing reading something in which she truly dug deeper and that she truly put her heart into, I knew everything we’d been through was worth it.
A truth about writing: sometimes, it feels like the process may not be getting you anywhere. But we can’t know what layers we had to wade through or what missteps we had to take to arrive at the topic. We ask ourselves wrongly why we couldn’t have just started from this place– but this presumes we can know in advance how the journey works.
That essay was the first time in a long time that I felt like you were sharing yourself, not just with me, but with the people making the decision about your future. Do you remember the essay I’m talking about? The one where you wrote about your friends’ parents dying, your friend dying and another boy classmate being seriously hurt?
Samantha: That was my junior year when a lot of those events happened which coincidentally was when it became time to seriously think about college and my future. I don’t remember the exact essay I wrote or what the prompt was but I do know that those events really shaped a majority of my high school and general life. It was the most honest experience I could write about at the time.
Sara: So, if the two of you had three pieces of advice to give to parents or to students writing essays, what would you tell them?
Anne: 1) Offer to review your child’s essays, set deadlines and stick to them, even if it means NOT reviewing the essays if your child misses your deadline. 2) Keep in mind the essay is their essay not yours. 3) Remember that looking into the future is scary for your child and for you. Go eat ice cream together and live in the moment.
Samantha: 1) Carve out a chunk of time in your schedule, maybe a Saturday or Sunday (It sucks, I know) to just really focus on the essays. If I had just focused and been thoughtful for 2-3 hours, I would have been able to avoid a lot of the frustration on both ends. 2) It’s a stressful time but remember how stressful it is for your parents too. You’re their world and it’s scary to think of their children going off to college and growing up too, so be nice to them. 3) Try to latch onto something specific about the vague prompt and just go with that. Don’t give a general answer to the question even if it’s a generally-phrased prompt.
They also added: Don’t Panic– and apply to 6 more schools!
Sara’s Note on our interview:
These two were super great to work with, and I was only pissed that Samantha’s college essay has gone the way of an old inaccessible hard drive (noooo!)– I really want to read it! And I want you to read it! Their reflection also makes me realize that our culture is STARVED for opportunities to reflect. We get all caught up in these stressful endeavors, but then too often miss the subsequent opportunities to learn about ourselves once the deadline has passed. That is– in some ways, we miss the real fruits of our labor. If you’re interested in telling your college essay story, reflecting with or without a parent or mentor, contact me here. Super-bonus if you haven’t lost the essay in question. 🙂
Samantha Hess survived the college essay writing experience, graduated from UNCW Honors College with a BS in Biology, and immediately volunteered at a farm animal refuge where a rather feisty rooster tried to get the better of her.
Anne Anthony serves as a writing cheerleader, writer fairy godmother, general all-around curious sort digging into anything of interest, and does not miss the days of reviewing college essays. Not for a single moment. Visit her work here.