Please Don’t Make this conversation about College Apps!
To make friendly conversation, it’s tempting to ask seniors in high school how the college application process is going, or where they are applying. They MAY be tempted to strangle you, but they’ll probably act decently about it and politely recite their list. Maybe even tell you it’s going OK.
What they really want to do is go to the closest room and scream so loudly that the Common App site crashes (or so they tell me, but it’s kinda obvious if you just look closely at their faces).
Think about it this way: if you were applying for a high stakes job that took many hundreds of hours and every time you saw anyone THAT WAS ALL THEY WANTED TO TALK ABOUT WITH YOU IN ALL CAPS.
PSA, Care Elsewhere!
This post is a PSA from someone in the industry, moi (I SEE YOU, TEENS!): if you are hanging out with high school seniors these days and strike up conversation TRY REALLY HARD NOT TO ASK THEM ABOUT COLLEGE/COLLEGE PROCESS. Like, AT ALL.
I know you really care, but unless you’re their guidance counselor, care about something else. Really, you will get so many cool points for not making the conversation about C-O-L-L-E-G-E. They need the mental break. They need to know they are interesting and valuable and very awesome BEYOND this demanding process.
At this point in the fall, COLLEGE CRAP (that’s how they are thinking of it) is all anyone asks about (Not you? Cool, you should run a tutorial for other adults!). It gets Teen-TEDIOUS.
Branch out the conversation
Rule of thumb: No college crap.
While you are at it, avoid school generally.
Ask them, like, what they had for lunch, or to tell you about something weird they noticed on the street.
Here are 10 suggestions to start up a real conversation with a teen in the middle of college applications.
- What’s the last thing that really got you mad?
- What’s the last thing that made you feel completely relaxed?
- What makes you want to get up and do something? i.e. What are you passionate about?
- If there were no hidden costs and no judgments, what do you most want to learn about OUTSIDE SCHOOL?
- Who is your crush these days, c’mon, you can tell me, no really, you can…(You have to know if this question is in your purview, m’kay?)- a better approach: if you’ve got a crush, when is the last time you saw the person? How did it go?
- Describe an awkward situation you wish you could do over– how would things play out?
- Tell me about the last movie you saw and why you loved it.
- If your life could be like any movie, which would you pick and why?
- Wanna go do something non-academic?
- Do you have any writing you would read to me? I’d love to just listen.
Did the Conversation Turn to college app stress anyway?
We want to help teens with that, and panicking teens are our specialty. Y’all can do it– you can turn that stress into super-prose.
In Essay Intensive individual sessions, we’ll talk around the essays to get at the best topics and structure, so get ready for good conversation. Sliding scale rates so don’t be shy.
More Conversation Starters from Friends
Look, this lady on HuffPo, mom of 4 and a Happiness Coach (!!) has more ideas for you!
Recognize your pretentious verbal hairballs
I’ve had more than one language-loving writing student who falls in love with a pretentious phrase in their college application essay.
Like, in looooooooooooove.
Those phrases are likely to offend a reader’s sensibility, and I mark them with skull and crossbones right away. I explain the problem with other examples:
(A) “Wherefore was I this way?” Wherefore?
Stop. Romeo will not be one of your admissions readers. He lost his mind over way more important things.
(B) “All I could see was the ever-loosening latticework of my sneakers”?
Stop. You were looking at your shoelaces. They are laces and they are on your shoe. They happen to criss-cross.
(C) “I was ensconced in my rumination about my perambulations in the rectangular hospital corridors?”
Hmmm, really? Just stop. I need a respirator to get through that doozy. Were you thinking about the nights you spent walking in circles in the hospital?
Usually we can hear others’ pretentious wording, but not our own. Most of us actually have a pretty good ear, and pretty strong distaste, when we are not the one who wrote it.
Drop the Pretense
Often, pretentiousness is a cover; in fact, that’s all it ever is.
But a good admissions essay takes your cover OFF.
You are better served to leave pretentious phrases for your private enjoyment; no one is stopping you.
In a college essay, your deepest goal should be to have something real to say, and to be as honest, though elegant, as you can be. And honesty is best registered through simplicity and clarity.
I’ve helped many students who clutch to this or that phrase loosen their grips and I know the pain of it. You’ll be white-knuckled for a bit until you get used to the substitute phrase, the one that “just” says what you mean.
After all, most of us are not pretentious to be jerks– we want to appear smart, cultured, and we want our words to stick out, to strike the ear, to sound intentional and brilliant.
But, trust me– otherwise your essay becomes like that verbose dude at the party everyone is trying their best to edge away.
Don’t be that: find your simplest way to tell your story, with a vocabulary that suits, for example, how you might write an email on an important topic to someone of descent intelligent whose opinions you respect.
Write like you know you’re smart, not like you’re trying to prove it.
You’re already talking about what YOU know the most about: your life story. So no need to add anything except the vulnerability and reflectiveness that makes your essay hit home.
Help, I can’t tell if my essay is pretentious!
Contact us for compassionate, swift advice. It can be hard to hear someone challenge your hard-won phrases when you’re aiming to impress. But we know the bigger point is: you’ve got something important to say, and you want to make sure the reader gets it.
Loosen yourself from your wherefores, and we promise you’ll be happy with the essay that results.
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.
As parents, it’s hard to figure out the right balance of influence and distance when your kid is writing the college essay(s). And like everything else parenting related, the perfect balance differs. But it’s important to establish healthy and helpful bottom lines in your role and relationship.
This week, I read an(other) NYTimes article about how admissions officers (90% of them?) can tell if the essay is written in the student’s voice and style, or that of some much older adult– often the parent. It’s not foolproof– some kids have mastered adult-ese. Or they purposefully write in an even more sophisticated way in the essay (it’s called trying too hard?) than is natural for them.
An adultered style (no pun intended) is especially common if a lot is at stake (college acceptance, anyone?) and the students are trying to be impressive. (As I have said elsewhere, the best way to be impressive is to….be impressive. That doesn’t happen in a one-off.)
Their passion is the point
There are all kinds of ethical issues with parents picking or heavily influencing the essay topic and its execution. But one of the biggest is: the raw passion isn’t there.
Spend 10 minutes with adolescents asking them about what they love, what moves or bothers them, what is really on their mind, and you are met with a slew of passionate speech. That same passion will not and cannot be there if their parents have fed them a topic about which they don’t feel equally strong.
Remember, your student might really really really want to please you, the parent, or at least not disappoint.
BUT THE RESULTS WILL NOT HAVE THAT SPECIAL FEELING OF THE REAL KID.
Yes, all writing is a produced self. But, no, not all writing is photoshopped to fit in well with the family portrait.
Agendas are obstacles.
You have one, I have one, students have one.
Mostly– you want your kid to be liked. To shine out as special, but not to take too big a risk that might cost something.
Whereas students, wrongheaded or not, might be willing to take a risk that costs something. They are defenders of the passionate life, the life that is meaningful TO THEM. You don’t want them to write about the time they made a big mistake because you want the admissions officers to find them stellar. Your agenda is to protect them, and have them show a more perfect self.
BUT, stellar people make mistakes. And colleges want real people– I think.
So what can parents do?
The best things you can do:
- Set up a calendar at home with deadlines. Point to it– be neutral.
- Genuinely ask them how they are doing with the process.
- Offer to be a reader at the very end, only to help them find their errors in sentence construction and so on– IF you have the skills yourself to point those out non-emotionally.
- ALSO, you might just listen, so they can read the essay aloud and hear for themselves if something sounds off, untrue, tangential.
- You can also just (YES) tell them you love them. Like, a lot.
Yes. That you know this application thing is hard and it’s hard for you too to start to let them go and let them make their own choices. That you trust them, even if part of that trust means they might make mistakes or choices they will regret later.
Because– right?– you love them.
In the end, that love, and the quality of that relationship, the trust you build or break, is more important than exactly where they go to school; exactly what any one reader thinks of them.
Seek other help
Some families don’t want outside help. They want to handle it solo. If that’s you, and if you value your relationship with your kid above their achievements, I suggest the above approach.
Otherwise, encourage them to do their best quality work, and to connect with other adults who can give them non-emotional, candid feedback– grammar and clarity help where appropriate.
Perhaps decide together what kind of help and from whom serves your student and family’s needs best.
Maybe you’re into hiring someone– like me, or the other experts (like this incredible person) who flood the market. I genuinely love doing this work for its own sake: because I love the struggle for truth. Human truth, and adolescent truth. I love the process of helping them narrow down their topics and ideas until one feels like the REAL DEAL. I offer sliding scale so the support is available for all families.
Or maybe there is a cool, kind adult in your community who is a good reader and can both listen AND talk about the composition issues. Hug that person.
A free phone call with me for parents to figure it out
To help yourself and your family get on track, try a free phone session with me–10 minute Q&A.
The full 30-60 minute consultation can be purchased, with or without your kid on the line, to talk through the best approach to parenting the college essay writer through this process.
Can’t wait to hear from you, here.
What’s helped you so far in this process? What’s working out for you and your student, and what isn’t? Let us know the details, here.