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Parenting Traps

Essay test

How much to help with college applications.

By Nancy Heiser
November 29, 2009

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Many high school seniors are getting jumpy right about now. College applications loom, and that means writing the so-called personal statement. A lot is riding on those 500 words, since an essay that stands out might nudge him or her into the “admit” pile. The kids feel the pressure. Should parents help?

“I don’t think it’s out of place for parents to brainstorm topics or to read drafts and offer suggestions,” e-mails one friend whose two sons recently applied to college. “The writing process generally demands such input, the same way an author has friends and colleagues read his or her work and offer suggestions.”

Yet many 17-year-olds prefer that their parents not read their application essays. Seniors may already feel pressure at home about deadlines and grades, not to mention everyday stuff like chores and the car keys. And when parents are too invested in their child’s college acceptances, they might not be the best editors.

Scott Meiklejohn, interim director of admissions at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, encourages applicants to get assistance, but not necessarily from a parent. “Students have lots of options for another reader,” he says. “It might be an older brother or sister who’s been to college, or a teacher or principal. We advise students to ask someone, ‘Do you think I’ve answered the question?’ ”

Another friend, herself a professional writer, recently helped a son through the process. The two often went for walks, and during those rambles “the essay” was among many topics they discussed. Her son read examples written by actual students (several colleges and the College Board offer these online) and was inspired. “Not that they were all fabulous, but he got a good sense of what is possible,” she says. Once the essay was on paper, she and her husband made some suggestions. Her son also showed it to his guidance counselor before he sent it in.

“Should the parents be very involved in the essay? Absolutely not,” says Meiklejohn. “We really are looking for the student’s voice and their work.” One way to think about it, he says, is for parents to be content in the role of editor and not coauthor. “It’s just important to have someone check it over.”

Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Should a parent ever do a student’s work?

  • November 29, 2009 cover
  • november 29 globe magazine cover
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