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3 Ways to Help Your Child Get Their College Application Essay Started Early

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 16, 2018 9:16:00 AM

Yesterday my daughter left her dissertation notebook at the museum where she’s studying in Italy. She called in tears. “If I don’t find them, I’m f***ed,” she repeated. “Just breathe. They are there. Stay positive,” I pleaded, louder and louder, checking my iPhone for the first plane from JFK to Rome. When the archives opened this morning her notebook was exactly where she had left it, and she was fine!

I was reminded of moments in the college admissions process when one of my kids was completely flustered by the sheer magnitude of the moment—for them it was huge and insurmountable.

Resist the temptation to take over when college admissions require your child to learn new skills, and use discussions of college admissions—and especially the essays, which are the most stressful part of the process for most families—to help your child take charge. When you find yourself with a moment of trust and opportunity, here are three ways you can support your child’s best college admission (and life) outcomes. You can remember them as the Three P’s: Planning, Process and Play:

Planning: One of the big lessons learned from college admissions is how to organize and execute a multi-faceted, long-term. Many students wait until the last minute and then rush their essays, the most important part of the application after grades and standardized tests. Great application essays take time, but not all of that time is spent writing. Instead of organizing everything for them, ask questions that help your child figure out their own management style. Do they prefer a big wall calendar or an iPhone app? Folders for each college or for each essay? Spring of junior year is a great time to start backburner essay work by writing 500 words each day in a journal. If you need a hook, tell them that Yale students who write daily win more writing contests than students who don’t. They can write about anything; just do it every day.

Process: Help your child focus less on outcomes and more on the college admission process. They can learn about themselves by exploring their interests, their skills, the things they know, and the things they want to learn and do in college. When you visit a college, their first question may be “do I want to go here?” If you ask questions that open up discussion, you will lessen the tension and help them learn about themselves: “What did you notice?” “What would you like to know more about?” “What attributes of this college are important to you?” After each visit they should write down some notes about each school—very specific details and dialogue—that can be their 500 words of writing for that day and later their “Why I Want to Attend This College” supplement essay.

Play: This is the most important thing: don’t let yourself get sucked into your child’s moody broody senior year. Do whatever it takes to keep home a light and happy place—which doesn’t mean things won’t go wrong, even seriously wrong; it just means you have a “yes we can” attitude even when everyone else is freaking out in all directions. If you bring that sense of play to the scariest parts of the college process—including the essays—you give your child a chance to have fun and explore what they want to do in college, and who they want to be in their adult life. Essays written with a sense of confident and playful self-knowledge will be sure to connect with admissions officers at the other end of the college admissions process.   

Topics:college admission