It's tempting to pitch in — a lot — when you see how competitive it is for kids to get into the nation's top schools these days. This year Stanford admitted only 7.2 percent of applicants and Harvard accepted only 6.9 percent of them. The process seems daunting. At Harvard, before kids even get to the essay questions, they need to circle whether their career, academic, and athletic plans are "very likely to change" or "absolutely certain." Then they've got the 250-words-or-more Common Application essay. (One suggested topic: "Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you." Yikes.) And many schools add on "optional" essays.
What's a parent to do? Not too much. Here's a guide to 16 ways you can truly help your kids through this rite of passage:
1. Listen. "The most important role for parents in the whole process is being a thoughtful sounding board," says Keith Light, who has worked in admissions at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and now at Brown. "The nice thing about that is the process can be a real bonding experience if it's done well."
2. Let your kids be themselves. "Applications are best if they reflect the way the student is," says Light. "It's very tempting to sit down and try to figure out what admissions officers — we as a species — want to see, and there are perils in that." Why? "We have pretty good radar to detect the overly varnished," says Light. "It's not that we're cynical and looking for cheating or too much input. [But] it's not very hard for us to spot when a parent or someone else has had too much of a heavy hand in the writing." It makes admissions officers wonder, "Are we really getting to really know the student, or what the parent thinks the student is?" he says. It's best when students pen their own essays, which sound as though they're written by the person their teachers are describing in their recommendation letters.
3. Don't underestimate your children. Keep your attitude positive. Most kids don't go to Harvard — but still get into a college and love it. This fall about 7.5 million students are expected to attend public four-year institutions and 4.6 million to attend private four-year institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (There are more than 420 public colleges and universities alone, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.)
4. Share your knowledge of good resources. You can tell your teen about sites such as Newsweek Education, which includes helpful information on choosing a school, getting in, and paying for it. And let her know about sites such as the National Center for Education Statistics, with its "college navigator." (You can type in a state and a zip code and see what schools are out there.)
5. Avoid the temptation to do it yourself. Once a mom even called and said, "'I'm writing my daughter's application and just wondered whether it was OK for me to be funny,'" says Light.
6. Remind yourself who is heading off to school. "It is best to remember that the teenager, not the parent, is applying to college," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. "But I think that the job of applying is sometimes so overwhelming that it is useful for the parent to volunteer to undertake secretarial support of the teenager asks for it." It's inappropriate for a parent to "ghost write" the application, she says. "But parental moral support, brainstorming, and technical assistant can go a long way to make the job of college application less of a soul-crushing burden."
7. Encourage your teen. Rather than write or rewrite the essay, prompt your child to think about what she would say about herself to someone she just met. Urge her to get everything down on paper and then to think about which of her ideas best conveys what she would be like as a student and as a member of a particular college's community, says Light. She can say to you, "Here, read this, what do you think?" he says. (It's fine if drafts of everything, not just application essays, are very rough. The highly regarded writer Calvin Trillin calls his first efforts "vomit out" drafts.)
8. Feel free to (tactfully) give an opinion. It's OK to say, "'You know, it sounds like you're trying too hard to sound intellectual,'" says Light. "'You are most delightful and sound most intelligent when you write the way you talk."
9. Avoid inserting jargon into your teen's prose. "We get a lot of corporate-ese," says Light. With the "help" of well-meaning parents, teens write, "I established a dialogue with my social studies teachers." Or "thanking you in advance." "You can almost tell the profession of the parent," says Light.
10. Toss your editing pen (or at least use a very, very light one). "You boil the nutrients or flavor out of it [the essay]," says Light. Stick to general advice.
11. Take what "everyone" says with a block of salt. Your teen may have heard that she needs to pen an essay about a personal tragedy or about service work. "[Their parents] call and say, 'Should my daughter write about her summer working for Habitat for Humanity because you guys want to see community service, and should my daughter found a club this year because we know you like that," says Light. "Good golly, if that were the requirement for getting in, we'd just say so." Too often students feel that if they say they want to be a lawyer, they need to add that they only want to do pro bono work, he says.
12. Don't pay too much attention to so-called "successful" applications. You've seen (and maybe bought) 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays. "I happen to know that some of those students were admitted to Harvard in spite of those essays," says Light.
13. Save your money. Even though they've never worked in college admissions, some independent counselors charge $500 an hour. "You wouldn't have someone who isn't actually a doctor doing a heart-lung transplant," says Light.
14. Make sure your contributions would pass the "red-face test." Would you embarrassed if anyone knew how much you contributed to your child's application? It is "immoral" for a parent to actually write the essay, says psychologist Marcella Weiner, author of The Problem Is the Solution: A Jungian Approach to a Meaningful Life.
15. Don't feel compelled to add extras, such as resumes. "We neither ask for or expect them, but they pop up," says Light. (Some even include "mission statements.") Light once received a 12-page one. The parent told him, "The son of my friend down the street just got admitted to Harvard last year, and his resume was 14 pages." Light's take on it: "He was admitted in spite of the essay." (Resumes aren't the only add-ons: Once Light received multiple copies of a color-coded family tree, dating back to the 1800s, which showed close relatives' connections to a university.)
16. Know that admissions officers are empathetic. "Parents love their kids and want to do the best for them," says Light. But usually, less is more.
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