How Adults Can Support Students Who Are Working On Their College Admissions Essay

Students must write their college admissions essays themselves. College admissions officers read the essay to learn about a student’s best qualities as revealed in a student’s own unique voice. Still, adults can help.


Here are some ways that adults can support a student who is applying to college but still maintain the boundary that students must write the essay themselves.

Stage of the Essay Writing Process for Student What Helping Adults Can Do
Research colleges thoroughly Help the student get to know colleges and admissions officers in order to clarify his or her interest in a school. If possible, take the student on college visits and encourage him or her to ask questions.
Organize the essay questions and application deadlines in one place.


Help the student gather the exact college essay questions for the schools to which he or she is interested in applying.

Help the student estimate and schedule the time needed to write his or her essays.

Look for essay writing workshops sponsored by schools, libraries and student organizations.

Choose a topic using good judgment


Offer your insights or good judgment during this talking/pre-writing stage. Offer to tell your own stories from college or high school and also your positive stories about the student.

Listen to the student’s ideas. Ask the student, “What will the admissions officer learn about you from reading your essay?”

Write it like you’re telling a story


Help the student to remember that “you can’t edit a blank page”—any start is a good start. If a student is procrastinating, just 15 minutes of writing is a good start.
Edit frequently and carefully Listen while the student reads his or her essay draft aloud. Give feedback (or not) as requested. Ask a student again, “What does the story show about you?” Compare what you hear in the writing to your personal impression of the best qualities of the student.

After the essay is edited for your big picture comments, move on to help with smoothing out essay. “I would think it foolish of a student not to have an essay proofed for spelling, grammar and syntax by someone competent to do so.” Jeffrey Brenzel from Yale, in The New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2007.

How to give nonjudgmental feedback

Parents want to help their college-bound high-school kids. I know this deep in my bones.  That’s why I started Essay Coaching—I was a befuddled mom who wanted to help my anxious daughter applying to college.  I knew how to write, but didn’t know how to help. So I give advice to parents, as well as student writers.

Here are three ways to help. The concept is that most writers know what’s wrong.  They just need to read out loud to hear the issues.  After a student reads his or her essay out loud, try any or all of the advice  in this list:

  • Listen and say thank you.
  • Listen and repeat phrases you remember.
  • Give feedback about your experience as a listener: “I was drawn in from the first sentence,” “I got confused here,” “I lost interest here,” “I loved this part because…” Note that this is nonjudgmental because you’re describing your own experience, NOT making a judgement like, “That was great!” or “Is that the best you can do?” or “Why don’t you change the word “got” to “received.” Note—this third method I learned from my MFA training and in other writing groups and workshops.