Writing College Essays: A Guide For Parents


Counselors and consultants, however, often do tell kids otherwise, stressing in particular the number of choices they have. They do so at the expense of a realistic portrait of the college admissions landscape, Lifton says. She and Knoppow have a different view. “We believe everybody should have the information, and that it should be given to them accurately,” Lifton says. “And what we have found is that within this industry, within the confusing world of college admissions, there’s a lot of selling, there’s a lot of gimmicks, there’s a lot of mixed messages that come from admissions to the student, to the parent, and by the time they’re ready to apply they’re so confused they don’t know what to believe.”

The writers, corroborated by admissions officials around the country, boiled down the problem to a pair of issues: Prospective students “don’t answer the questions and they don’t show reflection,” Lifton says. “So essentially in the book, we’re teaching the parents how to teach their kids to reflect. Because that’s what (parents) can do. So that’s our whole approach — we teach an approach, not some cookie-cutter formula.”

Lifton says the book was already conceptualized and mostly finished when she found herself with a teenage daughter ready to start applying to colleges. The experience didn’t inform the book — but the book informed her experience. And the results were “unbelievable.”

“When my daughter was applying I was able to use the technique for teaching her how to reflect,” Lifton says. “We created it and then I was able to use with my daughter and it was unbelievable what it did, and what she found out about herself. It kind of pushed us into a new place, because it’s hard sometimes for parents to have a conversation that’s meaningful with a 17-year-old, and I say that with love and affection.”


Lifton’s daughter Sarah will attend Wayne State University this fall, entering a new program for STEM students called the Emerging Scholars Program. Knoppow’s daughter Miriam will attend the University of Michigan. And Lifton’s nephew? He’s happily enrolled at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, studying sports management.

All three benefited from the knowledge that Lifton and Knoppow have gained over the years. And their parents were gratified to be part of the process.

“There’s so much stuff out there that’s confusing,” Lifton says, citing in particular the collections of essays that “got my kid in” to a tough school. “Kids imitate good writing, or whatever it is that they think is good. They really need to understand what it is they’re being asked to do and why before they start. As a journalist I’ve encountered few things as confusing as this.

“We’re trying to start a dialogue with parents, with admissions people throughout the country, to say, ‘We know you want to help.’ We don’t want to push parents away. And I think there’s an attitude everywhere that the kids should do it themselves, and of course they should do it themselves, but we really want to bring parents into the process in a way that works for them and their children, and we want to put it all into perspective so that people who have children who are going to college understand that what they might be feeling — the anxiety — it comes from a real place, because the messages they get really are confusing. And so we’re trying to take some of the confusion out of it.

“It’s really short — we wrote a 50-page guide because we don’t believe you need this huge book to help your child. And we don’t believe that reading sample essays is gonna do anything but induce anxiety.”



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