When Parents Shouldn’t Help: A Personal Anecdote

Everybody needs a little help sometimes. That includes high school seniors struggling to finish their college essays amidst the social, academic and personal pressures of senior year. But who to ask for help? When my parents approached me during holiday break from my sophomore year in college and asked, “Please get your brother to write his college essay,” I was apprehensive. They were certainly capable of rolling up their sleeves and giving it at try. However, the truth of the matter was that they couldn’t get near enough to him to help with the darned thing. As far as the essay was concerned, and to put it diplomatically, he was resistant to parental input.

My brother was (and still is) an incredibly vivacious, talented, magnetic individual who, in his teenage years, could also be incredibly volatile. Middle school and high school were tumultuous times for him and, for a host of reasons, for all of us in the house. Those challenging memories of my youth aside, I was the only one who had a chance in teenage hell to get this essay done and launch my brother safely to a state, town, and college where he would hopefully thrive.

After a late night out doing illicit things, my brother collapsed into my room and onto my waterbed (yes, I had a waterbed in my room in 1988 which, despite seeming glamorous at the time, was always cold and never full enough). Not an ideal start to be sure, but that was how we began our essay work together. I remember typing the essay at my desk: I, on my Smith Corona typewriter only able to see 3 or 4 blinking letters at a time; and he, squirming from bed to floor like a restless toddler after eating too much candy.

The process was akin to walking on eggshells around a sleeping bear. He looks harmless enough, cute even, but startle him awake and you may be mauled. Thus began the delicate extraction of story details that, in hindsight, reflected my knack for essay coaching at an early age!

The essay was completed and my brother did go to his choice college—the University of Colorado at Boulder—where he became a mountain guide and a successful professional counselor to teens and families. The many figurative mountains he has climbed over the years are all his to claim. Still, I take some credit for gently nudging him over the college essay threshold where my parents wisely dared not trespass.

Thankfully, most attempts at college essay writing are not as fraught with trepidation. My advice to parents who are tiptoeing past closed doors wondering how to help—don’t worry too much. They’ll get it done. If you have your doubts then ask a teacher, a counselor, or a coach to brainstorm essay topics, read drafts, edit or proofread with your child. You can strategically place Fiske Real College Essays That Work under their pillow at night, or just hold space for them to be thoughtful and write. Regardless of whatever you do behind the scenes, the important thing is that they tell their own stories, in their own voice, with as much honest personal detail as necessary for the reader to glimpse an aspect of the student’s life that they wouldn’t glean from the application. Be the intrepid parent that you are, but consider letting someone else negotiate the eggshells.

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