Essays, Smack-Talking Siblings and The Deadline Parents Face in the College Admission Process

We are pleased to welcome Jane Kulow today as a regular guest, writing on parenting through the college admission process. Kulow's personal blog, Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Journey, covers the ebb and flow of the path to college for her three children, dubbed the Mod Squad. As Jane describes it, "this is what we did, what we saw, what we laughed about, and what I’ve read (and asked others in the house to read) along the way." We're delighted she will be an eloquent fellow traveler here, sharing adventures and insights as her -- and your -- children head off toward the higher halls of academe.

We are parents of a high school senior and we are in the midst of college application season.

Our oldest child worked his way through applications two years ago, acquainting us with the rhythms of deadlines and the components of transcripts, tests, essays, and recommendations.

Yet, even within one household, each student’s specific experience—in college prep coursework and activities and in his or her approach to the application itself—makes this process as singular as the student.

My husband describes the application process as complex project management. The student bears the responsibility for the content of the application; we can teach project management and help make sure not a single element of the project gets missed.

Our current senior, Julie, is already a skilled project manager who needs little more from us than an occasional schedule check. I may be able to help with some details, but Julie has an extraordinarily good handle on reality, what she wants to do, and what it takes to get there. Near the top of her task list now:  completing drafts of essays.

Seeing the student for who she is.

 Here’s where we think we can help Julie—and it’s not writing essays for her.

There are two points to college essays: one, to see if the student can actually write at the level required by the college; and two, to help the college gain the best understanding they can of what each student is like. Admissions officers will see so many similar numbers—on GPAs, SATs, SAT subject tests, APs. Well-crafted recommendations, extracurriculars, and interviews can help provide a more complete perspective of the student. Essays, though, are the student’s primary opportunity to include his or her own voice in the application package, and that “voice”—which can encompass writing style, turns of phrase, vocabulary, and philosophy, as well as choice of topic—can (and should) be as unique as the student.

Those essays can be tough to write well. Besides trying to show who they are without telling, many high school seniors mature rapidly through the year and are still trying to figure out who they are for themselves. It’s also tough on parents:  we want the best chances for our children, so there’s a strong temptation to push to make sure the essays put them in the best possible light. Yet putting every student in the best possible light defeats the purpose.

We are trying to help Julie see the young woman we see. We’re not about to tell her what to write, but we can describe to her the seventeen-year-old we know. We can remind her of how the present Julie connects to who she has been all of her life. Sometimes these conversations strike a chord; it’s very cool when her eyes light up as she thinks of a way she could write about herself that is true, genuine, and important to her self-identity. Even when our long-ranging talks don’t lead to inspiration for an essay, they provide us with something we absolutely cherish:  time with our daughter.

Missing the girl already.

Here’s the biggest thing about having gone through this before. During our son’s senior year we anticipated his leaving with a parental mixture of trepidation (for us) and joy (for him). His excitement helped overcome our dismay… until he left and we missed him dreadfully. It doesn’t matter much that he lives seven miles away and we can see him often. We miss the impromptu piano recitals, the booming music heard through the walls when the car pulls into the garage, the gallons of milk that disappear, and the crazy smack-talk among three teen siblings.

We know now in a way we didn’t before—it’s seared into our hearts—that Julie will leave. We won’t have her presence in our daily lives: Julie’s insistence on “real meals” and a wide variety of fresh fruits, her sprawled out books and notes in at least four rooms of the house, her dry humor catching us unawares, girlfriend-movie-nights, basketball games, quick flashes of an almost-grown young woman. She will keep in touch, but she won’t be here.

Our relative composure about how Julie handles deadlines disappears when we think about the one with the biggest impact: eleven months from now she’ll go to college.

We accept that it’s our job to help her leave. We just will not pretend to like it.

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