To Write or Not to Write, That is the Question

“Henceforth” – To Write or not to Write, That is the Question

Every year it happens. I dread it. I can’t stop it, they can’t stop themselves. But when I read the revisions my heart sinks and I know it to be true. An overzealous (Well intentioned I’m sure!) parent has not just reviewed and tenderly edited, but they have revised their child’s college essay into something it’s not; their child’s. And be 100% sure that every college admissions counselor out there knows it. Not just suspects, they know it. Beware parents, you are doing your child no favor, on the contrary.

I always, always, always say to my families that the college essay is unlike any piece of writing that they have written. It’s conversational, it’s in THE STUDENT’S voice, it’s about them, it’s authentic and typically about the most mundane topic imaginable. But it’s not about the topic, it’s about the story.

If you are either a parent of a senior in high school or of a child in high school, and for that matter, a parent of any age child, I implore you to read the attached NY Times article that states succinctly and to the point what a college essay is, and what it is not. Take it to heart, remember it and most importantly, apply these sentiments to your child’s college essay. If I can save just 1 child and parent from this huge mistake, on many levels, I have accomplished something.

By JM Farkas, NY Times
Read NY Times Article online.

Henceforth.

It was right there in the last sentence of the first paragraph of Mikey’s college essay. I was supposed to believe this typical high school senior, who had inhabited this planet for a slight 17 years, chose to use the word “henceforth.” Mikey was a good kid. He worked hard in school. He loved basketball and girls and math.

He had a certain way with words, but “henceforth” wasn’t one of his words.

When I circled it, Mikey met my raised eyebrows with his signature closed-mouth smile: “O.K., so maybe my mom wrote that part.”

No kidding, Mikey.

The paradox of the overzealous editing of the college essay by many helicopter parents is that they don’t know what a college essay is really about. Unlike the other parts of the application, where high grade point averages and SAT scores reign supreme, the essay is less about being impressive than it is about being authentic.

It can take some convincing for many kids and parents to believe that when it comes to writing the essays, in particular, college admissions officers care about who students are. The essays should reveal their personalities, passions, dreams, weird talents, favorite foods, sickest playlists, inexplicable loves and undeniable quirks.

Do you like to eat the marshmallows before the milk in your Lucky Charms? A tiny but specific detail like this will probably be more vivid than an entirely forced and forgettable essay on community service.

The college essay is about the true things students want the colleges to know about them that can’t be seen via grades and standardized tests. Are you kind? Resilient? Curious? Creative? Are you any fun? And contrary to popular belief, it’s not about unattainable standards or curing cancer. In fact, a good test of a college essay is: Can the writer convince the reader that she would make a great roommate?

So the good news is: The college essay is the purest part of the application.

The bad news: Parents, when you mess with your kids’ pure voices, you’re actually co-writing terrible college essays. And far more egregious and dangerous: You’re teaching your children that when the stakes are high enough, it’s O.K. to be unethical and possibly a plagiarist.

So aside from ridiculously lofty vocabulary or an overly mature perspective, how do I know when a parent or another adult is likely to have written a kid’s essay?

The secret is practically invisible.

When I learned how to type in high school, the definitive rule was to leave two spaces after a period.

Today, kids are taught to use one.

As a former high school teacher, I have worked with hundreds of students on their college essays. Later, as a private college essay consultant, I worked with students and parents at some top private schools before I became an admissions counselor for a small liberal arts college.

Over the years, I’ve noticed this pattern. Often the first draft of an essay has sentences with one space after the periods, but the next draft changes to two. Or, an essay might start off with single spaces after periods, but by the end, suddenly the sentences have two spaces after periods. Or, a final draft might include a wild mishmash of alternating spacing after periods: sometimes one, sometimes two.

So to well-intended adults: in those extra spaces, you are leaving incriminating fingerprints on your student’s show of authenticity. And in trying to make the essay polished enough to prove to an admissions officer that your student is ready for the responsibilities of college, you are showing that you are not so sure.

Henceforth, back off.

JM Farkas is a college essay consultant, teacher, poet and author of “Be Brave: An Unlikely Manual for Erasing Heartbreak.”

Read NY Times Article online.

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