Be Gentle When Students Share College Essays

A few months ago, my heart sank when my sweet and very hard-working student told me his high school counselor did not like his college essay. He loved his story about acing a final term paper in Honors English after failing to answer the prompt in his first draft.
He had showcased how hard work and determination helped him overcome a serious learning disability.
And the essay was great!
But sadly, his school counselor filled the margins of his document with negative comments. She rewrote the open to his story and sprinkled the phrase “I don’t like this” throughout the document.
I was appalled. I never get used to this type of thing: A student finishes an essay; it’s great, has a strong theme, shares something meaningful about the student. It’s reflective and answers the prompt.
And then someone else – parent, teacher, counselor, sibling, family friend – reads it and tells the student they don’t like it. The student feels horrible. I feel horrible, too.

I don’t believe adults who work with students intentionally try to make them feel bad. But before any one of us provides negative feedback, it’s important to consider how the person will take it. And then….before we say a word or make a written comment, slow down, and ask ourselves… is it helpful? How might the other person feel after hearing/reading it?

Because the feedback this boy’s counselor provided was not helpful. (Not to mention totally off-the-mark!)
I set up a Zoom call with my student. I was prepared to calm him down, lift his spirits and help him understand his essay was fabulous as written. I wanted him to know he had choices: graciously decline her suggestions. Or he could make a few changes. Either way was fine. I would help him no matter what he chose.
I braced myself for a difficult conversation.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, smiling confidently. “I’m fine. I was really angry. My mom was angry. My tutor was angry. But I looooove my essay. I’m meeting with my counselor next week, and I am going to tell her I like my story the way it is. It’s mine. It sounds like me. It answers the prompt. I am not changing it. Not one word!
“I’ll be nice to her. I promise,” he added. “I like her. I want to make her happy, but I just don’t think that’s possible.”
I was not prepared for that. But I was proud. He really understood what the essay was about and why he was writing it.
It’s important for students to know how important it is to own their work and stand up for themselves – all while being respectful and gracious.

But it’s also important for the adults in their lives who love them, who care about them, who counsel them on so many things, to use a little bit of discretion when reviewing college essays.

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop a premier college application essay coaching and professional training company, offering private, virtual writing coaching services to professionals and students throughout the world.  Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements.  Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role in the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites. In 2019, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education.

Questions? We’ve got answers.


Pro Chats: Every month we record a new College Essay Pro Chat. Check out the recording, or sign up for next month’s webinar. Wow CEO Susan Knoppow answers questions live for 30 minutes.

Free Student Classes: If you’re a school counselor who wants to help students with the basics, encourage them to sign up for my next free student class, or listen to the recording. You are welcome to sign up, too.