Best Tips for Managing Parent College Essay Expectations

Several years ago, a few days before an application deadline, a mom reached out to me in a panic. I had worked with her eldest child on his application essays; she didn’t like his Common App essay.

I loved his story. Even better, he was happy with his essay, anchored around the moment he learned to “just let it go” while doing a stand-up routine in a comedy club. The story hit the mark and sounded like him, a creative, insightful 17-year-old boy.

When I called the next day, she had already gotten feedback from others. According to her peers, the essay was bad, immature, ordinary, unsophisticated, and pedestrian.

I was appalled but let her talk.

The mom had stayed up half the night, revising the essay herself, changing words and rewriting sentences to make it sound sophisticated. As a result, her son’s voice disappeared. He felt horrible.

By listening without criticizing, I was able to calm the mom and explain why her son should submit the original essay he had written. I remained composed and focused on what was best for her son: feeling confident. She followed my advice.

As professionals, we each face challenging situations with parents who overstep, year after year. As college essay experts who train pros just like you and also work with families, we’d like to share some of our best tips to help you handle parent anxiety.

First, it’s important to understand why parents overstep their role before making any plans to deal with this situation. In our experience, there are three reasons:

Fear: Parents are afraid they missed something they should have done to help their children succeed. They would do anything to support their children, but since they don’t know what to do, they get involved in unhelpful ways.

Lack of understanding: Parents know very little about what a college essay is, how it fits into the larger application package, or what admission officers are looking for.

Need for control: Parents are used to micromanaging their children’s decisions and assignments. They don’t know how to step away.

Once we took the time to understand why parents overstep, it became a lot easier to find respectful ways to support students and challenge parents’ assumptions. We have since developed college essay coaching training programs that teach professionals like you how to guide students effectively on essays and improve communication with parents to better manage their expectations.

Above all else, we acknowledge parents’ concerns, while sharing why we know what we’re talking about. That expert card can go a long way! When we stay calm and confident, most parents will follow our lead. When you stay calm and confident, they’ll follow your lead too.

We also share our philosophy, process, and approach before any family chooses to work with us. When parents know what they are getting upfront, any of us can better manage any surprises and unrealistic expectations.

We communicate the expected parent role in emails before the student starts writing. We share our email templates and tons of valuable resources with every pro who completes our College Essay Experience training.

What’s your process for managing parent expectations? We’d love to hear it! Click here for a lot of great, free resources to share with your families.

Meanwhile, whether we’re presenting at a conference, training our local College Advising Corps, or offering low-cost, self-guided courses for Michigan counselors who need continuing education credits, supporting our colleagues throughout the world is a big part of our business plan.

Do you need resources for yourself or your students? Let us know how we can help.

Kim Lifton’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications. She is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager with a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. You can email Kim anytime about the college essay at