Message to Adults Who Help Students with College Application Essays: Bite Your Tongue and Say “Good Job”!

Holly Bennetts, president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling, sees countless students break down in her office because a trusted adult in their life said a personal statement for their college application was not good enough.

“The student takes that as ‘I am not good enough,'” said Bennetts, a high school counselor Mercy High School in Farmington Hills. It breaks her heart.

I see this too, and it makes me sad. I am a college essay writing coach, and I do not understand why so many adults think it’s acceptable to second-guess a student’s essay topic, polish the essay or even write a college essay for them.

Last summer, I worked with a student who wrote the most compelling story about learning how to find her way. She has a terrible sense of direction, and she gets lost all the time. However, she’s smart and resourceful and figured out a way to never be late, even if she gets lost. On the day of her first job interview, she left her house 30 minutes early, giving herself adequate time to get lost. Guess what? She got lost. And she made it on time – with a minute to spare.

This student knows herself well and is comfortable with her strengths and weaknesses. Her story showed insight and maturity. It showed she is dependable, and implied that she will be on time for work and class. I loved it. I told my pals at colleges and high schools about it; they liked it, too. I was so proud of her. Then, I got a note from her mom, saying her high school counselor wanted her to write about living with diabetes. She told her the essay about getting lost was not very good.

The mom hadn’t yet read the piece, but she trusted me when I told her it was amazing. It answered the prompt, illustrated something meaningful to her daughter, and showed reflection. I asked her how her daughter responded to the counselor’s comments. The mom said she was confused and felt terrible. I emailed the student, telling her how great the essay was. But it was too late.

There wasn’t much I could do to make the girl feel better. An adult she trusted diminished the work she had done and said silently, “You are not good enough.” I’m sure the counselor had the best of intentions; she might not even realize how her message resonated with the student.

This time of year, we are busier than ever. We do our best to keep our students calm as they endure the daunting college application journey. With the first early college deadlines just weeks away, our students and their parents are feeling the pressure to get into the nation’s top colleges; the competition is tougher than ever. That’s not because students are smarter or more qualified than they were five or ten years ago. It’s a simple matter of impossible math.

Year after year, more students apply for the same number of available spaces at the most selective schools. Think Ivies, Michigan, Northwestern, MIT, Stanford, U-C Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Rice, University of Chicago and Cal Tech. It is impossible for every student who applies to get in.

If you want to really help a teen thrive and feel good, try to get some perspective. There’s no need to question or criticize a beautiful and effective essay after it is done, especially if the student has expressed pride and feels good.

Well-intentioned or not, too much help and negative feedback is unconstructive and can be emotionally damaging to a 17-year-old who is already stressed from the college journey. It’s insane out there. I see it firsthand, year after year.

In a college essay, students are asked to do something many adults rarely do: reflect on their life experiences. Our students work hard on their essays, and when we coach them, we push them as far as we can and encourage them to reflect as much as they can. Sometimes, the final product is a bit raw. Other times, we see a sweet story that highlights how sensitive and caring a student is. My favorite essays are perfectly imperfect, just as they should be. They sound like the teens who wrote them.

Why all the fuss? There’s a disconnect between what colleges want and what others think they want. Many adults want polish; colleges want genuine stories showing how the students think. Often, parents want the stories to demonstrate leadership and initiative; colleges want the students to show insight about any trait they believe best represents them. Parents, favorite teachers and school counselors sometimes think they know what their kids’ stories are; colleges want to know what’s meaningful to the student, not the parent. When adults help too much, the message to kids is negative: you are not good enough.

If you are still worried, consider this: the increasing competition for the top brand-name schools is actually good news for all of our children. There are 5,300 two-and four-year colleges in the U.S. They recruit. They offer scholarships. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you might find a prize in a school you did not know existed.

Please, Mom, Dad, Counselor, Favorite Teacher, just acknowledge that you are worried and bite your tongue. Help the young people you care about feel good about themselves.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and writing services company that specializes in college and graduate school admission essay coaching and professional training for counselors and independent educational consults. For more information, visit WowWritingWorkshop or email

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