When I was 12, there was a contest at my school for best Halloween costume. I decided to dress my little brother like a wrapped Christmas present. It seemed original to me, and had an appropriate pre-holiday theme. My mother helped me scrounge a large cardboard box from behind the supermarket. I got some colored paper for wrapping and cut out other sheets to make what looked like a big red ribbon. My mother helped me paste it up. My brother slipped it over his head and gamely paraded up and down the school stage when it was time for the contest.
The teacher in charge admired everyone's work, then asked if any contestants had had their parents' help with their projects. I raised my hand, as did several others. He asked us to leave the stage, and awarded the prize to the best of those costumes that remained.
It astonishes me, but I am still angry about this. So what if my mother helped? It was my idea and I did most of the work. I should have gotten the credit.
I think of this story every time I hear students and parents and educators debate how much involvement adults should have in those most unnerving of all special projects, the essays on college applications.
How much should parents help? The easy answer, at least when we are not talking about our own children, is not at all. That is also the answer that is most likely to drive the parents of the applicants crazy. Since my daughter, Katie, is a high school senior applying to college, I want to prevent that, and so am obliged to suggest another way.
When my son Peter attended Scarsdale High School, assistant principal Corwith Hansen advised parents that they could help with homework as long as they never touched the paper. I like that rule. I think it works with application essays, too.
Parents should be able to edit essays lightly and conceptually, never making a mark but telling the writer what they think. Proofreading should work the same way. They can point out a misspelling, but the applicant has to do the fixing. (I recently suggested on this page more direct editing when students share application drafts with high school friends, but the rules for parents should be more restrictive.)
I think a good college application essay has two qualities. It is not boring, and it portrays in a vivid way some attractive quality of the applicant.
As an occasional newspaper essayist over the last 30 years, I have learned the hard way what sort of things turn off readers. For one, never say anything that might be interpreted as boastful. I will give you some examples of bad essay approaches, using standard college application themes. Here is a no-no: "The hospital administrator said my work as a candy striper was so good that I should apply to medical school." This is also off-putting: "I hit the home run in the bottom of the last inning that won the league championship. But then I wondered, is that all there is?"
It is much better to tell stories that reveal endearing flaws. Here are rewrites of the two samples above:
"My first week working at the hospital, I wondered why I ever considered medicine as a career. The bathrooms reeked. The nurses were mean. I continually tripped over the trolleys that the older patients pushed down the aisles when they sought exercise. In one instance, I was so clumsy I almost disconnected an intravenous drip. At least I think that was what it was."
Or, "After four innings on the mound, I had let in nine runs but only given up two hits. If you think that was a moral victory, think again. I had walked eight batters and hit two more. When I came to the plate with two outs in the last inning, my teammates were hoping that the opposing pitcher would take revenge on me and fire one into my ribs. They said they couldn't imagine I was going to get on base any other way."
You get the idea. Most of your application will be thick with triumphs -- grades, honors, club presidencies, whatever. The essay is supposed to bare your soul. If all you reveal are more grades and honors and presidencies, you are going to be rejected for the laudable reason that no one in the admissions office wants to inflict such a dork on some unsuspecting freshman year roommate.
College application essay questions often ask you to examine some important moment in your life, something that exposes your values and your dreams for the future. That does not mean it has to be about what you want to be when you grow up. My son Joe wrote about coaching Little League, the principal pastime of his high school days, even though he knew his chances of a career in baseball were pretty small and did not figure in the story.
Keep your sentences short. Make your verbs active. Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White.
And then let your friends and your parents look at what you have done. That is the way writers work. You can never get too many opinions about your words.
But remember one thing. It is your work. If someone says you should change something and you aren't sure, sleep on it and read it again in the morning. In my experience, 75 percent of the time the critical reader is right. I have written something that is too long or too cute or too confusing. But if you still like it the next day, keep it. You don't want to be holding the rejection letter and wondering if it might have been different if you had not cut that paragraph you liked about the aardvark.
You want to win or lose as you, because otherwise it is not as much fun, and that should be at least part of the reason why you are applying to college in the first place.