By Susan Poor

Your senior has read, reflected on, and chosen one of the several prompts for the Common Application. Brainstorming for ideas related to this topic is completed and now it’s time to write. He will allow you to assist him, so what do you do? Here is some advice for helping your teen create an effective essay.

Your role in this project

Encourage your son or daughter to begin the writing process as soon as possible. He will want plenty of time for revising. The sooner he starts, the less anxiety there will be.

  • It’s no easy task, but you must become your teenager’s writing coach who offers constructive criticism, and not his parent. You need to step back and let him or her take responsibility for this task. Rather than telling him how to improve a sentence or a paragraph, ask questions about what he wrote. For example, “What is the most effective sentence in this paragraph? Why? How can you improve the other sentences in the paragraph?” In this way, your teen, and not you, is taking ownership of the piece.
  • Encourage your teen to read his work aloud. You recognize awkward and choppy writing, missing words, and many other weaknesses if you hear the text. In fact, if you notice issues, offer to read the passage aloud so your child will be able to identify and correct the problem. This is a most effective but simple revision technique.

What to look for

  • If your teen is anxious about writing, encourage him to begin writing anything. Eventually the focus of the essay will develop from this prewriting.
  • The first paragraph in an essay, called the “lead,” introduces the specific topic of the essay but should also hook the reader’s interest. When your teen writes, the lead may end up being in the second or third paragraph. Ask, “Where does your essay really begin?”

Example: A student began a college essay with “Baseball was the first of many sports that my parents signed me up for. Baseball is the only sport I have really loved playing.” This is prewriting which needed to come out of the student, but wasn’t pertinent to his essay and he also switched verb tenses in it. When he revised, he gave a brief synopsis of his baseball career and then explained how the disappointment of being cut from the varsity team helped him to learn a valuable lesson. Now he had the reader hooked.

  • Since the college essay is a personal response to a prompt, be sure your teen is using the first person (I, me, mine). There is no need to use “you.”
  • Since the prompt asks for something that has happened in the past, the past tense should be used. Also avoid shifting verb tenses.
  • To encourage detail, tell your child to “show, not tell.” College admissions officers want to get to know your son or daughter, so detail is absolutely necessary. Look for places in the essay where detail will enhance the point(s) being made.

Example: The student wrote that he was devastated because he didn’t make the baseball team. When told to “show” his emotion, he wrote, “I had an unimaginable pain in my stomach similar to when I was hit by a pitch while at bat.”

  • Your teen may be at a loss for how to end this piece of writing. The best advice is to return to the lead. Here he finds his focus and hook. Now, use different words and phrases to restate and enhance the main idea. In this way your teen “ties up” his writing in a neat, well written package.

Example: In the student’s conclusion he explained that his baseball “failure” helped him to “reprioritize his goals” and to mature.

When the first draft is done Once the rough draft is complete, the essay is not finished. Tell your child to ignore the essay for at least a day or two. Then return to the draft refreshed, and begin the revision process. In fact, revise, revise, revise until the piece is the best it can possibly be! The student in the examples wrote four drafts before he was satisfied with his college essay. You might even encourage your senior to find an objective third party to help him continue the revision process.

The college essay takes a great deal of time and effort, but with the assistance of his “writing coach” your senior will have the help he needs. Good luck!

Susan Poor, owner of Your Writing Coach, has 34 years of teaching experience, has been an English Department Chairperson, and was trained by the Rhode Island Writing Project.