When I worked in admissions at Duke, I said a lot of things on the recruiting trail that weren’t exactly genuine: “Your combined SAT scores are in triple digits? Apply!” “We can’t get enough kids from northern New Jersey! Apply!” “You got a bunch of C’s in high school — at least you got a B in weight-lifting! Apply!”
But I did utter one true sentence: I told applicants that I was an astute reader and could tell the difference between the prose of a 17-year-old girl and that of a 51-year-old man. So don’t, I begged them, let your father write your personal statement for you.
I’d spent a dozen years working as an editor in scholarly publishing before I took a job in admissions. I’m not sure that all my colleagues were such careful readers; some were, I knew, occasionally hoodwinked. But since the essay is not that important a part of the application process, it didn’t really matter.
I emphasized writing the essay in my recruitment trips because by the time I was talking to these kids, that was the only thing within their control. Everything else — grades, course choice, SATs, extracurricular activities — were all done deals.
I wanted them to feel some degree of empowerment over this bruising senior year ordeal. I wanted them to understand that the process of learning to express themselves in clear, concise and lively prose could be an exercise in emotional archeology, an intellectual journey.
But then there were the parents.
Look, some of my best friends are parents. I understand that they want only what’s best for their offspring. This is a good impulse; it keeps the species going. But I’m not sure it’s always the right thing for the children.
When I do college counseling (which I do now mostly for the siblings of students I’ve already worked with), I see the dangerous good intentions these teenagers are up against.
One student kept writing the same bad essay. I labored to explain the fundamentals of good first-person writing: that it contains details that are specific and vivid, that it is honest.
He kept sending me slightly revised versions of the same vague platitudes and “Aren’t I great?” anecdotes. Finally I wrote him a harsh e-mail saying that he just wasn’t getting it. The essay was awful.
He started over, with a completely new topic — one he was passionate about — and it soared. Naturally suspicious and cynical, I asked what had happened. Had he been abducted by aliens? Or had someone else written it for him?
No, he said. This time he didn’t let his dad touch it.
Parents who have raised good kids should trust them. Because the essay is not an essential part of the process, and frankly, because most admissions officers know that they don’t know whose fingerprints are all over it, parental interference — except by people who really do know how to write — can be more demoralizing and divisive than useful.
It’s hard to come up with good topics. Parents who haven’t had the benefit of reading thousands of essays don’t know the clichés of the genre and steer children away from anything that might be “risky,” though essays that deal with hard stuff — sex, drugs, religion, family strife — are often the most affecting.
I can understand how difficult it is for parents not to be able to advise their children. But in this case, my advice is to step back and let them express themselves. If you’ve done a good job, so will they.
Ms. Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University and the author of “Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process.”