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College Application Essays for Parents

Dear Parent,

The summer before senior year of high school is the best time for your son or daughter to write college application essays.

That’s right.

I know you don’t want to ask your child to do “school work” during the summer.

I know you don’t want to fight those battles right now.

I know it seems “easier” to leave writing these essays until the fall because they will be doing school work already.

But, most of my private clients don’t realize how difficult writing the application essay can be for both students and parents.

Thanks so much, Danielle. Xxxxx just adored working with you. You made essay writing actually enjoyable for her…which is a feat in and of itself!

– C.P.  Austin, TX

What College Application Essays Are Not

  • Like other high school essays – They are not a standard “5 paragraph essay,” they don’t have a thesis statement, and it is likely the first time students have written about themselves.  Just starting an essay like this is a huge challenge for both students AND parents.
  • Essays that can be written in one night – In 17 years of helping students write memorable essays, I have never had a student write a stand out essay on the first draft.  And, I have been fortunate to have worked with some gifted young writers.
  • A good place to write about what a student did on a trip – This is the most common mistake that students and families make.  Admissions officers read this essay thousands of times a year.  PS, your story is not different.
  • Where students should write about the sport they play or an injury they have suffered – Like the essay where students write about a special trip, the sports/sports injury perseverance story is one that admissions departments predict and dread the most.  There are plenty of other ways a student can share this character trait in an essay.
  • A laundry list of accomplishments – The application is where students are supposed to list their activities and accomplishments.  The application essay is their opportunity to show something about themselves that admissions officers cannot learn by reading their application.

What Application Essays Should Be

A stand out college application essay will do three things:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention
  2. Give the reader something to remember the student by
  3. Show the reader insight into what makes a student tick

Students who write essays who don’t accomplish these three things are likely to remain part of the crowd. 

Students who don’t complete their essays during the summer often drag the process out through the holidays because they don’t have time to complete them during the normal school year.  Would you rather your son or daughter have completed essays they are proud of this summer or would you rather have to stay on them to complete them all semester long?

Many times this turns into, “just get it done.”  This is not likely to be a memorable essay…at least not in a good way.

I am so thankful that someone told me to start early on the entire college process.  Because of this, I was never truly stressed about deadlines for applications and essays because I had started them early and got to enjoy the fall practically stress free in terms of college applications.

– J.N.  Austin, TX

Help Your Child Stand Out

As parents, we all want the doors of opportunity to be open for our children…today, and after college graduation.  The goal of any college applicant is to separate him or herself from the crowd, be it by GPA, test scores, activities, or by writing a memorable application essay.  While only a small part of the college admissions process, application essays can give your child a great chance to stand out in front of admissions officers.

Even though the essay writing and editing process may only take a student 6 to 8 hours, we know that getting our children to willingly spend those hours writing an essay can be a huge “challenge.”  But, with a simple plan and the right tools, any parent, regardless of  his/her writing abilities, can enjoy helping his/her child write a memorable application essay.

Let’s take a minute to understand what is required to create a great application essay and then talk about how to make the process easy for both parents and students.

College Application Essays – What Parents Need to Know

Before we get started, let’s get one thing out of the way, a Personal Statement essay is the same as a college application essay.  When we talk about one, we are talking about the other.  Most colleges ask for a personal statement from the applicant in 500-650 words.  In addition, many applications will ask for “supplemental essays” or shorter response essays (250-300 words) on an applicant’s favorite activity and/or the reason the applicant has chosen that particular major and college/university.

Schools like the University of Georgia and the University of California only ask for two to four short responses (200-350 words) in place of a personal statement. Many schools use the term “prompt” in place of “question”…there is no difference.

Besides teacher recommendations (which some colleges do not require) and interviews (which most schools don’t require), the college application essay can be the one tool admissions officers have to get insight into the applicant’s personality.  All students will benefit from being seen as a human rather than a combination of GPA and test scores.

Challenges Parents Face:

  1. Finding the time in their family’s busy schedule
  2. Getting their child to actually write an essay
  3. Getting him or her to do a good job on the essay

Let’s face it, parents are busy.  Our children go from school to their extracurricular activities (jobs, dance, sports, theater, tutors, club meetings, etc), come home, eat, and go straight to homework.  Summers aren’t much easier.  Some students get up early for jobs and camps.  Others just want to sleep in late for the first time in a long time.  Summers become the catch-all, make-up time for everything parents were unable to fit in during the school year.  Time is scarce.

The solution is simple…have a good plan.  A good plan will be realistic and achievable by both parents and students.  A good plan will help keep stress levels low and communication channels open.  We all know what it is like to try and communicate with our children when time is short and so are tempers.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no set amount of time that it takes to write a college application essay, but if I had to “ballpark” a number, I would say that students can spend 6 to 8 hours to brainstorm, write, and edit a stand-out essay.  Some may take less time and some may take more.  Having a good plan or timeline laid out in advance will make finding the time to complete great essays easy.  Here is a college application essay plan/timeline you can download below.  This timeline will help families with children applying the University of California (UC) system, University of Texas, and to colleges using the Common Application.

A Basic College Application Essay Plan / Timeline

  1. April or May of 11th Grade – Educate yourself on the college application process
  2. April or May of 11th Grade – Determine the best techniques to help motivate your child
  3. April or May of 11th Grade – Determine what schools on your child’s college list require application essays
  4. April or May of 11th Grade – Determine how your child will apply to each program (regular admission, Early Action, Early Decision) and what the deadline is for each
  5. April or May of 11th Grade – Prioritize essay deadlines**: 1) Apply Texas  2) University of Florida  3) Common Application schools  4) UC schools
  6. April or May of 11th Grade – Find essay prompts (questions) for each application on your child’s college list
  7. May to June – Determine the best traits and adjectives that describe your child’s personality.
  8. May to June – Read sample essays to help you and your child become familiar with the style and format of application essays
  9. June of 11th Grade – Begin the writing application essays
  10. July before 12th Grade – Write next drafts and final draft

Sign up for our free college timeline reminder text messages and emails for parents.

** It is better to apply to UT and TAMU in August.  Texas admissions officers begin reading applications starting on August 1st on a first come, first served basis.  Students are admitted on a rolling basis.

Finding Your Child’s Motivation

Having your child WANT to write a stand-out essay may sound impossible, but with the right tactics, you can make it happen.  In my experience, regardless of your child’s personality type, all students loathe and fear college application essays.  This is usually because both parents and students don’t have a basic understanding of what an application is and how it differs from any other kind of essay that they may have written in the past.  Most students are used to writing the standard 5 paragraph thesis essay which includes an introductory paragraph, 3 supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.  The application essay can be a narration, it can be multiple paragraphs, or simply one.  It is not supposed to be a laundry list of a student’s activities over the previous three years (students already put this in the application or resume).  Ideally, the essay will show the reader(s) something about the applicant’s personality that can’t be found anywhere else in the application.

Writing Memorable Essays

Over the years, the problems students have had with their essays are always the same: how to get started, picking a topic/what to write about, how to show their story, how to format their essay, who should read their essay, how to edit their essay, and when to start writing.  The solution to these problems comes in one of three forms:

Use a Professional College Counselor

This can be the easiest method for parents and students, but is also the most costly.  In my experience it takes around 4 to 8 hours for the process to help students pick a trait they want to show, find a story to help illustrate that trait, write their 1st draft, edit their essay (2 to 3 more drafts), and finalize.  Depending on what an application essay consultant charges, this can range from 0 to ,000.  The upside here is that parents don’t have to be involved in the process.

Do it Yourself

Option two is much less expensive, but a lot more work.  Doing it yourself involves finding and reading a book that has sample essays and advice on what writers should and should not include in their essays.  Cost for a DIY solution is anywhere from $10 to $30.  The upside is the low dollar investment and the downside is that either the parents or the students are in charge of the entire process.  Perhaps the two biggest surprises for most DIY’ers are the amount of time required and the difficulty with essay editing.  Free advice may come from parents, English teachers, peers, and/or school counselors.  The challenge with using these sources is that most of these folks don’t have a lot of experience editing college application essays.

** A quick note on using “online” application essay editors…be sure you know who will be editing your child’s essay.  I have had a number of people use online AND local experts who have outsourced the application editing overseas.  Be sure to ask who will be editing your child’s essay if you choose to use a local OR online editor.

Use a Step-by-Step Method

Knowing that cost can be an issue for many families and that the idea of asking your child to read another book is akin to cutting off an arm, I created a step-by-step solution called the Personal Statement Blueprint.  The Personal Statement Blueprint solves the problem of figuring out what to write about and how.  And, knowing that today’s children need everything to be in digital format, the Personal Statement Blueprint is delivered online and is 100% mobile phone friendly.  The cost is $27 and provides a step-by-step solution to writing essays for the Apply Texas (UT and TAMU), University of California, and Common Application (as well as any supplemental essays).  The essay writing process is broken up into small pieces, making each task easy to complete.  Knowing exactly how many steps are involved helps students and parents stay motivated to complete their application essays in a short amount of time.  I’ve found that students perform better and are less reluctant when given assignments in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

Learn more about the Personal Statement Blueprint.


I have helped students find their voice and craft memorable admissions essays for almost 20 years. Learn more on our application essay editing services page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Common Misconceptions About Application Essays

Some parents believe that their child’s high school will, “take care of it.”  In my experience, the most help I have seen students receive is having a school counselor give limited feedback on a single draft.  While there is no rule, students usually write three to four drafts of an essay before it is finalized. Again, following a proven system can make the entire process painless for everyone.

Many times families find that none of these are very effective at achieving the best results.  The goal for any applicant should be to use his or her application essay to stand out and be competitive.

When Should We Start Writing Application Essays?

Many parents and students mistakenly assume that they need to wait until the fall of 12th grade to begin writing their college application essays.  Students can start their essays as soon as schools release their essay prompts…this is usually in March or April of 11th grade.  Common Application essay prompts are usually available in the spring (March in 2017).  The University of Texas and the University of California typically give notice of any changes to their application essay prompts in the spring as well.  The best advice I can give students and parents is to begin writing application essays as early as possible.  Both parents and students are typically surprised at the number of drafts and the length of time required to create stand out essays for applications.

But, My Child’s School Said Not to Worry Until Senior Year…

This is something I hear from parents of private and public school children.   While technically students can wait to begin writing their application essays until their senior year, the question is why wait?  This causes undue stress at a time when students have more than enough on their plates with school work, extra curricular activities, visiting schools, interviewing, possibly taking more standardized tests, and applying to colleges.  With two exceptions, in my experience, high schools consider the application process to begin in September of 12th grade.  It is easier to find time to begin this process in the spring of 11th grade, than it is to leave it until a month or two before an application’s deadline.

** Read more about why I believe it does pay to submit a college application as early as possible.

Do All Colleges Require Essays?

No.  However, most do.  In my experience, it is rare to have a student not apply to at least one school that requires one or more application essays.

How to Begin

  1. Try to finalize your child’s college list before or during the summer before 12th grade.
  2. Determine which schools on your child’s college list require application essays or personal statements.  If unsure a school requires an application essay, check their admissions website or call the admissions office.
  3. Begin writing essays early.  Common Application essay prompts are usually available in the spring (March in 2017), the University of Texas usually announces changes to their essay prompts in spring, and the University of California does as well.  Start essay writing early.

College Application Essays last edited by CAMS Staff on