Hearing the news about CEOs and Hollywood stars implicated in the recent college admission scandal infuriates and inspires me. I am a writing coach, with three published novels, numerous essays, and decades of teaching high school and college students with stints in schools blacklisted by the Chicago Police Department for gang activity and schools famous for the wealth of its students, the rigor of its classes and its social pressure. I work with rich kids, poor kids, and everything in between. My message to them remains the same, tell your story, tell it well. Teenagers need to be allowed to find their own identities through music and books and their peers and teachers. Not their parents. Yes, kids cheat but now their parents are deciding they need to ensure their offspring is accepted to a prestigious school through bribery, fraud, and having other people take their child’s SAT or ACT test. And you wonder why, as reported on November 18th in the New York Times, 30% of freshmen come home to never return.
I have never written anyone’s college admission essay. I’ve been contacted by a multitude of essay mills, businesses that employ hundreds and thousands of writers like me, asking me to work for them in the guise of providing ‘academic support’. It isn’t support; it’s cheating. When I have a college admission essay client, they write while I coach. We talk about where and why they are applying, we talk about the prompts on the Common Application, we talk about what they want from their futures, and then they write. I read, make editing suggestions, give them a number of strategies to improve the clarity and impact of the essay, and then they write. We discuss things like what they wanted to grow up to be as a child. There are connections discovered, themes and ideas that emerge organically. We write more. Parents are politely excluded. To define your identity is impossible with mom or dad beaming from the doorway. Talking about feelings in front of your parents guarantees a stilted, generic piece of writing.
Helicopter parents morph into boa constrictor parents attempting to swallow their children whole because they are filled with fear of the future and filled with fear of losing the race. Guess what? There is no race. College is a water stop along the route. A significant oasis but by no means a final destination. When my son was writing his admissions essay he refused my single suggestion to make him sound nicer with the comment: ”That’s something a middle-aged woman would say.” He was right and I recognized he was ready to fly the coop.
Sending a student, any student, to four years of attempting to find his or her tribe, to manifest aspirations and matriculate with a happy understanding that they had earned your wings is called college. Back off the texting, the emails, the phone calls. Leave those kids alone. Just because they call you every day, resist. Buy them sheets they’ll never wash, desk organizers and fancy microwaves but for pity’s sake, don’t show them how corrupt, sad, and wealth obsessed the world is. Yes, our parents, or at least mine, remained firmly disinterested in my day-to-day life at college and at Thanksgiving, my first visit home, they asked to see my grades and then passed the cranberry sauce. They had no idea of what classes I was taking. Let’s all practice some benign neglect, and as Roger Waters wrote, “leave those kids alone.”