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A Plea to Those Helping Students With College Application Essays: Let the 17-year-old Voice Take Center Stage

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Recently, I saw a private coach inside a Starbucks using a thesaurus to help a high school senior make a college application essay sound "more mature." Another counselor encouraged one of my students to write about a troubling failure without focusing on the lessons learned. This season, yet another of my students couldn't explain to me what different sections of her story meant because her tutor, a screenwriter, had added examples into her essay that were unfamiliar to her.

I am tired of watching college applicants disappear as their adult advocates take over.

Admissions officers tell me they desperately want essays written authentically by the applicants, featuring stories, themes, and language that reflect the applicant's actual writing. Yet college coaches, tutors, counselors and parents at times take the opposite approach. They are over-editing by telling students what words to use and what to write.

My appeals to privilege the teenagers' voices grow stronger every day of college application season. What message are we sending our young people if we over-edit their essays so much that their originality and authenticity fade away?

It is time to let the 17-year-old voice take center stage.

As a national expert on college application essays, I travel around the country speaking to parents, schools, and communities about college application essays. I work with under-represented students to help encourage them to write application essays that communicate their stories, and I coach more privileged students individually.

No matter what their background, all teens need to learn that they have powerful stories to tell. While they usually don't have experience writing admissions essays, they can all write powerful essays if provided with brainstorming, drafting, and revising strategies.

Applying to college is an audition process; only the student can set foot on the stage and perform. College application readers look at student's grades, test scores, and recommendations, as well as essays. They are experts, and they can see disconnects. They can also see the other essays each student writes and can observe wild shifts in style and tone.

Teachers, coaches, parents, do what good mentors and editors do: guide and question, but do not rewrite. If you are reviewing a student's work, it is important that you understand that colleges do not want to hear your stories or read your mature writing styles. They want to hear fresh stories that reveal the unique experiences of students growing up in their era, not yours.

Also, anyone who helps students should be a mentor and a guide -- not a ghostwriter. Drafting essays takes time and is often painful, requiring students to find the allegorical stories that share powerful evidence of how they will enrich a campus. External advice, not rewriting, can be very helpful for your students. Remember, they have never done this sort of writing before. Help them see drafting as an authentic means of sharpening their voices.

And students, please understand that colleges want to hear from you and only you. When they want to hear from an adult, they will ask, usually in the form of a letter of recommendation.

Colleges want to read a story in your voice that tells them about an event or experience, quality or place that reveals what you, and you alone, can offer. What does the experience mean to you? They don't want manufactured grand stories that would belong in The New Yorker, unless you are a brilliant author who has already been published and who can demonstrate a portfolio of similarly written pieces. The process of thinking about the messages you want to send colleges in your essays can take weeks. There are no shortcuts.

As the holidays and college application deadlines approach, let's all give admissions offices a gift -- essays that enable the applicants' voices to pop off the page with originality and authenticity.