college essay

Helicopter Parents Aren’t All Bad

(They Just Need to Know When to Drop In)

I received an email from a mom recently inquiring about my tutoring services for her college-bound daughter.

In her email, she included a story about their family history that she thought might make a good topic for an essay. It was mainly about the grandfather’s immigration “coming to America” experiences and the Holocaust.

While it sounded interesting, it didn’t seem that relevant or exciting to me–at least for the purposes of an essay that’s supposed to focus mainly on the student.

At the end of her story, the mom ended with this line: “My daughter’s response: ‘I read that if your parents think it is a good idea…it probably isn’t!’ LOL!”

college essay


Simply that this mom had a sense of humor about her rejected attempts at helping showed me that this mother-daughter team will be fine.

Of course parents want to support their kids. They can’t help it; it’s part of the job.

That funny quote from the daughter isn’t necessarily true, but it’s not that far off.


Because many parents haven’t done their own homework yet on what makes up a great essay, and especially a stellar topic.

RELATED: Learn What Makes a College Application Essay Great

If her daughter had written her essay all about her grandfather, it would have been a hands-down dud. Above all, these essays need to be almost exclusively about the student.

Other people can play a role in some essays, but only if it had something to do with what the student was trying to showcase about their own life, values and experiences.

Many parents also share another potentially harmful misconception about effective essays and their topics: They think they need to be impressive.

Don’t you want to write about that award you won at the science fair?

Why wouldn’t you include that you are an Eagle Scout?

What about that trip to China where you travelled for a month with your church and built a school for orphans?

college application essay

Sorry, Mom and Dad. Those are truly impressive feats and experiences, and can play a role in the college admissions game. They simply don’t translate into effective topics for these essays.

Still eager to help? (Hang in there with me now…)

First, spend some time learning what makes a great college essay.

Another excellent way that you can be of help–assuming you are on a speaking basis with your kid and they want your help—is to brainstorm past experiences with them.

The best essays include real-life experiences, often simple memorable moments, incidents and “times,” from the past that students can share to illustrate what they have learned, how they think, what they value and their unique personality.

This is your big chance. No one knows these often funny, poignant, surprising, heart-breaking, silly, unbelievable, ironic, everyday moments like YOU guys!

If your student is smart, he or she will engage your help at some point in their search for a great topic, especially these life moments from their past.

(Students reading this: Pay attention here. This works for you as well. If you want your parents off your back, throw them a bone: Give them a role. Ask for their help brainstorming moments from your past. No one knows YOU or those stories better!)

This is your opening to help—and in a huge way. These little mini-stories can literally make or break a personal essay.

They often start with: “Remember the time you…?”

college application essay

Before you get too excited, here’s another tip: The best stories are not about your kid’s shining moments of success and victory.

In fact, the opposite is true. If you truly want to help, you will help them remember those often mundane moments of “times” when things actually went a bit sideways, went wrong, ended poorly, were embarrassing, and hurt.

RELATED: Learn more about When Your Problem is a Good Thing

Why in the world would your brainy, hard-working, competent, loving kid want to start a college application essay about a simple time when something bad, or challenging, disappointing, or humiliating happened?

Three Reasons Off the Top of My Head

  1. It will be interesting because something happened. When things are rosy, nothing happens and it’s boring. You want to engage those glassy-eyed admissions officers!
  2. It will show your student at a low moment and will help make she or he naturally relatable. We have all been there. Connect with your audience. Likable is good! Etc.
  3. The student can then quickly shift into sharing how they felt (good stuff!), how they handled or managed that problem (which will reveal their personality) and what they learned (you want lots of this in an essay!).

Are we good now?

So do your homework, then wait for an opening. Tread gently. These are not your essays.

If you are lucky enough to have a truly wise kid, chances are at some point they will solicit your help.

Then, JUMP IN!! It can even be fun sitting down together and going through those families stories and memories.

All you need is one good one!

Good luck!