namaste-yogaMaybe I’m just grumpy because it’s 90+ degrees in my garage office and I tweaked my back in yoga last week (while bowing and saying “Namaste” at the very end. really.) But I just received an email from a desperate parent that really sent me. It took everything I had not to give her a piece of my mind. Actually, I couldn’t take it and did give her a piece of my mind…

The good part of our exchange, which I will copy below, is that it gave me a reason to share a terrific article that I believe every parent, student and college counselor involved in this college application process should read. It was written by a former college counselor who was recruited by way-too-wealthy parents to help get their kids into the most select schools–especially to help them write their college application essays.

Lacy Crawford, who just published a novel based on her madcap experiences, is all over the media right now promoting Early Decision. Even though most parents are not nearly as obsessed as her former clients, I believe even the most reasonable and level-headed families can get sucked into the college application frenzy and lose their way. The cost of this pressure, especially to our kids, can be great, and risk inflicting emotional damage that can be impossible to repair.

Here’s one example of the potential harm from an article Crawford just wrote for the Wall Street Journal:

A hedge-fund manager rewrote his son’s application. The boy had been rejected early decision by the father’s alma mater. In his revision, the father posited that a community benefits from a range of individuals, the stars and the average people alike; and argued, in the first person, for the boy’s admission by virtue of his mediocrity.

Getting rejected didn’t break this boy’s heart. His father did.

You read her article and hear stories like these from other college counselors, and think, “Oh my God, who are these people? They sound like monsters.” But within the hour, I just received an email from a frantic mom. She may not be like some of Crawford’s crazy clients, but I certainly caught a whiff of her misplaced priorities. (I had originally shared her email here, but she contacted me again and told me it embarrassed her–even though she was not named–so I have removed it.)

To sum up her message, the mom told me she was “thoroughly depressed” and had spent hours and hours trying to find a topic for her daughter to address “the intellectual activity one for Stanford.” She said she sought help from professors and college counselors, but couldn’t think of a single intellectual activity that either she or her daughter had done. She called herself a tiger mom with a defiant daughter, and described their lives as “so boring.” She asked me to “take on the challenge” and call her.


I’m not calling this mom, but I did send her this reply. Yes, the heat and pain might have pushed me into saying some things I shouldn’t have, and usually I am very empathetic with frustrated parents. She ticked me off.

Hi M,
I would love to help your daughter. But I have to admit I always find emails like yours rather shocking. As much as I admire your honesty, I don’t get why in the world you are the one all depressed, stressed out and looking for a topic. My suggestion would be to read my ebook guide, which literally walks students through the brainstorming process and helps them find great topics. I have never met a student who didn’t have something interesting to write about or something to say or a story to tell. It’s hard for me to believe that your daughter–who is shooting for Stanford–could be the first. 
My book helps readers understand that you don’t need an impressive topic. Even the most everyday, simple incident can spin into an excellent essay. That’s why everyone has great topics to write about. BTW, an “intellectual activity” just means something that involved thinking.
You’ve actually inspired me to write a post on my blog (don’t worry, I won’t name names.) There’s an article I’ve been wanting to share with readers, especially ones like you. Here it is:

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be offensive or snarky, and I feel your pain–to a point. But it just seems that your well-intentioned energy is misdirected, and I know the last thing you would want to do is harm your daughter. Step back, take more deep breaths, get some new information on these essays, and trust that your daughter will find a great topic and tell her story. 
Frankly, if your lives are that boring, you need to get out of your bubble. (I just spent an hour today with a student who wrote her essay on how her dad got cancer when she was an infant, how her mom abandoned the family when she was 10, how she nursed her dad–bedridden, feeding-tube, on oxygen 24/7, lost their home–until he died last fall. She is on her own now at 18–but still feels lucky and grateful since she had such a loving dad all those years.) 
I feel sorry for you, but I suspect you have done this to yourself. And you most likely have everything it takes to change it. I’ve attached a free copy of my book just so you have no more excuses. I really don’t mean to sound mean-spirited–and maybe there’s more to your story than you are letting on–but I just don’t get parents like you.
Best of luck,
Janine Robinson
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I think we can all learn something from Lacy Crawford and parents like M. Yes, this college admissions game is insane, and stressful and so much is riding on it. But get a grip. Keep your perspective, your humanity–especially when it comes to that son or daughter you love so much.
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It will all work out.
Namaste (ouch!)
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A little more from Lacy’s WSJ article. (Read an interview with Lacy from The Daily Beast.) Her advice on what makes a great topic is spot-on, and supported through out this blog:
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In my years handling applications to elite schools, from Harvard to Haverford, Davidson to Dickinson and everything in between, I was often surprised by where students did gain acceptance. But in every case it was a student who wrote a fabulously independent essay. Not necessarily hyper-sophisticated. But true.

My students always asked me, What should I write about?

I’d answer: You are a student of the world. What is it that moves you? What incites you, enrages you? The first-person pronoun is a mighty tool. Use it.

I have had successful students write about the virtues of napping (Middlebury), failing a course (Harvard), and having to shoot a farm dog because it couldn’t work stock (Princeton). Once a student came out to me in his fifth (and best) draft. His parents probably still don’t know; but they got the Ivy Leaguer they wanted (Penn).

I no longer work with high school seniors, but my counsel can be distilled for much less than $13,000. Students: tell a story in your own voice. Speak an opinion with care and focus. Claim that “I” and write the hell out of it.

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Learn how to find and tell your story in my ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!