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It’s college essay season. Here’s how parents can help without being helicopters.

Beyond telegraphing to students that it’s okay to cheat, the message these parents sent to their children was: You know all that hard work you did in high school? None of it is good enough.

Admittedly, the college application process can be overwhelming, and kids could use some assistance navigating it all. But if the college application process feels like it’s gotten out of hand, we parents—with our resources and connections, degrees and expectations—are at least partly to blame.

“Can we just say how crazy it is that we even have to have this conversation in the first place?” says Macy Lenox, a mom of two and an associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia. “As a parent myself, I don’t come to this from a place of judgement, but from one of understanding. We’re drowning our kids in our best intentions. We’ve lost sight of our job, which is not to be the applicant, but to be the best supporters of the applicant we can be.” This means demonstrating confidence in their abilities, says Lenox. “By doing things for them, you’re saying I can do this better than you. Part of our job is empowering them to be advocates for themselves; to be successful in college, you’ve got to be able to use your own voice.”

Yet when we hear stories from friends or read posts on social media about all the hoop-jumping necessary to get into college these days, it’s understandably crazy-making. Even the most stalwart defenders of their kids’ independence can lose sight of the line between supporting and doing the work for them. And while most parents would rightfully balk at the idea of, say, rigging their kid’s SAT score, or Photoshopping their child’s face onto the body of an athlete in a sport their kid doesn’t play, the writing of college essays—with their lack of oversight, benchmarks or guarantees—remains a gray area.

Shawn Felton, senior director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell University, stresses how essential it is that kids don’t leapfrog over the opportunities for introspection intrinsic in writing essays. “Applying to college is a milestone marked by an applicant’s commitment to invest in further engaging, understanding and communicating themselves [to people] beyond those who have always known them,” Felton tells me. “Colleges ask applicants to take a look inside themselves and consider who they are and what they want. My hope is that individuals invest in better knowing themselves during this moment, and that they bring a real authenticity to communicating with colleges when writing their essays.”

Parents can, however, support their kids through this process, which includes encouraging them to do the challenging and ultimately gratifying work of telling their story on the page. Here, college admissions experts offer four reasons why parents should take a step back—and one way we can lean into the moment.

Writing their college essays helps kids gear up for success after high school. “The admission experience is a precursor to life in college—parents are

Stevenson parents, students blast remote learning, call for hybrid model

Maria Newhouse moved to Long Grove so her daughter could attend Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire because of its reputation for academic excellence.

But attending classes in a pandemic through Zoom video conferencing isn’t the ideal learning environment Newhouse, and other parents, had envisioned.



“Remote learning is not an education,” Newhouse said. “Zoom (is) for conference calls. You don’t educate children via Zoom.”

Newhouse was among a group of Stevenson High School parents and students who rallied Monday outside the school demanding the district resume in-person classes. They sought to put pressure on the school board, which meets Monday, Oct. 19.

Stevenson High School District 125, which has about 4,300 students and more than 700 faculty members, was among the first suburban districts to switch to only remote learning at the beginning of the fall semester.

At the time, Superintendent Eric Twadell said it was more palatable than the alternative of mandatory, 14-day quarantines for students or employees who contract the coronavirus in school, as well as for people who come in prolonged contact with them.



Parents called for a hybrid model in which families that don’t want their students to attend in-person can continue remotely, while other students have the option of learning in a classroom, each with their own dedicated teachers.

In a statement released Monday, district officials said if and when the school transitions to hybrid learning, “the quality of the teaching and learning experience that we can provide all students will drop significantly.”

Another factor giving officials pause is the severity of COVID-19 transmission in Lake County — one of 26 Illinois counties state health officials placed at a warning level for an increased risk of contracting the virus on Friday.

The county averaged 90 new cases of the virus for every 100,000 residents over the past week, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The state target is an average 50 new cases or fewer, which Lake County has exceeded since the beginning of July.



Stevenson will be testing a new “Patriot Pods” program designed for students who would like to come together and study in small groups on campus.

“Over the next two weeks, we will be bringing students back to campus for specific and purposeful lab-based teaching and learning experiences that are better suited for in-person instruction, including courses in science and fine arts,” the statement read.

Newhouse said the pods idea is an effort to placate parents. She questioned why a wealthy district like Stevenson can’t manage in-person learning when its feeder elementary districts have switched to hybrid models.

“Stevenson is supposed to be a leader and hasn’t quite figured out in-person yet,” she said. “It’s a building with over 1 million square feet of space. There are so many schools that have managed to come up with an option that worked for those parents and

How Parents Can Support Teenagers in the Pandemic College Process

Suggest your child enroll in a college class online, she said, or aid librarians by transcribing historical documents from home. Parents can talk with their children about what interests them, then encourage them to create a project, like a website or a course for their peers, around that topic, Ms. Daryanani said.

Other experts caution against pushing too hard on teens already struggling with vast changes in their lives. One way to gauge that is to think about how much you used to have to push your kid before the pandemic, said Regine Galanti, a Long Island psychologist and author of “Anxiety Relief for Teens.” “If you are someone who didn’t push, and now your teen needs pushing, there may be other dynamics going on here,” she said.

One silver lining: This moment may be an opportunity for an “equal playing field,” said Warren Quirett, an admissions counselor at a Virginia boarding school and co-leader of the African-American Special Interest Group for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. That’s because affluent families cannot give their children an advantage by paying for expensive camps and experiences, since “it’s all been canceled,” he said.

Urge your student instead to pick up a new skill, or increase their involvement in their community — anything that will pique their interest and enrich their lives, he said.

Mr. Selingo said college admissions officers are going to understand that this is not a normal year. They’ll be “really looking for a mind-set,” he said. “They want students who are creative. They are going to be asking, ‘How did students respond to this pandemic?’”

But be forewarned: with other markers of achievement in short supply, colleges will focus on what is available. “I’ve been telling my seniors,” Ms. Daryanani said, “to really pay attention to their grades this semester.”

Hoping to generate some excitement for next year, Michelle Johnson and her husband took Emma to visit Northern Michigan University in late September. To ensure social distancing, the admissions office was limiting in-person campus tours to only five students at a time, and the slots for that day were already filled. But they walked themselves around the campus, the town and the Lake Superior shoreline. They saw hardly any students; those they did see wore masks.

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