The Ivy Coach Daily

June 8, 2023

The Fingerprints of Parents in College Essays

Columbia's library is featured behind grass, lit up at night.
Parents often leave behind fingerprints in college essays (photo credit: Andrew Chen).

Originally Published on October 4, 2018:

One question we at Ivy Coach sometimes get from parents during free consultations goes like this: “Can’t college admissions officers tell you had a hand in your students’ essays?” Our answer? “If college admissions officers suspected we had a hand in brainstorming and revising our students’ essays, we wouldn’t be very good at what we do, and our students wouldn’t be earning admission to their dream schools year after year over the last 30 years.”

You see, when we revise our students’ essays, we leave not one fingerprint in any one of these essays. We don’t use words that businesspeople, doctors, and lawyers use. We teach our students not to use big words when small words will do just fine. Thinking of using the word “plethora” or “copious”? You’re not the only student who learned these words in preparation for the SAT. Write “a lot” instead so it doesn’t appear like you’re trying to impress.

We teach our students to dare to write fragments. We teach our students to dare to defy the rules so many high school English teachers hammer into their heads. 

In our experience, teenagers write a certain way, and even those students with perfect or near-perfect reading scores on the SAT or ACT, with perfect scores on AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition, aren’t strong writers. Yes, most high school students can’t write very well. It’s a sad truth. It was the case in 1993. It’s the case in 2023.

At Ivy Coach, we help make their prose much more compelling so that they stand out and effectively dare admissions officers not to offer them admission.

Do Parents Write College Essays?

Some parents think they’re good writers. As such, they feel confident attempting to spruce up — or even outright write — their child’s college essays. But their confidence is sorely misplaced. Admissions officers weren’t born yesterday. They can so often tell when a parent wrote a college essay or even fine-tuned a student’s story. It’s typically quite noticeable.

The Invisible Fingerprint of Parents in College Essays

And, no, not just anyone should be editing college essays — and especially not parents. A few years ago, we read a terrific editorial in The New York Times penned by JM Farkas. The piece, aptly titled “How I Know You Wrote Your Kid’s College Essay,” references one specific fingerprint parents so often leave behind in college essays. It’s an invisible fingerprint. It’s one we’ve written about many times over the years on the pages of our college admissions blog.

So what might this invisible fingerprint be? It’s two spaces after a period. You see, many parents grew up using typewriters or word processors. Their English teachers taught them to place two spaces after each period. But kids these days don’t put two spaces after a period. Have you ever seen two spaces after a period on any of our blogs? Nope. Scan the pages of our website — just one space after each period.

The two spaces fingerprint is but one such fingerprint of parents in college admissions essays. Fancy words. Business-y buzzwords, even simple expressions like “next steps.” These are significant red flags in college essays that point to the assistance of a parent.

What Happens If a Parent Is Caught Writing a College Essay?

So what happens if an admissions officer at an elite university raises a red flag after reading a college essay that hints at a parent’s participation in the writing process? That’s easy. The admissions officer will recommend denying the student admission without further consideration. It will cost a student any chance of admission.

We Leave No Fingerprint in Our Students’ College Essays

A few years ago, we came across an essay that was even written in the third person. The parent must have forgotten to write in the student’s voice. Oy vey is right! It’s so very easy to tell when parents — who are often not particularly good writers themselves — have a hand in a student’s college admissions essays. It’s also very easy to tell when bad high school English teachers, school counselors, and private college counselors have a hand in a student’s college admissions essays.

One of the reasons we at Ivy Coach are able to help our students earn admission to their dream schools year after year is because an admissions officer would never know we helped revise their essays. After all, good writing is about brainstorming and revising. It’s true for novels. It’s true for television scribes. It’s true for journalists. Through the revision process, students even become more persuasive writers. It’s a big part of Ivy Coach’s secret sauce, a sauce which happens to be delicious. Notice we didn’t say toothsome.

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