Sunday, October 18, 2020

College essay help 101: The difference between advising and writing

The pandemic has altered many fall rituals. Big crowds at school football games are taking a season off in the interest of public health. Bellying up to a crowded bar to watch sports is not a thing this year, and I imagine Halloween celebrations in my neighborhood will not be the same this year. Many of our kids are taking midterms from home rather than at school. It is also likely that large Thanksgiving gatherings will be smaller although we will be a bit more thankful for the people who continue to help each of us figure out how to manage our way through the pandemic.

One October ritual hasn't changed, however. High school seniors are scurrying to complete college applications. And they continue to struggle with how to write the perfect college admissions essay.

For several years, my wife, Nancy (a former book editor), and I have worked with some students to advise them on their essays. Is it ethical for students to get such assistance? Sure. Is it OK for students to have someone else write their essays for them? No. And it's important for any advisor, student, or parent to recognize the difference.

We spend a lot of time talking with the students to get a sense of who they are before they write. In past years we met in person, but this year we are connecting via Zoom, a platform each of us has come to know very well in the course of our day-to-day work.

Once we get to know the student, we find out where they might be applying. To keep from crossing the line from advising to doing the work for the student, we follow some basic principles. We make copious margin comments. We suggest cuts if their essays are running long but tell them that they should make the first pass since these are their words not ours. We ask questions when their writing is unclear. We have them read their essays aloud to see if it sounds like them and to catch typos. My wife and I never re-write anything ourselves. And we always remind the students that they have final say on when the essay is done.

We don't pretend to have all the answers about how to do these essays best. Nor do we take credit for the large percentage of students we've worked with who get accepted into the colleges to which they've applied. Their life experiences, transcripts, recommendations and smart choices about where to apply are the out-sized factors. We just help them try to get their thoughts laid out clearly in their essays to enhance their chances. We always listen to them and let them take the lead because that seems like the right thing to do. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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