You're Not Fooling Anyone

There are several reasons why this BBC article is very, very funny. Among them:

For those of us old enough to have used Walkmen (Walkmans?), it's hilarious to read about someone from the iPod generation experimenting with his dad's antediluvian portable music device. ("It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape." "I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.")

And while I can't speak for this particular writer -- I can't accuse the writer or the BBC of anything -- I suspect that the person who wrote these words is not, in fact, 13 years old. ("Genre-specific"? Please.) Examples that set off my Dad-Wrote-This detector:

  • "So it's not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing choice of music player."
  • "From a practical point of view, the Walkman is rather cumbersome, and it is certainly not pocket-sized, unless you have large pockets."
  • "But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down 'rewind' and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured."
  • "Perhaps that kind of anticipation and excitement has been somewhat lost in the flood of new products which now hit our shelves on a regular basis."
  • "Not long after the music warbled into life, it abruptly ended."
  • "Did my dad, Alan, really ever think this was a credible piece of technology?"
  • "But given the dreadful battery life, I guess this was an outright necessity rather than an extra function."

I don't have any trouble believing that these observations came from someone so young that he can't fathom a device that doesn't shuffle your music for you. But I do suspect strongly that dad had a hand here in a ghostwriting capacity. The examples I quoted above are not the vernacular that typically emerges from the mouths of 13-year-old boys, even in the U.K. (Americans seem to think that all kids over there sound like Harry Potter. They do not.)

Why do I dwell on this? It's a hilarious article, I'm glad they wrote it, and it made me laugh. Hats off to them. However... it reminds me to remind you (especially the parents out there) that when you meddle too much with your child's writing in the application process, admissions officers can smell that A MILE AWAY. They want to receive applications from your kids, not from you.

I have had a number of conversations with parents that go something like this:

Anna: Very nice essay.

Dad: Yes, we (!) really like it.

Anna: I'm hearing more [dad] in here than [daughter].

Dad: [Protracted silence.] Wow, you can tell?

Anna: Yep. Did you write the whole thing?

Dad: Well... uh. It's really her ideas.

Anna: She needs to write it, too.

Dad: So you're telling us to scrap this and start over?

Anna: Yes.

Many parents tell me that they are "best friends" with their kids, and they seem to think that means they have picked up the vernacular so well that they can mimic their children in their written work. But people who read essays from teenagers every day can tell the difference between the voice of a forty-something (or older) and the voice of a teenager.

So my advice, as always, is to keep a proper distance from your kids' writing. It's OK for you to help them generate and evaluate good essay ideas and topics, teach them how to improve their grammar and their spelling and their punctuation, encourage them to edit and edit and edit again, teach them how to proofread, and help them as they make editorial decisions about what to cut and what to keep.

Ghostwriting, though, is not OK, and parent-written essays uniformly end up being worse than the real thing. They are too safe, they are too boring, they sound phony, and they don't capture, in any way, the quirky and very fleeting way that teenagers observe their world or describe it. That quirkiness should be embraced, not stamped out.

And that's true for admissions consultants as well: your/our job is to draw out the best material and writing from applicants, in their own words and in their own voices. More than that crosses a line.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).