Writing From the Heart

Illustration of typewriter with folded pieces of papers flying away

Illustration by Alex Nabuam

Interview by Julia Munemo
“Parenting is just a slow process in preparing your child to leave you,” says Jill Margaret Shulman ’87, author of the recently published College Admissions Cracked, a month-by-month guide aimed at helping parents through what she promises doesn’t have to be the worst moment in a family’s history.

By one metric, Shulman’s career as a teacher, admission counselor and college-essay writing coach should have provided all the tools necessary when it came time for her own family to go through the process. “But when my kids went through it—even though I understood all the nuts and bolts—I needed emotional support and permission to grieve,” she says.

So, Shulman, who has also worked as a freelance writer, decided to write a book giving parents both the nuts-and-bolts expertise as well as a good dose of emotional support. She shared both with Williams Magazine in the fall.

On taking risks
My first job out of Williams was as a paralegal, which taught me that it’s important to jump in and try something, and be open to it not being a perfect fit. Some would perceive this “false start” as “failure,” but I see it as an important step that led me to graduate school in creative writing. After living and teaching in New York
for a while, I moved to rural Iowa and ran a program for students at risk of dropping out or failing out of school. That’s where I learned to really listen in a deeper way to students’ fears, and I came to understand that those fears led to paralysis, which the students perceived as failure. Fear and lack of confidence block students, and once they have a safe space to express themselves, that fear fades away and ceases to impede their success. That was a hugely helpful lesson as I transitioned into working in college admission and as an essay-writing coach. Everyone has a great story to tell, and I love giving students the safe space in which to find theirs.

If you love soccer … don’t hide it. If you’re genuine and writing from your heart, the admission evaluator will be listening with theirs.

…Knowing your limits
It hit me in a different way when my daughter started the college search process. Here I am, an expert with the ability to help her, but I quickly realized that it’s hard to discern whether to step in or step back. She wanted my help with her college essay, but we soon realized I wasn’t the best person to help her. I was having an emotional reaction about letting my baby go off to college without me. At college visits, I watched her envision herself in these places and realized I was no part of this vision of her future. I had other awakenings, too, about things
I’d done for my kids all along because it was habit or easier than coaxing a teenager to do it or because nobody had time for the lesson of how, for instance, to make a doctor’s appointment. Now was the time for me to complete the training, while my children were still at home. Then letting them go was brutal! My son just had his first birthday at college only two weeks into the semester, and I didn’t know if he’d tell anyone. I sent him cupcakes, and then I let it go. It’s painful. This is a transition for parents, too.

…And opening your heart and mind
In all of my work—with students and parents, and certainly in writing my book—I flip common narratives on their heads. Students tell me, for instance, that they can’t write about playing soccer because they heard sports are off-limits in college essays. I tell them: If you love soccer and have lived and breathed it all these years, don’t hide it. It’s never the topic that will make your essay flat and generic or sparkly—it’s always the approach. If you’re genuine and writing from your heart, the admission evaluator will be listening with theirs. With parents—even the ones accused of helicoptering—it all comes from a place of love. They think they know what’s best and how to set their child up for success in life. But the overprotective parent who wraps their child in bubble wrap will literally suffocate him. This is about fear—fear of letting our children go and fear that they won’t be happy where they end up if the parent doesn’t step in to protect them. When parents can switch that around, take deep breaths and listen to their child’s view of success—which they will never know unless they ask them—all kinds of opportunities open up. That can set a child on their own path to a version of success the parent may not have envisioned. I always tell people: You can rewrite your version of success as you go along.