How to be a Mentor to Your Star Child & a Harvard Success Story

Harvard Graduation Picture

We talk with hundreds of great parents of superstar students every year. One key discussion we have with all parents is the need for them to be a mentor to their son/daughter – especially during the college application process (but throughout high school) and especially to high-achieving students. That’s right, stop being a parent and don’t try to be a friend. Be a Mentor.

The key characteristic of a mentor is that he provides for and encouragesautonomy. A mentor encourages his mentee to think for himself, to make his own decisions and to take responsibility as well as the credit for his efforts. This freedom is what distinguishes a mentor from the teacher. Of course, at the same time, he provides necessary guidance and knowledge, which is what distinguishes the mentor from the friend. With autonomy comes motivation. With motivation comes skill acquisition. With that comes confidence, which creates more motivation. Eventually that motivation can become a life-long passion.

For example, when IvyZen mentors work with students on their college essays he does not impose his thoughts or beliefs on the student. His job is to guide, respond and nurture. He takes a back step and works in the background. High-achieving students have strong ideas about who they are. So teaching essays writing, teaching what to write on the apps doesn’t work.

A Mentor can tell the student gently that his main essay idea was used by many students last year, e.g. “I want to be a cultural bridge,” and that perhaps a different idea would be better. He can brainstorm with the student and find better, more unique ideas to write about.

We do push students authoritatively when it comes to the deadlines. We strongly recommend students to send in their applications two weeks before the official deadlines because there is a great deal of paperwork (recommendations, school report, transcripts) to complete which only becomes apparent after the application is sent. Here are some general tips on how to be a great mentor.

  • Don’t teach, yell or dictate. Rather, take a step back into the background. The student is in the spotlight so help them be the best version of themselves.
  • All decisions must be made together. Discuss, guide, explain and coach to help reach the best decisions. Students must feel ownership and responsibility to be motivated and confident.
  • Recognize their individuality. Many parents find role models for their students from extended family, next door neighbors or a coworker who knew someone whose kid got into Harvard. At IvyZen we create themes because they accept and validate the uniqueness of students. Also, fortunately, it turns out that the top schools are looking for those unique qualities.


Case Study

Phil was a super star at a school known for nurturing super stars. He had already started his application with another consulting company but things were not going well. During his junior year, the consultant had coached him to build a well-balanced profile, doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Trying to work on his essays all summer, Phil was getting frustrated because he couldn’t decide which activities he should focus on now. He had 3-4 strong activities (MUN, Red Cross, First Chair violin, Captain of the soccer team) and couldn’t decide which one to write about in the extracurricular essay. He also had a difficult time finding some pattern or unifying concept to write his main idea about. Further, he wasn’t sure what his major would be so he couldn’t write most of the other supplement essays. He came to us with a two-page resume and didn’t know how to whittle it down to the 10 activity spots in the common app.

We gave Phil some initial advice on creating a theme, but his frustrations remained and admitted that he didn’t want to work with his current consultant anymore. His mother was exasperated at both Phil and the consultant for not making any progress. After some more 1on1 discussions with Phil, it came to light that Phil was frustrated because he wanted to revise his essays over and over, but the consultant had limits to how often he would do that. Further compounding the problem was that Phil was not confident about the base material to begin with and felt that there could be other, better things to write about but wasn’t sure. When asked about his brainstorming process, he confessed that they had some initial discussions, picked one idea and went with that without ever exploring any other ideas.

We told Phil it would be best to start fresh and brainstorm more ideas, then write at least 3 different main essays just to see what would be best. He winced at the extra work, but realized that would lead to the best outcome and also restore his confidence. We also delved into the editing process and he became despondent. He realized that he was being indecisive but the constant criticism and non-communication from the consultant was further damaging his confidence. We asked him if he was a perfectionist to which he admitted he was. We reassured him that most top students are like that and offered ways to overcome this. Phil felt better just identifying the problem and that someone understood his issues.

He decided to work with a Mentor at IvyZen and, though we usually don’t take students this late in the game, we felt he really needed and could benefit from our help. Starting from scratch, we worked with Phil from August to 24 hours before the deadline. His Mentor went through draft after draft as we have no limits on the number of edits. Phil sent in his applications satisfied that he had done his absolute best and a few months later, his dreams were realized with an acceptance to Harvard’s class of 2017.