My son is filling out his college applications and has several essays to write. He isn't the greatest writer, and I've been doing some fairly heavy editing (OK, rewriting) on his work. I'm feeling a little guilty, but it's a very competitive year for kids. I even know parents who shell out a lot of money for experts to work with teenagers on their essays. If everyone else gets help and my son gets no help, I'm afraid he won't get accepted anywhere.
Your question is an important one, and I find that I can't come up with a definitive response. On the one hand, what you are doing is a type of cheating. And what if a lot of kids at your son's school were cheating on tests, and your son, by refusing to do so, was jeopardizing his prospects for getting into a good college? Would you then advocate that he cheat? I would guess not.
Some years ago, my friend Dennis Prager, the Los Angeles-based talk show host, showed a film in which a mother defends her son's cheating with arguments remarkably similar to yours: "It's very competitive out there, if he doesn't cheat, he won't get in to good schools; everybody else does it." The film then cuts to a scene of this same woman being wheeled into surgery. A frightened look on her face, she asks the doctor, "You`re very confident about the procedure you're performing, aren't you?" And the doctor responds, "I don't know, lady. I cheated my way through medical school."
I spoke about the dilemma raised in your letter with an independent college counselor, a woman who helps high school students with their applications to Ivy League and other high-ranking colleges. She acknowledged difficulty in formulating a hard-and-fast rule as to what parents should and shouldn't do, other than to affirm the importance of "drawing a line between helping your child and substituting your abilities for his." Doing so is unfair both to the college that is assessing your child's application and to your child himself. By presenting him as a far better writer than he is, you expose him to the risk of subsequently being exposed as a phony.
What you might do, therefore, is to sit down with your child and awaken his interest in the subject of the essay; have him write down his (not your) ideas, and then restrict yourself to minor grammatical and stylistic improvements.
Finally, to even the playing field for a child with few resources (and assuage your guilt), you could volunteer to help a student who has no access to the kind of help you're giving your son.