This piece, written by Brennan Barnard, appeared first in Forbes on August 1, 2018
The glow from the laptop reflects off his forehead as he stares at the screen, paralyzed by panicked perfectionism. The Common Application essay prompts are neatly copied onto the blank document, taunting him with possibility. His young mind races from topic to topic, each of which he dismisses immediately. The championship soccer game…cliché. His meaningful relationship with his deceased grandfather…overdone. The first time he received a grade below an “A” on an English paper...trite. Reading the college essay topics for what seems to be the hundredth time, he searches in vain for an event, challenge, accomplishment, obstacle, interest or talent about which to write. For a fleeting moment, he laments the absence of a personal tragedy to exploit while he sits with the cursor flashing—a pulsating symbol of perplexity.
August has arrived, and along with blistering heat and stifling humidity, teenagers across the land face one more kind of late-summer torture—the college admission essay. Especially tormented are the perfectionists, you dutiful students who view the college essay as just one more roadblock to be overcome with sheer will. Beware, you can write and rewrite your college essay to death with multiple editors providing feedback as you try to get it just right, but as musician Mike Morris says, “too good is no good.” Seasoned admission deans can quickly detect the unauthentic essay that has been scrubbed over, soon devoid of any personal voice.
Young novelists, journalists, and published poets are all on similar footing with the typical English student when approaching the admission essay—it is not just about how you write but also how vulnerable you are willing to be. It is a test to see if you can get out of your head and open your heart. It is an exercise in exploring self—what makes you who you are, not who everyone thinks you should be. Who are you outside the constraints that are placed upon you by school, parents, friends, and society? How do you demonstrate character in your own unique ways?
Simple, right? Not quite—writing about one’s self is perhaps one of the greatest challenges in college admission, especially for the overachieving perfectionist. The following are tips for these applicants in developing an authentic, impactful college essay:
Ignore the Prompts: Don’t read the essay questions, read yourself. Most conformists will stifle their unique voice by attempting to respond to the specific prompts that the Common Application provides. What results is often a generic statement that lacks energy or personality. Write the story that you want to express and then choose the prompt with which it best aligns. If all else fails you can default to the last prompt, which is essentially topic of your choice.
Don’t Repeat the Question: Which of these sentences makes you eager to read more?
- “There are a lot of events and realizations that have sparked personal growth for me….”
- “The smell of sweat filled the tiny room as I tried in vain to struggle free….”
You want to grab the reader from the start. Do not write your way into the essay by simply restating the initial prompt or question. Instead, put the reader in the moment by painting a picture and then elaborate on why it is important.
Jedi Mind Tricks: The college essay is not a test to see if you can read minds or anticipate what the admission office wants to hear. Plain and simple, they want to know about you, how well you write and how self-aware you are. Write the essay for you, not them.
It’s Not Us it’s You: Regardless of the topic about which you choose to write, be sure the essay reveals more about you than the other characters or places in the story. Erik DeAngelis, associate director of admission at Brown University advises, "don't fall into the trap of telling us why you're a great fit for our school by telling us all about our school. We know our school! Tell us how you'd take advantage of the resources and experiences available at our school. Don't spend precious word space impressing us with your knowledge of the school, rather present your argument for how you envision yourself participating in academic and social life at the school."
Happily Never After: The moral to the college essay is that there need not be a moral. You are writing a personal narrative, not a parable, so don’t feel compelled to conclude with a lesson learned or a happy ending. You are sharing your story, not a fairy tale.
Always Ask Why: When you have finished a draft of your essay, read it over and ask yourself why you wrote it. If you cannot answer this question, you might not be going deep enough or painting a vivid picture of who you are and what is important to you.
Degrees of Separation: Did your essay hit its mark? Have you effectively communicated who you are and what you value? The best way to tell is to have your parents or a friend give a draft of your essay to a colleague or individual who has never met you. Ask them to read the essay and then respond with three adjectives that describe you and a sentence that captures what they learned. Does it reflect the message you hoped to convey? If not, it is back to the drawing board.
“Am I done?” This is the perfectionist’s calling card in seeking validation that the essay is good enough. Students often ask if they should work on another draft or if their essay is sufficiently polished. Not one to cede to this obsession with purism, my response is always, “you are never done.” It’s the truth, however, as we continue every day to write our story and find our voice. In closing, Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at The University of Denver provides perspective, summarizing the intent of the college essay:
Students should know that while essays are important, they are rarely the reason a student gets admitted or denied. Students shouldn't feel the pressure of having to write a Pulitzer-winning essay to gain admission to their college of choice. With that said, they also need to know that an award-winning piece won't supersede poor academic performance. Most admission committees are looking for capable and competitive students academically—once academic ability is vetted, an essay plays an important role in helping committees build their class with interesting classmates and roommates. Committees aren't looking for the perfect essay, topic, or set of activities and achievements—we simply want an interesting, authentic, and well-written glimpse into a student's life.
Perfection—in college admission and in life—is often overvalued. Perfect should not be the goal in your essay. What will distinguish your writing and your application is your unique voice. Be willing to take risks, be vulnerable and share your truth. The readers will appreciate the opportunity to learn more about you, and you will get to know yourself better as well.