Your Essay Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

In my first year as a college advisor at a small high school, I remember that all of my seniors eagerly shared their essays with any adult who was willing to help, to benefit from as much feedback as possible.

All students that is, except for one. She was one of my strongest students, and she never shared her essays with anyone. While I knew her to be a good writer, I feared that without the eyes of at least one adult, her essay would have weaknesses, and her acceptances would suffer.

When acceptances rolled in, guess which student had the most impressive list of schools to choose from?

That’s right – the student whose essay was 100% her own.   To be fair, she was a highly desirable applicant to begin with, but I still can’t help but think that her “pristine” authentic essay, unmarred by the meddling of adults, might have been a factor in the outcome.

While many high school seniors fret over writing the PERFECT college application essay, the reality is that most admissions officers are not looking for “perfection.” That is, they don’t need to see an essay that is stunningly brilliant, unforgettably profound and full of sophisticated words. Nor do they need to see grammatical perfection worthy of the New York Times.

What admissions officers do like to see is an essay that reflects the student’s authentic self. In fact, the primary purpose of the application essay is to give colleges a sense of the student beyond their grades and scores. So the truly memorable essays are those that come from the student’s heart and make them come alive, not those that have been edited a hundred times by other people.

In fact, most admissions officers can spot an “over-edited” essay a mile away. With so much pressure surrounding college applications, well-meaning parents and teachers do whatever they can to strengthen a student’s essay. The problem is that adults often make so many changes that the final product is no longer reflective of the actual student.

I’m not saying a student shouldn’t share his or her essay with anyone. On the contrary, it’s extremely important to get lots of feedback. But I do think that students should be careful about editing that drowns out their authentic voice and transforms the essay into something that isn’t truly theirs.

So rather than stressing about perfection, I encourage students to learn what makes a strong college essay, pick a topic that inspires them, then write from the heart to let their true voice shine through. Get feedback from someone who is knowledgeable about college essays, and definitely proofread very carefully, but make sure that your final essay is something you can truly call your own.

The admissions officers will appreciate it, I promise.

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