Best Piece of Essay Advice

Writing your essays like you need to do
Is hard and it’s tricky, confusing, it’s true.
So it sounds pretty nice
To seek out advice
But how do you know what is helpful? And who?

And so I introduce to you: Reader One and Reader Two

My meager attempts at iambic pentameter aside, I want to talk about what I believe to be the most important piece of college essay writing advice:

Choose. Your. Editors. Wisely.

Many college applicants will be writing upwards of 15 or 20 college essays, once you include all of the specific supplemental essays requested by individual colleges. It’s a daunting process and a ton of work. So naturally we often ask other people for help — older students, relatives, parents, teachers, and so on. Maybe your conversation goes something like this:

Student: “Hey, Trusted Teacher, Parent, or Uncle, would you mind taking a look at my college essay to see what you think?”

Trusted Teacher/Parent/Uncle, honored: “Sure, student. I would be happy to.”

And then, human nature kicks in. Humans want to be useful and valuable. This mentor you’ve asked wants to offer you some good advice.They want to help your work be better.

So they give you a suggestion. And because this process is hard and you are nervous and want to do well, perhaps you ask another Trusted Teacher/Parent/Uncle.

And they give you a suggestion.

If you ask ten people for advice, you have ten suggestions. Even if they are ten good suggestions, now your essay has been seen through eleven different lenses: yours, plus ten others.

BUT: the most important part of the college essay is authenticity. One lens. One Voice. Yours.

BUT ALSO: college essays are hard to write. They are truly unlike most other writing you’ve done in the past.

So. Choose your editors wisely. You likely do want some other eyes on your work, just not all the eyes you know.

What I have seen prove most successful for students is roughly this:

Editor One: Someone who knows YOU very well — say, a parent, a sibling, or a mentor.

Editor Two: Someone who knows COLLEGE ESSAYS very well.

Editor Two is helpful because college essay writing is its own genre. In most parts of education, we often imply that the way you define yourself, explain yourself, gauge your success, and determine your role, is through the things you do. Maybe you are the president of a club. Maybe you’re a straight A student. Maybe you love basketball, or knitting, or running, or coding. Identity often becomes wrapped up in a lot of stuff. For a college to really understand you, to see who you authentically are, you need to be able to articulate the stuff, but then also articulate the role that stuff has played in your growth, your life, your happiness, and your frustrations.

If an admissions officer is reading applications from 10,000 high schools, then every one of those schools has a club president. But each of them is a different student leader, with different challenges and successes, different goals and experiences. It’s the nuances and the differences that colleges are trying to learn. They want to know not that you are club president but why and how you are club president. For some students, these nuances get easier to see after you have written several essays. But for most, especially at the start, it’s very hard to focus on your reflection, your self-analysis, your understanding of where this essay topic fits in to the bigger picture of who you are and who you will be in college.

That’s why Editor Two is important. Editor Two hasn’t known you for years, hasn’t seen you grow and change. They can look at your essay with the clear eyes that a college admissions officer will bring to it. And they can tell you what they see. They can let you know if the message you sent was the one that you intended to send.

I worked with a student recently who started out her essay process focusing on a very moving study abroad trip she had experienced. She and her parents agreed it was a great start to an essay. She worked on the essay for weeks, struggling a bit to determine what reflection she could share that offered insight beyond, “It was a great trip.” But as we discussed it and the story continued to unfold, we realized that this was not a story about the trip or even a story about traveling and learning a new culture. It was more centrally a story about her commitment to good communication and building relationships. The fact of her trip was interesting, but it wasn’t the topic of the essay. She is the topic of the essay.

And Editor One? Editor One is the way to make sure that you stay you. Editor One knows your voice, knows what makes you laugh, knows how you act when you’re stressed out and hangry. Editor One is the way you can know you are truly introducing yourself to the unknown reader at the other end of the admissions process.

Another student comes to mind when I think about the importance of Editor One. This student has the good luck to be a relative of mine, which I am sure was not annoying at all when she recently went through the college admissions process.

At one point, she sent me two essay drafts, supplements for one of her top choice colleges, a highly selective school. I knew these essays were important to her, and I also knew she was very tired of writing college essays. One of the essays was great. The other one? Wasn’t. It was a fine piece of writing, a fine essay on its own. But it just didn’t sound like her.

That’s why you need Editor One. So even when it seems hard, she’ll call and tell you that you have to start from scratch on that second, vaguely fine essay.

Because ultimately, nobody wants to send in a fine essay. Each of you wants each essay to be great.

 You want to find and keep your voice. It’s your story to tell.