Too Many Chefs: A Simple Kitchen Tip for the College Essay

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“I’ll have my mom, my dad, my guidance counselor, my English teacher, my tutor, my sister at Princeton, and my uncle who is a chemistry professor look at my essay.”

I heard this from a former student a couple years back as we worked on her college application. The upside of all this? She had an amazing support network rooting for her and providing concrete support. In many ways, it does truly take a village to get into college.

But that’s a lot of help—and a whole lot of opinions. By the end of that essay, not only did she want to avoid English class for the rest of her senior year (lest she have to write another essay, which seems to happen in English classes), she felt responsible for pitting her friends and family members against each other.

Without a doubt, your parents, your teachers, and even that chemistry prof uncle can provide great writing guidance. However, getting too much feedback can confuse or even overwhelm you. What happens when two individuals give you suggestions that both make sense to you—but those ideas are a bit different or even directly contradict each other? Which is better? And would you rather disregard advice from your parents or from your teachers—as they’re writing your rec letters?

It’s not worth the stress to try to answer these questions. Plus, for all the other ways that having a big, enthusiastic team behind you is awesome, here’s a moment where we want to make things simpler. Why?

First, we want to spotlight your voice. After all, you’re the one colleges will be admitting, not the entire team. If your Dad the lawyer rewrote your essay, guess what: college admissions officers see that again and again, and they’ll recognize right away that this essay doesn’t sound anymore like it was written by a high school senior.

Likewise, if there’s a whole bunch of authors for one essay, at some point, you lose any single clear voice. Anything written by committee will sound like it was written by a committee. Or, put another way, think of how often a movie flops because it changed directors midway through filming. Different directors might each make a great film, but trying to rework the same material, you’re more likely to lose the clarity and strength of the narrative. Put another way, too many chefs spoil the essay…. err, the broth.

So great, we want to spotlight your voice. This is always good advice – you’re going to be doing a lot more writing in college, and being mindful of your own narrative voice is as good advice for your future classes as it is for the Common App essay of the here and now. But what to do?

Here’s my advice: limit yourself to two college essay captains, one who knows you and one who doesn’t. Having one person who knows you read it is helpful to make sure they can hear your clear voice in the essay. The other reader who doesn’t know you, or at least doesn’t know you well, can read it more objectively—they won’t be superimposing their vision of you on the essay draft. A parent has known you for seventeen years, and that’s great for checking that the essay in fact sounds like you—but those college admissions officers will only know you for the few minutes it takes to read your application, and that application is all they’ll have to evaluate you. So having an external reader who will have to rely on your writing to understand you and your message will be great preparation for how the actual selection process works.

At PrepMatters, our Essay Specialists are here to bring your voice into your essays and to make sure your essays stand out to college admissions officers – wherever you are, we’re here to help!

Ian Lekus

Tutor/Essay Specialist & Director of Communications

Ian’s life book is filled with multiple chapters. The academic ones include studying at Cornell and Duke and teaching at Harvard, Tufts, University of Georgia, University of Maryland, and North Carolina State University in visiting professor roles. His academic interests are equally varied. Both his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees are in history but he has also pursued interests in political...

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