The college application part most linked to painful hours of work is without a doubt the essay writing. No other section of the application is so shrouded in mystery, so subject to the fickle nature of a writing muse, and so judgmental. This process is one of twenty-drafts-and-still-not-satisfied and getting-every-english-teacher-and-peer-to-read. Worth it?

You would probably be better off improving your moral and ethical character through starting a charity during the same time you would be slaving away at an essay meant to showcase your moral and ethical character.

When admissions officers receive applications to look over, they do not get a neat spreadsheet with how many drafts it took to get to the final copy, nor do they get a list of all of the people who had to read the essay and throw revision on top of revision for each new topic you tackle. The only possible benefit of getting people to revise college essays is, mind blowingly, to improve the essay. And that begs to question if it truly does improve the essay.

The college essay could not be further from an English essay never mind an SAT essay. Sure, a personal college essay could technically have an argument and supporting “evidence”, but that is not a requirement. The argument goes only as far as how much you want to “argue” your own personality and character. But the personal essay is meant to show what kind of person the writer is, not necessarily how irrefutably intelligent or resilient the writer is. The college essay is a storytelling medium. Imagine you were writing an autobiography, a task that most humans would relish in if only to be able to bathe in the most favored topic of discussion—themselves.

When it’s a personal story, the only thing a reader can give is an opinion about the presentation and snarky remarks about grammar mistakes (the grammar nazis are admittedly very helpful when it comes to college essays though, so do reach out to them). This is not, of course, an excuse to ignore any feedback from peers. In fact, if you know you are not the best writer in the world (which is the majority of people), it’s best you take some advice into consideration.

The best example I can give is when an essay about a student’s achievements becomes arrogant and saturated with a superiority-complex. Depending on how it is presented, an essay about a student who only got second place in a piano competition and then was resolved to get first place next time around may not sound like a resilient, hard working student but rather a self-entitled, bitter student. Readers and outsiders in general are the quickest to recognize when others are being a bit too presumptuous.

On the other side of the spectrum (the one I am personally on), there are students who do not let anyone read their essays. After all, the essays are an insightful and deep look into a student’s life. The type of information that comprise these essays are often the type that is easiest read by strangers who will never live in such a close proximity and familiarity with the said college applicant. It is easier to tell strangers secrets. Strangers only have those few minutes meeting you to judge. Peers and teachers on the other hand are daily encounters.

At the end, only you know your personal story best and it’s of my opinion that if you don’t know whose advice to take when coming up with a topic or draft, just stick to your gut. Admissions officers are not peers and teachers. They read through hundreds and thousands of essays, and what might seem like a good essay to a peer may just be another polished piece of student-achievement-in-500-words. And while I cannot guarantee an admissions officer will think an essay is amazing if you do write genuinely, at least it won’t be a burden on your own conscience when you look back; you will not need to wonder if an essay could have been written better. Because it is your life, and that would be like asking if your life could have been lived better (an irrelevant, and invalid question).

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the author

Lucy Zhang attends Duke University and is majoring in electrical and computer engineering. Her passions include watching anime, sleeping, and writing the occasional article or two when productivity levels are high enough.

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