Why a Well-Written College Application Essay Isn't Enough

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A couple of days ago, after my student Lorena and I had spent hours brainstorming and editing her college application essays, I was pretty sure we were ready to finalize her longest Princeton supplemental essay.

"What do you think?" I asked her as I hit save. She'd written about how learning to trust herself had helped her overcome her slump in golf, and we'd just put the final touches on her last sentence.

Lorena's eyes were shining. "I love it," she grinned.

"It's beautiful," I agreed.

I thought we were ready to check that essay off the list of her supplemental essays, but then I began to think more about her essay. It had elaborated very well on the theme that resilience and belief in ourselves are critical to our success, but I knew that many other students were going to put together well-written essays on confidence and resilience.

I realized that though the essay was beautifully written, the more interesting angle, now somewhat buried in her current essay, was that embracing the unexpected was the key. That is what had allowed Lorena to learn a far more robust level of resilience.

It reminded me of my student Brian who came to me last year after he'd submitted a beautifully written but rather impersonal essay to Cornell for his early decision application. He was, of course, deferred.

But after I helped him write a much more personal and deeply self-reflective essay that he sent to Cornell in the form of a letter and to his regular decision schools, he was admitted to Cornell and to MIT.

And, of course, I wanted Lorena to maximize her chances of acceptance at Princeton by digging deeply to find the real heart of her message. So I went back and helped her adapt the essay to bring out the most interesting and authentic element of her story.

Let's take a look at the original ending of the essay:

The following week, when I stepped onto the field for my next game, all the fear of the ball was gone. My desire for success was no longer fueled by fear but by my passion for developing as a golfer and as a person. Now, to allow the rhythm of the game to unfold with ease, I make room for the haphazard and embrace the unanticipated. When a curveball is thrown, I no longer crumble under the sudden shift. Instead, calling on the resilience I strove to uncover in myself, I smile and accept the challenge, work hard to adjust myself, and drive the ball right back.

It's beautifully written, isn't it? The sentences flow well, and it offers a lyrical reflection on the student's experience.

But what do we learn from this conclusion? Mostly that the student works hard, with a little bit of a reference to embracing the unexpected. In other words, you probably feel like the writer wants you to understand that she has a strong work ethic.

Well, if you're applying to one of the top-tier schools, more than likely you've got a pretty strong set of grades and test scores. In other words, no one has any question about how hard you've worked. So, talking about your work ethic isn't really going to give you a leg up. It simply won't distinguish you from every other student with a strong work ethic.

But when you find the heart of your story, the kernel of your unique experience that represents your very best self, the story will leap off the page.

Of course, finding the kernel of your experience doesn't always happen in your first draft, as was Lorena's experience. So you'll need to keep refining until you feel like you've got the heart of it.

That's exactly what Lorena and I did. And here's what we came up with for her new ending:

Today, I am proud to say that I no longer crumble under the sudden shift of the unexpected. Instead, I approach each circumstance with poise, welcoming the opportunity to learn. This process has shown me how to befriend uncertainty and allow the shifting sands of its presence to make me stronger, both as a golfer and as an individual.

Can you see how much clearer the takeaway is? Now, instead of wondering whether we're supposed to appreciate Lorena's work ethic, we understand that her newfound ability to embrace the unexpected has made her a stronger golfer and a stronger person. And that's much more interesting.

Remember, if you really want to stand out, it's not the beauty of your language or the flow of your ideas that makes a difference. It's the depth of your ideas and the way your story helps your reader understand the unique qualities you bring to each campus.

So, when you're writing your college application essay, aim not just for the beauty and flow of the language. Aim to find the deeper message of your experience. I can guarantee that you'll significantly boost your chances of acceptance when you tell this kind of powerful story.