Letting go of that imperfect essay

I just finished working with a smart high school senior who has dreams of attending a Big 10 university next fall. In her Common App essay, she wanted to show admissions readers just how creative she is.

She succeeded, anchoring her story around a photo montage she crafted from her travels and hung on her bedroom wall. Looking at the photo display also helps keep her calm when she feels stressed from all the pressures from the outside world.

The story did everything colleges want in a Common App essay. It answered the prompt and showed in a genuine way that she is creative and knows how to relax. It was not the most complex essay I’ve read this year. For some reason, that started to bother me. Should we keep going? Could we improve it?

Even I knew the essay was finished, and even though she loved it, I started to doubt the work we had already done together. I wondered if I pushed her a little more, asked a few more questions, would she reflect more?

No. No. No.

That happens to me sometimes.  I have to remind myself to let go.

Do you ever catch yourself saying these things after reading what should be a final draft of a student’s essay?

  • He could have …
  • She should have …
  • I saw such potential …

Here are 3 things I do when I go to that place:

  1. Stop and Ask Myself: Whose essay is this, anyway?
  2. Reflect: Take my ego out of the equation and remember that the final essay reflects on the work we did together; it does not reflect on me.
  3. Remind myself: The student made choices along the way – about topic, about theme, about sentences and paragraphs. I might not agree with all of those choices, but I don’t need to.

It’s November, and the first deadlines have passed. It’s also crunch time, when counselors and other well-meaning adults tend to step in and help too much, which can result in over-edited student work. When that happens, the student’s voice gets lost, and the essays don’t sound genuine.

Breathe. Slow down before you get out that red pen. And please, remember to let go of that imperfect essay.

Our Gift to You: A Free Book for You and Every Parent in Your School

We’d like to give you a free electronic copy of our book: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents.  After you click on the link, you’ll find out how to get free books for every parent in your school, too. We also have companion books for professionals and for students.

How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are. Feel free to email me kim@wowwritingworkshop.com.

About the Author

Kim Lifton, a 2018 Top Voice in Education, LinkedIn, is President of Wow. We are a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. We can even help you write a great poem or short story. If it involves words, we can help!