College applications can be too good

We don’t necessarily want our Collegewise kids to submit perfect applications.

Sure, if your application is sloppy, that’s not good.  If you fail to follow directions, that’s not good.  And if you mistakenly write, “I first became interested in Duke when I was back in the womb”…in an essay for your Georgetown application, that’s really not good.

But the problem with a perfect application is that it’s much more than just error-free.  A perfect application has an essay that reads like Hemingway wrote it (even if the student has never been recognized for his writing).  The list of activities is infused with puffery like, “Responsible for compiling, interpreting and distributing game-related data,” instead of just saying, “Varsity basketball statistician.”  A perfect application reads like a polished sales pitch.  It doesn’t feel real.  And that almost always means one thing–this kid didn’t do it all himself.

A college application, from the list of activities to the essays, should always sound like the 17 year-old who wrote it.  That’s why we don’t fill out applications for our kids, why we won’t tell them what to write in their essays or what to say in their interviews.  Sure, we guide them.  We give them good advice.  But we won’t do it for them.  We don’t swoop in at the end and polish their application by fixing every minute detail.  That just removes the kid’s voice from the work.  Making it too perfect kills the authenticity.

I learned a new tidbit in this article about kids getting too much help–“DDI” is admissions lingo for “Daddy did it.”

Here are a couple insights from the article


“We definitely encounter essays that seem too good to be true,” said Eric J. Kaplan, interim dean of admissions of the University of Pennsylvania. “Highly sophisticated cadence and tone, perfectly polished prose, revelations that are almost profound, even for the most brilliant 17-year-old.”


…When an essay raises eyebrows, the first step is to judge it against the rest of the application, administrators say. A shimmering essay from a so-so English student, for example, clashes like “red stilettos and sweats,” said Sarah M. McGinty, a Boston admissions consultant and author of “The College Application Essay.”

…”There’s a little bit of a disconnect sometimes,” said Gil J. Villanueva, dean of admissions at Brandeis University. “We expect people to write like 17- and 18-year-olds, and sometimes it comes across like it could be in a book.”

…Heavily edited essays often come across as scripted, sanitized. Essays with some rough edges are not only authentic, they are better reads.

…”Almost the worst thing is for students to write to what they think we are looking for,” said Stu Schmill, interim admissions director at MIT. “The best thing they can do is write from the heart.”

You’re not perfect (nobody is).  So don’t aim for perfection in your college applications.  Follow the directions and treat the applications with the care they deserve, but be yourself.   Write what you want to write and make sure the application sounds like you.  Real is better than perfect.