Is it OK to recycle a college essay?

A father at a seminar last week asked me,

“Is it OK for a student to re-use a college essay for multiple colleges?”

Great stories for college essays tend to be recyclable.  They have a lot of details and angles to them.  And if something really was important to you, you can apply that significance to a lot of college essay prompts.

But there’s a difference between reusing a story and reusing the exact same essay.

We once worked with a student who wrote an essay about how she had lost every election she’d ever run for in high school, but that each time she lost, she shrugged off the defeat and found another activity where she could be successful.  It was a funny, self-deprecating peek into her personality and it helped the admissions officers get to know her better.

That story had a lot of meaning to it, so much so that it was actually the basis of a great response to several college essay prompts like,

“Describe a time when you failed or made a mistake.  What did you learn from the experience?”

“What is a talent, skill, activity, accomplishment or personal quality that makes you proud?”

“How do you hope to contribute to our campus community?”

“Describe a time when you faced a challenge or adversity.”

Each time she reused the story, many of the details were the same, but she tailored the essay to answer the prompt.  Those tailored versions addressed what each prompt was asking for—what she learned, why it made her proud, how she knew she wouldn’t be afraid to fail in college, and how she faced the challenge of getting over the losses.  She wasn’t taking a shortcut; that experience really was the basis for her honest response to each prompt.  When her real answer to a prompt had nothing to do with losing elections, she wrote different essays.  But her “I am a good loser” essay worked for the essay prompts at over half her colleges.

There’s nothing wrong with recycling a story especially if it helps the admissions office get to know you and it does a great job answering the prompt.  But make sure you give each recycled version a little tailoring.  Don’t just resubmit the same essay.  Use the story as the basis and tailor the writing to each college’s prompt.