College essays: think, but don’t overthink

As usual, the advice doled out on University of Virginia’s admissions blog is both timely and spot-on, this time in their entry with three pieces of advice for college essays. The tips are intended for applicants who will be responding to UVA’s prompts, but two of the three can apply to any college essay you’re writing.

I actually think the other tip, “Don’t overthink the topic,” is applicable for every college essay, too, just not for the reason UVA’s blogger cites for their applicants (which is that the UVA prompts are deliberately broad to allow applicants to take their responses in a variety of directions).

College essay prompts are meant to be carefully considered, then honestly and thoughtfully responded to. But they are not meant to be agonized over in search of an illusive right answer.

A prompt might ask you, “Tell us about a time you failed or made a mistake, and what you learned from it.” Your honest answer might be that after oversleeping twice in the first 10 days of your new summer job, you started setting two alarms and getting up an hour earlier than you needed to, and you were never late again. That’s a real answer from a real kid that would probably go over very well with an admissions officer.

But if you spend all kinds of time questioning whether or not this answer is strong enough, if you second guess whether or not this is what the admissions office wants to hear, if you choose a different answer that injects a lot of life lessons into a different experience that actually didn’t contain those lessons but that you think makes for a better essay pitch, you’re officially overthinking the prompt.

You spend a lot of time in high school looking for the right answers. Your exams have right answers. The essays you write in your English class may take different views from different students, but you’re either substantiating your view with supporting evidence from the book (a right answer), or you’re not (a wrong, or at least unsupported answer). I understand why students carry that tendency with them into college essays. It’s hard to turn it off when you’ve spent this many years being rewarded for right answers and penalized for wrong ones.

But a college essay is different. It’s about you. You are the right answer. Anything that doesn’t accurately represent or sound like you, anything you didn’t actually think or feel or learn, anything that’s presented to be something that it actually isn’t or wasn’t–that’s a wrong answer. And the surest way to start down the path towards a wrong answer is to overthink the prompt.

Think about the prompts, yes. But if you start spending more time wondering what the admissions office wants to hear than you do considering what you have to say in response, you’ve moved from thinking to overthinking.