Telling your story vs. searching for it

The University of Virginia comes through yet again with great advice on their blog, this time with tips for writing the UVA essays. I’m sharing it here because, as is often the case with their shared wisdom, applicants to many if not most colleges could benefit from their tips. Especially the first, “Don’t overthink the topic.” My only addition would be that it’s just as important not to under-think the topic.

Here’s the difference.

Overthinking a college essay topic means that an applicant spends an inordinate amount of time agonizing, seeking advice, or flat out researching in search of a perfect response. This is a misguided approach because it presumes the college is testing applicants to see who can come up with the supposed right answer to the essay prompt. But as I—and UVA—have written before, there’s rarely a specific essay-related answer to the question, “What is the college looking for?” Whatever your honest answer is, one that helps the college get to know you in a way they couldn’t from your application alone is the best approach. And that’s why, done right, a hundred applicants could feasibly write a hundred strong but completely different responses to the same essay prompt. Think more about what you want to say than you do about what the college supposedly wants to hear.

But it’s also possible to under-think the topic.

If you casually reuse an essay from another application, or simply force feed a story you really want to tell but that comes nowhere close to answering the question, you’re not showing the thought necessary to accomplish your essay objectives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with recycling an essay you wrote for another application. Strong stories do have a way of offering you applicability to many other responses, and our Collegewise students frequently reuse essays (often with some minor changes) when the answers overlap with other prompts. But recycling an essay that ignores the new prompt just creates waste—a wasted opportunity for you, and wasted attention from a reader who really was interested in reading what you had to say in response to the prompt they and their colleagues had chosen.

So yes, read the prompts carefully. Thoughtfully consider your potential responses, not with the goal to impress, but rather to engage, your reader. But then shift your priorities to telling—rather than searching for—the right story for you.