We get questions on this topic all the time. How do I write a perfect essay? How do I create a perfect application? How do I become the perfect college applicant?
Well, here’s the secret: there’s no such thing as a perfect essay, a perfect application, or a perfect applicant. Yep, that was a total clickbait headline—I make no apology for it—but I hope you’ll stick with this post anyway.
Each year, I work with at least one student who is so focused on submitting perfect college applications that they freeze. I usually see it show up in one of two ways:
- They brainstorm essay ideas and get excited about the topics they pick, then the words get stuck in their heads, and they can’t get them into a working draft.
- They get a working draft done, then second-guess every single word and phrase they’ve written and end up in a doom-spiral of rewriting and editing.
They cannot fathom submitting an application that isn’t perfect, and they worry that their essay idea, draft, or application isn’t “good enough,” and they stall out.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something well, to the best of our abilities, but at some point, the dark side of perfectionism creeps in. Throw the terms “perfectionism” and “anxiety” and “procrastination” into your favorite search engine, and you’ll get hundreds of hits discussing these issues, from Psychology Today to scholarly articles to therapists all over the world who blog on issues they see in their practices. And the college journey is just one place where the drive for perfection can cause more problems than it solves, and fear takes over.
I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but as a longtime college counselor (and recovering perfectionist myself) I wanted to share a few thoughts. First, nobody is perfect. That includes your best friends, your teachers, your parents, and the admission officers who will be reading your application. And colleges are not expecting you to be perfect! When I was at a college admission and counseling conference recently, the director of admission at a very well-known university even said that, these days, he finds applications that are somewhat raw to be more compelling than super-polished applications, and that a few typos are totally natural in an application.
Places like MIT, Caltech, and the University of California system ask questions on their applications about times you were challenged, or struggled, or outright failed. These are not trick questions from the colleges. They are literally asking you to talk about times that you’ve been imperfect and about what you’ve learned from those experiences! In a subtle way, they’re reminding you that they know that nobody is perfect, and that it’s not just okay but it is EXPECTED for you to be imperfect, to make mistakes, and to struggle sometimes. College is hard, and you will be challenged and make mistakes. But if you don’t know how to work through a challenge, ask for help, or recover after making a mistake, it can be downright disastrous for you. Colleges need to know that you won’t freeze up the first time you get a bad grade on an exam—and trust me, that will happen to everyone at some point!
One of my favorite essays ever from one of my Collegewise students started with the line, “I screw up all the time.” She had perfect grades and perfect test scores, but she wasn’t afraid to try new things and make mistakes and learn in the process, and that’s what she wrote about in her personal statement. She was nervous about starting her essay with that line, but I reminded her that she said that exact sentence to me while brainstorming her essays and that it was authentic to her experiences, and I reassured her that her willingness to be open about being imperfect would be a compelling trait. And it was—she was ultimately admitted to all her top choice colleges. Did that essay “get her in?” Probably not—there’s rarely any one single deciding factor, particularly once committees get involved. But being open and direct about being imperfect and making mistakes and learning from them clearly didn’t hurt her in her journey to college.
I’ll risk being cliché here for a moment and mention that there’s a famous quote about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But in the case of college applications, let me adapt that sentiment: remember the law of diminishing returns, and don’t let the idea of the perfect be the enemy of the good enough. If you don’t finish your applications, you won’t have anything to submit to colleges; and if you don’t submit your applications, you definitely won’t get into college. So, work hard on your applications, but pick a point where you can say, “Good. Enough.” Then submit them, and move on with your year.
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.