YouTube is packed with students reading their admissions-winning essays. You could deep-dive for hours, if not days.
This summer, I tasked my research intern with scouring YouTube for quality college essay resources to link on the resource page I give to students in my workshops. We were looking for a “Best of” collection of solid writing tips, but what we discovered was a glut of admitted students reading their essays on camera.
Here’s my question: what benefit is watching hours of other people read their essays? Looking at a couple of essay models would be profitable, but watching a whole YouTube essay-reading playlist? Nope.
Here are five reasons why you need to make the journey through your college essays with minimal assistance from other student writers, even highly successful ones.
1. Your story is YOUR story.
You own it in every way, and no one can tell your story the way you can. What makes writing college essays challenging is that the process requires you to examine your experiences, character, values, feelings, needs, and aspirations and cultivate insights about who you are and how you hope to impact the planet.
Only you can identify the experiences that have formed your identity. Only you can determine what parts of your identity you want to share with others and how you want to share those stories. Only you know your most challenging circumstances and your most rewarding seasons. And, certainly, only you know how you felt, what values or needs propelled your response, and what you learned about yourself and life in this world.
While you can see the product of another student’s journey, watching hours upon hours of other students read their essays will not get you to your personal statement destination. You have to travel your own path.
2. Originality & authenticity are hard.
Don’t put other students’ stories in your head. One of the worst things you can do with your college essay is to write a fan fiction piece based on another student’s life.
I began teaching high school writing courses over 30 years ago. I’ve learned how to spot a student’s reading habits in their writing. Emerging writers tend to produce content consistent with whatever they’ve immersed themselves in as readers. It’s OK to write about the impact of Stephanie Meyer, John Green, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or Angie Thomas, but, goodness, high school creative writing students, stop riffing on these writers and create worlds of your own, based on your experiences. You love their stories. You love their universes. You love their words. It’s awesome to be a fan, but be aware when someone else’s art creeps into your brain and disguises itself as your own story.
The same applies to college essay-writing.
Show readers your story, not another writer’s narrative filtered through your head. The more you consume college essays written by other students, the harder it is to have fresh thoughts about your story.
Ultimately, mimicking ideas and structures from other writers (intentionally or unintentionally) lacks integrity and authenticity, and schools count those character traits as essential in the admissions process.
3. It’s not the whole picture.
The application packet gives admissions readers a picture of each candidate. Quantitative information (all the numbers like GPA and class rank and standardized test scores) and qualitative information (the subjective things like personal statements, supplementary essays, recommendation letters, and activities) combine to identify students who are the best “fit” for the university or college.
The essay-writing journey identifies the aspects of your life that aren’t reflected clearly in the rest of your application. Choosing essay topics and structures involves strategic decisions based on the whole of the application.
When you watch the student who got into all their top-choice, top-tier schools read their essay, you don’t know what the rest of their application featured. You don’t know what their recommendation letters said. You don’t know the X-factor objectives the admissions readers were working to fulfill.
You know only what that person chose to say before and after reading the essay. That’s it. You should not decide your essay’s content based on the information you don’t know about another person’s context.
4. The medium matters.
At least for now, the bulk of college admissions essays are written, although we can look ahead and see the normalization of video essays a short distance down the road. Until that time arrives, though, if you need an essay model for clarity or confidence, read examples of successful college essays.
Reading model essays (as opposed to listening to someone else read them) allows you the visual experience of analyzing structure and style. You can read and reread as much as you need to understand how story and storytelling combine for success.
Reading allows you to be a student of good writing and not just a consumer of content.
5. Avoid fueling comparison. Instead, build skill.
Watching video after video of other people humble-bragging about their victories under the guise of giving helpful tips can take a toll. Students fall down the rabbit hole because they are trying to figure out how to write a great story, and they look to others to boost confidence. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. Instead of feeling more secure about writing their own essays, students get overwhelmed. It makes sense. You’re comparing your initial efforts to someone else’s final product.
Models can be helpful if you give them thoughtful analysis, so read a few if you want, but limit content intake.
Let’s put numbers to it so that you know when to stop. You may read up to five model essays. You may view one or two students reading successful college essays. That’s a total of seven essays, max. Pick good ones.
As you read, observe what story the writer shares, how they tell it, and how it makes you feel in response. If it shakes your confidence as a writer or inflates your sense of superiority, those are red flags. Back away from the models and search your own heart. However, if you can empathize with the writer, then you’re on the right track. Take the lessons you need and return to your writing.
Approach writing models as an intellectual exercise. Try to find essays that professional writing coaches or admissions counselors have critiqued. Pay attention to the strategies they identify as successful communication tools. If you take a long-term approach to write your personal statement and have a little time, check out Writing Tools or The Art of X-Ray Reading by “America’s Writing Coach” Roy Peter Clark. For confidence in writing shorter supplemental essays, Clark’s How to Write Short holds game-changing tips.
What you do not want to do is steep your brain in the accomplishments of others. Remember, the essay-writing journey is for you to discover your story and not compare yourself to others.
I don’t have to tell you that getting on any form of social media, especially video-based social media, will eat time like nothing else.
You might hop on YouTube to look at successful essays as a time-saver for writing, but I guarantee it will become a distraction. What minimal gains you may receive in inspiration are not worth the time lost from quality thinking.
Your best essays will come as a result of self-reflection, and your most limited resource at the beginning of your senior year will be time. You will be a better storyteller and time-steward if you go through an essay-writing workshop, online or in person.
You have a GREAT story to tell. Focus on your journey. Embrace humble confidence. Do the work.