Perfecting Imperfection

If you’ve seen the news in the last week, you’re probably well acquainted with the story of the student from New York who was accepted to all eight Ivy League universities – a feat that had less chance of occurring than his purchasing a winning lottery ticket.  (Once could argue that, for Kwasi Enin, buying the winning lottery ticket could have helped him afford to go to any college he chose anyway, but I digress.)

But what you probably haven’t taken the time to do (because you’re not in the business of counseling prospective college applicants the way that I am) is read Enin’s essay, that crucial piece of writing that made admissions officers at eight highly selective schools – schools that admit less than ten percent of their applicants each year – want him to enroll in their institution.  The essay is given weight in the admissions process for a reason; it’s vital because it reveals the character and personality of a student in a way that grades, test scores, and even recommendations never can.  Enin’s is no exception and, in fact, proves the rule.

But do you want to know what else stood out to me when I read it the first time?

Kwasi Enin’s essay isn’t perfect.

It is a beautiful piece of writing, in which he nearly seamlessly compares his love for music to his love for learning in general.  His language is graceful and his vocabulary extensive.  What’s more, the structure of the essay is rock solid, with an introduction that pulls the reader in, a logical and easy to follow group of supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion right where the reader expects to find it.  (Don’t scoff, blog readers – I’ve read more than a few admissions essays where the conclusion was not at all where I thought it would be.)  And finally, Enin’s analogy of music to the ups, downs, and overall journey of one’s life and one’s educational career is inspired and reveals that he is a student who not only loves music, but who functions at the highest level of thought at a very young age.

But it isn’t perfect.

I confess, there are a few points at which I think the metaphor overcame Enin a little more than it should have and it required me to go back and re-read a few sentences so that I could pull the final idea out of the deep analogy it was buried in.  There are also a couple of points where the paragraph seems to lead the reader in one direction and then pulls an about face and we wind up somewhere unexpected.  And (if I’m being really picky – which is what college admissions counselors at highly selective schools like the Ivies are), while the introduction works and gets the reader to the place that the writer wants he or she to reach, it isn’t as strong as his poetic conclusion and I’m a sucker for essays with matching pieces when it comes to beginnings and ends.  (My students often hear me refer to the “bookends” of the essay.)

Were there perhaps stronger pieces of writing in the pool of applications from which Enin’s was pulled?  Probably.  And were there essays that might one day end up in a book about “How to Write the Perfect College Essay?”  Also a distinct possibility.  But I understand completely why Kwasi Enin’s essay got him through the door of all eight Ivy League institutions and in a moment you will too:

It’s because it isn’t perfect.

Perfect essays tend to be one of two things when it comes to college admissions:  they’re either boring or plagiarized.  The boring ones probably started out just fine but through an unconscious process of over-editing, over-analyzing, and revision, they get whittled down to lifeless words on a page that don’t reveal any degree of the author’s character.  They’re sanitized and safe and there’s nothing genuinely interesting in them anymore.  The really good stuff was probably somewhere back in draft number three, but by the time you get to draft twenty-one, none of it is left.

And the plagiarized ones?  I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.  The students who use those don’t believe they have anything to say that would be of interest to the admissions committee so they steal someone else’s words – and by doing so reveal a far weaker personal character than they would have if they’d just taken the time to write something true.

Meanwhile, the imperfect essays – the ones I love best – are clearly written by high school students who have brilliant minds and wonderful personalities but haven’t used either feature to its full advantage yet.  In fact, that’s why they’re applying to college in the first place; they want to become better writers with a more developed sense of what’s needed in order to write critically and they want to have life-altering experiences that will shape their characters into the adults who will emerge from college on commencement day in four years.  In short:  They write like high school students who wish to become educated adults and need a college education to do it.

Kwasi Enin understood that and so did all eight of the Ivy League universities.

Will your essay be authentic and imperfectly perfect for the schools to which you will apply?  I hope so.

(Want essay guidance?  Contact me.)

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One thought on “Perfecting Imperfection

  1. Great post! I like how you show high school students that you do not have to be ‘perfect’ to gain admission into a highly selective school…but you still have to work hard and make sure your ‘voice’ is heard through your essay, as was the case with Enin’s.

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