And you thought you were hiding it so well!

Because personal essays are, well, personal, they often bring out psychological aspects of yourself that you’re only partially aware of. If you’re a naturally arrogant person, your essays might contain a lot of stories about how right you were to fight with your boss all the time, or manhandle your interns. If you tend towards depression, you might be writing drab, cliched stories, as if to say – really, there’s nothing interesting about me, I swear! All of these psychological tendencies are easy to pick up on for an objective reader, and can hurt the first impression you make on an adcom.

But perhaps the most insidious feeling of all is anxiety. The college admissions process makes almost everybody crazy, and the more high-achieving of a student you are, the more likely it is to drive you round the bend – unfortunately, coming across as an anxiety-prone wreck in a college admissions essay is all too likely to result in a ding.

What are the warning signs of showing too much anxiety in your college essays, and how do you combat them?

  1. You’re trying to cover up for perceived weaknesses elsewhere in your application. Are you using half of your essay’s word count to address your GPA, standardized test scores, lack of volunteering or some other aspect of your candidacy? Are you telling the adcom, directly or indirectly, all the reasons they shouldn’t be concerned about admitting you? Sorry, but you’re letting your anxiety get the better of you – instead of assuaging their fears, you’re pointing a spotlight at them. So, just stop.
  2. You’re asking lots and lots of people for advice, and despairing when those people disagree -- with each other! Opinions are like … um … backsides. Yeah, we all know the adage. The point is, those people don’t have the first clue what you were trying to say, they only know what you actually got out on the page. The less ability you have to control your message, the more your ‘essay’ actually becomes a Rorschach test of your reader. Mom is going to think you’re just not reminding them of how sweet you looked dressed in plaid on your first day of high school. Your hard-driving uncle the attorney is going to think you had better put your professional experience at the delicatessen chopping sirloin first and foremost on the resume. Both of these readers are well-meaning, but useless. Why? They’re speaking to their own hobbyhorses, not asking you what you were actually trying to say in the first place!
  3. You’re giving up on one first draft after another. Rather than letting your ideas develop, you’re letting your analytical brain shoot down everything your creative side is coming up with. Bad move, right brain! Pick an idea that feels right, and then commit to it. Give it time to flourish. Anyone can critique an idea, but it takes a courageous writer to actually go all in on one.

These are just a few of the ways anxiety can cripple your ability to write honestly and openly. Ultimately, the best thing you can do if you’re struggling with these issues is seek the advice of someone you know and trust.