How Honest is Too Honest in a College Essay?

This question is from

"Is it okay to be brutally honest in a college essay?"

Are you attempting to explain why you switched schools mid-year? Why your grades dropped? Why you were suspended?  Why you didn’t participate in any after-school activities?

Was it because you had terrible teachers? Was there family drama? Did you not get along with administrators? Did none of the sports or clubs interest you?

Honesty is subjective, and it implies that your take on events is the accurate one.

So, what’s wrong with this?

Two people in the same conversation can have completely different takeaways. That’s why you can sit in a classroom where some of the students like the teacher and some don’t. The teacher is constant; your individual perspectives of the teacher is the variable.

If you’re writing your college application essay on something you’d like to explain to admissions teams, it’s important to keep your audience in mind.

Putting others down or blaming others for the way things turned out is a big no-no in application essays since it may show that you avoid taking responsibility, lack maturity, and view situations through a negative lens.

Instead of being “brutally honest,” be authentic. Describe the event and reflect on why it was meaningful to you and what you learned from the situation. Get to the heart of the matter.

For example, instead of blaming a principal or a teacher for why you switched schools, you could discuss the positive aspects of the new school and how you felt you were ready for a fresh start and new opportunities. As a general rule, focus more on the positive aspects of situations even if they were particularly challenging at the time. This helps you keep a lighter tone and makes you more likeable.

Authenticity is important in college application essays for the same reason implied in the teacher’s likeability scenario. It is easier for the teacher to be authentic, to be herself, rather than to worry about trying to change herself to fit the variety of students’ opinions. The same is true for your application essays.

The purpose of application essays is for admissions teams to get to know who you are, and it’s an opportunity for you to share something about yourself that they can’t get elsewhere in your application.

Choose to tell them a story that portrays you in a positive light, and steer clear of complaints or putting down others, no matter how honest you think it is.  

Happy Writing!

This blog was written by Jaclyn Corley, Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook

The College Essay Captain helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.