November 3, 2014

How NOT to Write a College Essay

Here are some of the most common mistakes students make, and why you should avoid them:

Repeat info covered in another part of the application.
Students often repeat themselves in the college essay "just to be safe." However, admissions officers have already read, or will read, the rest of your application. Reading the same thing twice is boring. Trust them to do their job and read the application as thoroughly as necessary. Give them some insight into your motivations and how they indicate your abilities. If you mentioned something briefly on the application, you can go into it in more detail in the essay.

Don't do this:
"In freshman year I was in Key Club. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about helping others. I also joined the lacrosse team, which took up a lot of time. However, I still found time to volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend. All of this demonstrates that I am responsible and capable."

Whining about circumstances instead of explaining why/how you overcame them.
Nobody likes a sob story, no matter how true or heartbreaking it is. Don't look for pity. Instead, show admissions committees how you surpassed difficulties to achieve a high GPA, leadership position, or some other accomplishment. Impress them with your determination.

Don't do this:
"Because my parents had to get rid of the babysitter after we had money issues, I had to quit the soccer team to watch my little sister. It was a real shame to have to leave my teammates and give up the chance of being state champions, but family comes first, so I didn't mind making the sacrifice."

Talk about how you want to go to a particular college because it has a great reputation or you want to make money.

Many students want to go to a top school and make money. Why does this make you special and different? Self-promotion is a given. Instead, distinguish yourself through your desire to intensively study the subjects that interest you or to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas.

Don't this this:
"University X is well-renowned, and many famous people like _____, ____, and ____ graduated from there. With a degree from University X, I'll be sure to be a success in life and make my friends and family proud."

Misrepresent your achievements and goals in the essay.
If you graduated in the middle of your class and have no extracurriculars/recommendations to back up the following...

Don't do this:
"I was one of the top students in my school and hope to reduce world hunger or find a cure for cancer."

The following need no example:

Use "cute" techniques to stand out.
Covering your essay in glitter and perfume, enclosing a link to a YouTube video of yourself performing goofy antics, or writing the entire essay in Pig Latin.

Say you want to go to College X in College Y's application.
It'd be a shame to mix up the two essays and get into neither one as a result. Double check.

Include careless grammatical errors, overly wordy phrases, and clichés.
You already know the stakes are high when it comes to college admissions. Show admissions officers that you care enough about the process to write an amazing college essay.


  1. Could you use a piece of fiction or a short story as a college essay? I know it is an absurd question, but I thought it would be interesting to ask.

  2. "Say you want to go to College X in College Y's application." Lololol

  3. This is so good! Sometimes -- many times -- it sounds like things I've said to others as a reader. Sometimes -- oh, many many times -- it sounds like things I've said to myself as a writer! ("what's my point? what's my point? what's my point?")

  4. sound advice Of course, this SOUNDS like common sense, but perhaps common sense isn't so common after all.

  5. "Include careless grammatical errors, overly wordy phrases, and clichés."

    Nearly every single "overcoming adversity" story is a cliche. How does being homeless have any sort of baring on how well you can do academically? In most cases, the homeless person isn't going to a rigorous high school and therefore, makes it substantially easy to excel academically. How does having an abusive father, debilitating condition, or any type of trauma cause you to be worthy of such a rigorous academic curriculum? I mean, I thought that was the entire purpose of college, yet admissions thinks the purpose of college is to admit people like the ones I've mentioned above.
    I've overcame many obstacles in my life, yet I don't use them to define myself. I don't tell people that I've suffered from depression a majority of my life, or that I came from a family with money struggles, etc. I'd rather tell people that I spent hours doing homework and practicing math problems because of my passion for math and science. How I would construct experiments in my spare time to study phenomena that I was curious about. How someone influenced me to pursue subject X. Using a tragic experience is just a crutch I think. I'm not applying to school so I can get in by writing a soap opera. What does it say about people who didn't have anything exceedingly difficult or tramuatic happen in their lives? Does this mean that they aren't able to excel and show passion like the people that did?

    Don't do this:
    "Because my parents had to get rid of the babysitter after we had money issues, I had to quit the soccer team to watch my little sister. It was a real shame to have to leave my teammates and give up the chance of being state champions, but family comes first, so I didn't mind making the sacrifice."

    I think it takes a lot of courage to sacrifice something you love for others. Not everyone is able to suffer traumatic events or hardships and still come out swinging. In fact, the most important aspect of your life is understanding your limitations and realizing that, in real life, you can't always get what you want. Of course, I guess you used this as an example because you think it represents someone just "giving up". Well, hate to break it to you, but giving up can some times be the best and only thing a person can do.

    1. Not that you will read this, but to anyone else that has the chance to see it, this is my response to that comment:
      The overcoming adversity theme may be a cliche, but often times, this cliche is the best way for admissions counselors to get insight on how effective a person was in working through challenges to continue on as a successful student.
      For example: A homeless student may or may not attend one of the most rigorous schools in the country, but when they don't have access the same materials as others, or the same number of meals in a day... when they have trouble applying for jobs to earn money because they don't have an address, phone number, license for identification to put on their application... Overcoming challenges as great as those, and still doing well in school, show colleges that the student not only has an incredible ability to problem solve, but that they have motivation, initiative, and courage to reach past their adversity.
      Look, I agree that adversity can often be used as an excuse, but I wouldn't put a person down for using it and assuming that it's how they define themselves -- as someone who was homeless, as someone who had to quit a sport they loved, as someone who had to deal with abuse.
      If their mentioning the struggles in the essay, more likely than not it is for the pride of their strength in dealing with whatever their challenge was.
      Everyone deals with something and everyone has a different way of coping, or sadly, not coping.

  6. You are right. It really takes a lot to turn a negative info into positive, and most often applicants are writing about circumstances, not how they overcame them, or how they turned this or that negative situation into positive, which makes an admission essay less compelling. Great that you are mentioning it!