It’s summer! You’re off to the beach to go and sunbathe and worry about nothing for three mon—
HA. Oh, wait. You’re technically a senior now, which means that, for the next six months, you’re saddled to that lovely bundle of joy known as…college apps! I’m sure you’re positively enthused.
Summer is the prime time to start out on your essays, especially since you won’t have much time during the first semester of your senior year. Every year, thousands of innocent college essays die due to common mistakes that could have easily been cured.
Don’t kill your chances at that dream school by falling into one of these writing traps!
1) Bad grammar
Ah, grammar. It sounds like a petty reason to dump your essay, but bad punctuation and incorrect spelling are one of the easiest ways to lose the interest of readers. It tells your audience that you either didn’t care enough to proofread your writing or lack the basic writing skills essential to a successful college career. In one MIT Admissions blog post, for example, the Associate Director of Admissions claims that, “When there get to be a lot of errors, we start to question how much time and effort the student has put into the application.”
Make spell-check your slave.
It’s tempting to concoct a dramatic story about your heartwrenching childhood or your three-month trek to salvation in the deserts of Nigeria or that time you got kidnapped at the North Korean border…But please. Don’t.
Lying—even to a small degree—will bite you back, more often than not. It only affords more chances for contradiction and major errors later in your application.
Also, as cheesy as it sounds, sincerity does matter. If you’re telling the truth and really communicate thoughts and emotions that you believe in, it will come across as a lot more powerful than a false story. It’s difficult to describe an experience in a real, sincere, and moving manner if it never happened in the first place.
3) Using the wrong college name
Nothing says “I re-used this essay” more clearly than using the wrong college name in your college app! If you’re going to use the same essay to apply to multiple colleges, make sure to double-check and write the correct college name in each essay. Berkeley won’t want to know that you’ve always longed to be a bulldog!
4) Not answering the question
It’s awesome if you have lots of ideas and lots to say, but make sure to actually answer the question on the way! (Unintentional rhyme.)
Colleges pick the essay topics that they do for a reason. If you miss the entire point of the question, it certainly won’t help them, nor will it say great things about your ability to follow basic instructions.
5) Using cliché’s
Sticking dramatic, inspirational quotes at the beginning of your essays sounded great in middle school, but for college essays…not so much. Neither do cliché phrases like “There’s no ‘I’ in team!” or “Everything happens for a reason!”
These platitudes look fine as desktop wallpapers, but in college essays (or any essay, for that matter), they come off as trite and uninspired.
6) Don’t scare off admissions officers
There’s a fine line between creativity and…weirdness. And creepiness. Colleges receive some pretty strange essays from people who’ve pushed the envelope a little too far. Take one Yale applicant, for example, who wrote about how she urinated on herself rather than remove herself from an intellectual conversation…thus demonstrating how she prioritized mental over physical needs.
You know you’ve crossed the line when Lady Gaga doesn’t approve. Go ahead and be unique, but don’t cross into absurdity.
7) Restate your resume
“What matters to me? Being the student council president, varsity basketball captain, and senior newspaper editor, I have a lot on my plate to handle. That didn’t stop me from flying to Uganda to build an orphanage last summer, however—a trip inspired by my gig as a White House intern and, consequently, the many long, meaningful conversations I had with Barack Obama. On an unrelated note, I have a 4.8 GPA.”
Oh, my. Do not reiterate all of your extracurriculars into your essays because that completely defeats the purpose of the essay. Not to mention, you’ll come across as a kiss-up who’s trying too hard.
You already listed your extracurriculars in a different section. The essay section is for admissions officers to know your character more—to really know who you are and what you stand for. Rather than spewing out all your extracurriculars, why not focus on one? Or something that the admissions officer isn’t already familiar with?
8) Sounding like an entitled brat
Despite the evil, terrifying image of admissions officers that many of us have conjured up in our heads…
…they’re actually real human beings! It’s difficult to swallow, I know. When you’re writing your essays, then, it’s a good idea to sound like, you know, a reasonably decent person. (Even though you’re secretly evil, of course.)
So, don’t talk endlessly about your countless lavish vacations to foreign countries or talk about how “I want to go to Stanford because I am a triple Stanford legacy, and my family is a huge donor.”
Hard-earned accomplishments speak louder than privileged opportunities…Show them what you’ve done on your own—not the favorable circumstances you’ve been born into.
And that’s it! These mistakes are harder to avoid when you’re pressed for time, so try to get a head start and write a couple now. Until then, check out this amazing post on how to maximize your summers!
…Have fun writing those essays!
Photo Credit: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7
About Maddi Lee
Maddi is currently a high school junior in southern California. She is an avid freelance writer and has been featured in multiple literary publications and anthologies. When she isn't writing, she loves traveling, doodling, and most of all, sleeping. Through her own experience and passion, she hopes to help guide fellow students through the roller coaster that is SAT and college admissions...that is, as long as she survives the journey herself!
Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!
From Lord Byron to Karl Marx, many great minds have quoted the familiar proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” When it comes to your college applications, these same “good intentions” have the power to send your essay into similarly fiery pits. In other words, an idea that may seem solid could ultimately lead to your downfall. Here are five omissions or errors that can lead your application essay—and your chance for admission—astray.
1. Being redundant
It seems obvious to incorporate aspects of your résumé into your essay, but you need to treat the essay as its own entity. The essay is about getting to know the real you and investigating your character. It’s is a narrative that should tell an individual story of passion and creativity—not a place to go over your awards or lovely grades. Make sure that if you mention an accomplishment, you delve deeper to reflect on how it connects to your larger college journey. The admission committee already has your transcript; now give them insight into your soul.
2. Saying you’re sorry
Another error is attempting to explain away something that looks bad on your transcript. Never apologize for past behavior or volunteer anything that can seem detrimental to your reputation. Do not make excuses for poor grades or test scores, even if there is a perfectly legitimate reason for them (family/health issues, a friend in need) or if you are “doing much better now,” as your recent grades show. You may believe that this demonstrates perseverance, but all an adjudicator sees is “possible recidivist slacker.”
You only have so many words to convince an admission committee that you are the perfect person for a limited number of incoming student slots. Your competition will be using their essays to tout all of their best qualities and ignoring their least favorable ones. Don’t you think you should do the same?
Note: the only time it is appropriate to address this kind of concern is when the prompt specifically asks for it—otherwise keep mum!
3. Making assumptions
It seems obvious, but the most glaring omission on many students’ applications is the lack of explanation regarding why they chose to apply to that particular school. Do your research so you know the school inside and out; that way you can show why you are applying there specifically and how much you want to attend. Mention a professor who inspires you and a program you would like to be a part of. It also helps to use the words “this university is my first choice” or something similar.
There are a few reasons why this is so important, but the biggest one might be a metric called “yield ratio.” This is the number of students that have been offered admission and actually accept that offer at a particular school. This is also the number that colleges love to use to compare to each other. So show some school spirit. This will give adjudicators the impression that you are not just using a template for each essay (though that may actually be what you’re doing).
4. Being uninspired
One of the ways an essay can truly tank is with a trite story that, while interesting to you, doesn’t much connect to your academic goals or even you as a person. One of the most common tales (that admission professionals hate!) is the volunteer story. It goes like this: you went to an underserved community to volunteer, you thought you were going to teach them, but ultimately they taught you. It’s not a very insightful tale and tends to be more about the experience than a connection to your character. Other seemingly innocent, but actually essay-killing tales include: “That time I won the big game” and “I feel so lucky to have been so blessed all my life.” Don’t be that person—find something unique to write about.
Related:College Application Essays: What Really Works!
5. Being overly creative.
It’s true that after reading thousands of identical essays, admission professionals appreciate a little creativity. Feel free to make a piece your own and play with the form if you feel it’s appropriate. Just be certain that your creative approach isn’t too abstract. It still has to tie to you, the college, and why you want to go there. And, for goodness sake, make sure you are still answering the essay prompt!
Related:Warning! These Application Essay Ideas DON'T Work
Following these simple rules can put you ahead of the curve when it comes to your college application essay. Remember that honesty and simplicity is the best way to tell your story. The most successful pieces tell an authentic story about you as a person. Go forth with confidence!
For more application essay/personal statement advice, check out the CollegeXpress Application Essay Clinic, with helpful tips, do’s and don’ts, and real-world essay examples!
Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »
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