college essays

5 Things to Avoid in College Essays

With the rise of test-optional admission policies, it can be easy to shift the focus entirely to the college essay. If admission readers don’t have a score to make an admission decision, how else will they make that final call? But the truth about holistic admission – how most selective admission happens in the US – is that no one factor is the deciding factor. Frankly, even if your essay is spectacular, you still must be academically qualified (and for some highly selective colleges, academically exceptional) for the essay to make an impact. And while your student can’t control the role their essay plays in a particular admission office, they can control the quality of the essay in front of them.

Admissions officers often don’t agree on their favorite essays, but almost all agree on the essays they don’t like. While it might be frustrating to think that you can’t write an essay guaranteed to be a hit with any admissions officer, avoiding these five ways to go wrong will help you make sure you don’t inadvertently hurt your chances.

1. Trying too hard to impress

Many students try to inject deep meaning into stories, often in the form of life lessons they supposedly learned from the experience. And many of those messages reek of insincerity. Did that two hours spent serving food at a homeless shelter really teach you the importance of helping others (especially if you never did another community service project)? Did you really not know that teamwork was important until your field hockey team made it to the playoffs? Were you actually surprised that the culture was different when you visited a foreign country? You likely wouldn’t be riveted if someone started telling you those stories. And neither will the people reading them.

2. Generalities, generalities and more generalities

“Hard work is important” is a generality. It could apply to anyone because it has no details. And without details, it’s impossible to get to know you. I once read an essay where an applicant spent 600 words explaining that it’s important to prepare when you go camping. It could rain. It could snow. You could get lost, etc. It’s all true, of course, but I didn’t need 600 words to understand that concept, and more importantly, I wasn’t getting to know him any better. I would have been a lot more interested to read about his specific preparation, how he used what he’d learned in the Boy Scouts or how it had paid off when a trip to the woods went awry. Generalities don’t always hurt, but they never win people over.

3. Unlikable traits

Would students and faculty enjoy living, learning and working with you on a college campus? Do you come across as likeable? That’s what admissions officers are wondering when they read your essay. And no matter how diverse the readers, nobody likes a snob, a complainer, a know-it-all, etc. Essays about the hardship you experienced when your parents refused to buy you a brand new car, why your teachers are to blame for your academic deficiencies or how much smarter you are than your fellow students — nobody will read those and say to themselves, “Now that’s a kid I want to spend some time with!” Unlikable to one is often unlikable to many.

4. Same old story

It’s impossible for anyone to like a story they’ve heard (or in this case, read) more than a thousand times. But that’s what some tales are like for admissions officers. This isn’t fair to applicants because you have no way of knowing that thousands of other people are writing exactly what you’re writing. But the surest way to avoid that fate is to pay attention to #1 and #2 above. Those mistakes are what lead to overused essays.

5. Who is this?

There’s nothing wrong with getting help with your college essays. But there is such a thing as too much help. When you let too many people offer their suggestions, revisions or, in the worst cases, sentences or even paragraphs to your college essay, it starts to read like it was written by a committee. Teenagers think and write differently than adults do, and colleges are expecting to read the words and thoughts of a 17-year-old who has not been to college yet. Go ahead and seek advice on your college essays from people who know you and who know what they’re talking about (your high school counselor, your English teacher or a qualified private counselor are good sources). But don’t shop your essay around and assume that everyone should get a vote. Pick one or two good sources and then get to work. When too many other people have gotten involved, it takes you out of the story. And that’s a hard story to like.


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