Everyone knows the value of an awesome college essay. If your GPA and SAT scores are the backbone of your application, your essays are the heart. Your writing is your one chance to interact with your dream school on a personal level; it’s your chance to introduce them to the real you. How the heck are you supposed to compress the amazing enigma that is you into 500 words or less?
Let’s go about this in a reverse manner–here’s what not to do. Remember that admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands of application essays, so don’t be among the majority who will make one of these ten common mistakes.
1. Not answering the question. Although it may be tempting to go off on a tangent or a topic you’re really passionate about, make sure you read the prompt thoroughly. For example, if the question asks for you to “describe a recent cultural change and its importance to you,” don’t write about your reaction to the Breaking Bad finale.
2. Outsourcing. Besides the obvious fact that hiring a professional or having a parent write your essays for you is illegal, consider the fact that admissions officers read applications as their job, which means they are very good at catching essays that reek of a professional company.
3. Blending in. As high schoolers, most of us lead pretty ordinary lives. We’re not climbing Mt. Everest on the weekends or writing the next great American novel in our spare time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but try to avoid cliché topics that admissions officers read over and over again, like about that week-long volunteer trip you took, or how [sport of choice] taught you [character-building trait]. The personal essay is your chance to introduce your dream school to the real you, and you’ll never do that by blending in.
4. What they want to hear. Some students think they’ll increase their chances by writing a response that they think admissions officers will want to read, even if it’s not completely true. Writing about how you wake up every morning eager to get to school and learn might sound good to you, but if it’s not true, chances are it’ll translate weakly in your essays.
5. Why college. Almost every college with supplemental essays includes the famous “Why do you want to come here?” prompt. This is your chance to show your dream school why it’s your top choice with specific details: that really interesting class you sat in on, the professor’s research that particularly interests you, the specific programs you want to get involved with. This is not the place to wax on about how beautiful the campus is or how impressive the school’s study-abroad program is. I guarantee you, if the academic quad is beautiful, the admissions officer already knows it.
6. Word choice. As I’ve said before, your essays are your chance to introduce colleges to the real you. Strike a balance between sounding like you swallowed a thesaurus and sounding like you’re firing off a text to your best friend.
7. Arrogance. I get it–writing about yourself is hard. Obviously you want colleges to read all about your overall awesomeness, but there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Try to maintain an overall sense of humility in your essays, especially when describing personal accomplishments.
8. Trite phrases. What does it mean when someone “stood by you” or “was there for you?” What are you talking about when you write that an experience “helped you grow as a person?” Be careful to avoid over-used, banal phrases such as these in your essays. Admissions officers see enough of them–trust me. Instead, give concrete examples and details of the message you’re trying to get across.
9. Repeating your resume. Remember, your essays are just one component of a complete application. The admissions officer reading your essays will most likely have all of your information on their lap, so there’s no need to slip in that hard-earned 5 on the AP stats test or those seventeen extracurricular activities you’ve crammed into your schedule.
10. Procrastination. Is it a coincidence I left this one for last? While procrastination comes all-too-easily to most of us, plan out your essays ahead of time and set chunks of time aside for writing them. You don’t want to be scrambling to finish eleven essays in a one-week period in January. That’s a recipe for disaster, no sleep, and essays well below your usual standards.