Dun dun dun. Are you scared yet? August is here already. So, for all rising seniors, guess what that means? College admissions season is coming. Looming at your doorstep, tons and tons of college applications are preparing to stress you out and surely give you more pimples than you’ve ever had before. Are you ready for the seemingly never-ending stress of senior year? No? Well, The Prospect is here to help you.

One of the very few things you have control over at this point of the college application process is the personal statement. Your GPA can’t be changed significantly within the next semester, you can’t join approximately 952 more extracurricular activities at the last minute (colleges will see right through this tactic–so this is a no-no!), and standardized tests…Those seem to be hopeless. Essays are where you can shine, express your passions, and let your dream schools know just how badly you wish to attend. So, obviously you need to stand out amongst other applicants to get into Yale or JMU or MIT or Kenyon or Wisconsin, right? Here are some tips from the pros. Pay attention, young’uns. These are easy mistakes to make.

1. Addressing the wrong institution in a reused essay. Almost every college has an essay prompt that follows the general “Why do you love us?” pattern. Many students, especially those who apply to multiple colleges, reuse these essays, only changing the specifics slightly from school to school. This can be a problem. When you’re rushing to meet the midnight-of-January-1st deadline, or when you’ve been writing essays for five hours straight and just want to get it done and over with, you need to be careful that the essay you’ve “recycled” says Yale, not Princeton; it’s the ultimate slap in the face.

To be honest, it’s similar to kissing a really cute person and having them whisper your frenemy’s name seductively in your ear. Such a moment killer. Don’t cockblock your chances of collegiate glory because of a mistake fueled by fatigue, urgency, or just lack of attention to detail.

2. Writing an essay about someone else. It’s perfectly wonderful for you to admire your grandmother, father, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.–even Austin Powers, if that’s your thing–but your essay should be about you. It seems obvious, but focusing your essay on someone you look up to rather than how that person has influenced you is more common than it should be. If you already have a draft in which the topic is focused around a person other than yourself, ask yourself these questions to make sure you haven’t made this mistake: Is it crystal clear how you have benefited from this person’s influence? How many sentences/paragraphs do you have describing this person, and how many do you devote to the consequences of your friendship/mentorship/bond of some kind? Are those sentences or paragraphs well-developed, or are they cliche, vague, or uninteresting (for example, “Mr. Foster was a great teacher.” vs. “Mr. Foster shouted it at us while rubbing hand sanitizer onto his bald head, a signature of his dramatic-for-effect teaching style.”)? Be careful of this, but remember that the purpose of writing bajillions of essays is for them to convey your character, your passion, your introspection, your creativity. Not those of your uncle.

3. Accidentally sounding like a spoiled brat. No one ever means to sound like a brat. It’s unintentional. I know that. We all know that. We all have privilege of some kind, whether it be privilege in regards of race, wealth, sexual identity, gender identity, etc. Unfortunately, many applicants submit essays that show their privilege a bit too much. This is a pretty simple don’t-do-this tip, so I’ll just list off some essay topics to stay away from.

Do NOT write about your iPad, your mansion, your Lamborghini, your recent trip to a starving town in Africa (unless you’re from this town in Africa, or connect to it in a specific way…then it’s a different story), your anti-immigration beliefs, your aversion to our President’s race, or generally anything socially controversial that you don’t personally have to suffer the negative consequences of  on a day-to-day basis.

Now, I’m not saying that you should stay away from all topics controversial. For all I know, you could completely rock an essay and avoid sounding privileged and arrogant. However, this is a fair warning. Controversial topics can either be received very well or very horribly (most of the time very horribly). Beware, beware, beware.

Now, after all of this don’t-d0-this and don’t-do-that advice, I’d like to tell you what you should do. DO put your all and everything into your applications, especially into your personal statements. Like mentioned earlier, this is the factor of your application that isn’t standardized, full of numbers, or based on others’ opinions of you. This part is about you. You and you only. So go out there and show ’em what you’re made of. Blow Michigan away. Recoil from that MIT Early Admission rejection and show Caltech how it’s done. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability, and work it with pride. Do yo’ thang, gurl.

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the author

Jasmine is a Computer Science major at Scripps College in sunny Claremont, California. Besides writing and editing for The Prospect, Jasmine works as a copy editor for [in]Visible Magazine, a writer for Persephone Magazine, and a communications intern for Whirlpool Corp. When she's not binge watching Grey's Anatomy, she enjoys not wearing shoes (no matter the weather), petting strangers' dogs, and jamming on her ukulele. She can be reached by email at russej13@gmail.com.

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  1. Okay, my son would not like that I shared this, but my son made your #1 mistake. He wrote this great essay saying all the reasons he so wanted to go to college X and why he would be a great fit and why it was such a terrific school, but he accidentally called it college Y in the essay. Oops! Way too easy to do! You start writing essays, and sending them out, and feeling stressed, and boom, you push the button and THE HORROR–you sent the wrong essay to the wrong school.

    Anyway, I so agree on these three common mistakes that are avoidable if you just make the effort. If it helps, I just wrote a blog that is similar to #3:http://www.essayhell.com/2013/08/dont-let-your-privilege-show.html.

    And number 2 is critical: No matter what topic you choose, you need to make it mainly about you!!

    Great post Jasmine!!

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