Learn from My College Application Mistakes: The Application Essay/Personal Statement

Editor-in-Chief, Carnegie Communications

Dec   2014



Hindsight is 20/20, and this is your opportunity to benefit from one college grad’s near-perfect vision as she looks back at her college application process. Keep these tips and stories in the back of your mind as you fill out your college apps, and you might just sidestep a potential misstep!  

You’d think the college application essay or personal statement would be easy to write; after all, it’s about the subject you’re most familiar with: yourself. Yet many students struggle with it, from deciphering application essay prompts to picking the perfect example from their life.

Students want to hit the nail on the head with their application essays, writing something admission counselors want to read—they’re just not quite sure what that something is. Here’s one important tip you can learn from my mistake: write your application essay about something unique.

Related: Warning! These College Application Essay Ideas DON'T Work

Writing had always been my shtick, and I wasn’t terribly worried about the personal statement portion of the college application. Accordingly, I didn’t think too much of it when I wrote about my father as someone who had influenced me. He always worked hard and put our family first, and he passed those values on to me. Since I liked those parts of myself, writing about my dad and his influence on my life seemed like a sound choice.

Now, it wasn’t a terrible choice, per se. And I’ll never know what, exactly, that admission counselor (or counselors) thought when they read it. But I do know this now: it’s a pretty boring essay topic. Everyone has parents, and whether they’re great parents or not-so-great parents, a big part of your life or nowhere to be found, for better or worse, they are hugely influential. And that’s exactly why admission counselors recommend you not discuss them in your college application essay or personal statement. It’s the same reason they say you shouldn’t talk about your coach or siblings or even a serious illness or death in the family. It doesn’t set you apart, and in a sea of applicants, you want to be memorable.

Crazy, right? How could you possibly avoid talking about something so important to you in your application essay? But admission counselors are not necessarily looking for you to talk about super-important things. They want a glimpse of your personality. They want to be able to imagine you on their campus and the kind of student you’ll be when you get there. In an application full of grades and test scores and course work, the personal statement is as close to the “real” you as they’re going to get. (Well, almost...)

This isn’t to say you’re not allowed to discuss these things. Above all, trust your gut. (It's no surprise that there's a Common App essay prompt that straight-up says "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.")

If you feel like you will best convey who you are through a story about your relationship with your father or big brother or coach, then that’s what you should write about. However! If you’re also considering writing about your childhood penchant for picking up garbage that turned into a real passion for environmentalism, or perhaps about how you’re mesmerized by the sounds your tap shoes make when you do a double-flap cramp roll, or how good it feels to land a perfect cast with your fishing line—something uniquely you—well, go with that thing.

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About Jessica Tomer

Jessica Tomer

Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief at Carnegie Communications. She is responsible for developing and copyediting content for Private Colleges & Universities, Public Colleges & Universities, Graduate Colleges & Universities, American Colleges & Universities, and CollegeXpress magazines. Like many of her fellow Emerson College alumni, Jessica is a news junkie and true bookworm.

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