What NOT to Do in Your Application Essay

by
Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions, Pomona College

Applying to college is a marathon, not a sprint. But don’t sweat it—you’ve been training for years by pushing yourself in rigorous classes, taking tests, retaking tests, running for leadership positions, striving to make varsity, finding a part-time job, and more. Maybe you’ve had a stumble or two: a final you bombed, an election you lost, a grade you wish was better. But don’t let these things bring you down. It’s all part of your training!

Your college application essay presents an opportunity to reflect on your journey to this point and show admission committees that (a) you are ready and prepared for college and (b) you’ll be a great addition to their first-year class.

The personal essay is an integral part of your college application. Your grades, list of activities, transcript, and recommendations only tell part of your story. They show admission committees what you’ve spent time on in high school and how you’ve performed academically. But there’s more to your story, right? The college essay is a window into how you think, what you value, what you’ve struggled with, how you approach problems, and other unique and interesting aspects of you as a person—aspects that aren’t necessarily obvious in the rest of your application.

So why are so many application essays boring, generic, or disappointing? And is there a way to stand out among the hundreds or thousands of essays each admission officer reads each year? While there’s no denying that writing a strong college essay is a challenge, there are some common pitfalls you can easily avoid, giving yourself better odds of creating a stand-out essay.

Related: How to Write a Great College Application Essay

1. Don’t focus on one thing

When I see from an applicant’s list of activities that they’re big into one activity, like soccer—that they’ve played for the school and club team, that the precious minutes they aren’t playing soccer are spent as a volunteer soccer ref—I say a silent prayer: please don’t let the essay be about soccer. And you know how many times my prayers are answered? Never.

It’s understandable: you’re dedicated to soccer and spend a lot of time on it. But you know what? I already got that from the application. Do I need to read an essay to further understand that? Probably not. Is anything else important to you? What big questions interest you? Remember, this is an opportunity to give the reader insight into who you are as a person.

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

2. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear

You imagine the person reading your essay has a fat, red marker poised to circle any weaknesses, doubts, or inconsistencies. So you write about yourself like you’re a classic hero on a journey, meeting each obstacle with optimism and overcoming each one with hard work. At the end, the sun is setting over a beautiful ocean. Yawn.

In reality, the person reading your essay is human. They’ve been a student, and they’ve read a lot of essays. They can identify reality from fiction. Give them the reality. A strong essay goes deep, showing the writer has spent time reflecting on their experiences.

3. Don’t reveal your deepest, darkest secrets

Okay, I know I said get real, but this is the flip side of being too shallow. Being too deep is equally problematic. You may have faced some very serious problems or challenges in the past few years. That may be the focus of your essay, but it may not be the best topic if you cannot demonstrate that you are ready for college. Have you resolved the issues? Are you in a better place? If you are leaving doubts about your readiness for college in the reader’s mind, then you should consider a different topic.

4. Don’t keep your essay to yourself

It’s personal, it’s something you’d rather not share, and you think no one has time to read it anyway. Nope—not letting others see your essay is not a good decision. Everyone, from teachers to professional writers, needs another pair of eyes on their work. Ask a friend who is a strong writer to help you spot grammar problems. Ask your older sister to read for clear content. Ask a teacher for his opinion. If their feedback is in conflict, it’s your decision what to revise, but it won’t hurt to consider a few readers’ viewpoints. Then read your essay aloud. This is a great way to catch mistakes your eye tends to glide right over.

Related: 15 Mind-Blowing College Essay Tips

By giving yourself enough time to brainstorm different ideas, reflect on your experiences, and write multiple drafts, you have a great chance of writing an essay that will enhance your application and show the reader why you would be a welcome addition to a college community.

Find more tips and tricks in our Application Essay Clinic.

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