Originally Posted: Feb 13, 2017
Last Updated: Oct 19, 2020
College essays are already stressful enough without worrying that you may have made a mistake anywhere that you’re overlooking. One mistake on your college application essay can prove fatal to your odds of being admitted. Okay, it would have to be a pretty big mistake, like using a different college’s name. So while a misplaced comma isn’t going to ruin your chances of going to college, it could still cast enough of a negative light on you to make an admission officer pause. Keep yourself on the sunny side of your target college’s radar by avoiding these simple yet costly essay mistakes.
Don’t force yourself out of your comfort zone too much
While you’ll probably have multiple application essay prompts to choose from (the Common Application has a bunch), it is up to you to decide which one suits you best. However, don’t feel obligated to choose the most complex question simply because you feel it would “impress” the college or university. Choose the essay prompt or question that will compliment you. One way to get a good idea of how to write within your comfort zone is to read successful essays by people who were admitted into their colleges of choice.
Those generic essays aren’t gonna cut it
Remember that essay you wrote with the same topic for that one school? Scrap it. Don’t copy and paste the same essay for another college or even scholarship. Even though you might have a sentence or two that might work for multiple colleges, it’s crucial that you tailor your application essays to each college on your list. The time you take trying to alter the essay to fit the next college or university will only consume time you could have spent in creating a fresh essay that feels authentic and more you. And heaven forbid you forget to exchange school names or big, glaring details about a completely different school.
Read and re-read the essay prompt or question
Read the essay prompt carefully so you truly understand it is extremely important in showing the admission officers that you are dedicated to their college. (This is also another reason why I recommend not reusing essays.) Even while in the midst of writing, go back and re-read the question. Make sure—and keep making sure—that you are on the right track and are adequately responding to the original prompt. It’s okay to digress a little bit, as long as it keeps true to the question.
Don’t be a stranger
Don’t be afraid to be personable and personal with your essay. The point of your essay is for colleges to get to know you as you are. Talk about your family, your hometown, your school, your favorite activities, your goals. After all, with the application essay the college wants to get to know you as a person, not just as a student. Present yourself for who you are. Don’t put on a façade—and don’t be fake. But do add some flair to the generic student essay.
College application essays work best when they are exploring a specific aspect of your life and how you changed and grew from it. For example, if you are writing about your time on a sports team, don’t just talk about your accomplishments on the field. Talk about how the experience translated to the classroom, at home, when volunteering, or your future plans. Colleges want to know what you gained from all those years playing a sport. Even if you played a minimal role, chances are you learned a lesson or two. Ask yourself: How did working together as a team affect me? Was there a time I needed to step up if someone was injured? Was there a change in my leadership position from freshman to senior year? How did this leadership translate into my personal life?
Read your essay out loud
This is an everyday writing tip that works great on your college essay. Even if your essay sounds fantastic in your head, read it out loud. This can help you identify any awkward parts or choppy sentences that upset the flow of the application essay. This is also a great way to find any grammatical or spelling errors that you or even your computer may not have picked up on. You could even take it one step further and read it out loud to someone else, who may hear awkward parts your ears gloss over.
You need an extra pair of eyes
It's always recommended that you have a teacher or parent look over your application essay(s) for anything that doesn’t fit. I tore the first draft of my essay torn apart after my English teacher looked at it; she very quickly saw the essay did not capture who I was as a person. The final result was very different from the first. You may experience this as well—and that’s okay. Changes are great for essays! I also highly recommend having a close friend look it over. They can add that final missing piece of the puzzle that makes your essay truly stand out.
The college application essay is a great opportunity for you to showcase exactly what makes you unique to your colleges of interest. You want to make your best possible impression to college admission committees so make sure you’re taking the utmost care with how you write, what you write, and how well you review. With the extra care, you’ll present your best self to the colleges you’re applying to and have a much better chance of gaining admission. Good luck!
For more essay advice and examples of successful essays, check out our Application Essay Clinic.