What NOT to do on your College Essay
Writing your college essay can be frustrating as hell.
After all, how do you figure out what parts of yourself the admissions officer
Of the dozens of essays that you’ve written in your lifetime, this is just one more. I’m not saying that this is an easy essay, at all. In fact, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever written before (unless of course, your English teacher made you).
Oh no, this essay is special.
This essay is supposed to “provide an insight into your personality” and tell the college admissions officer “who you are as a person”.
It’s a little daunting BUT only in the beginning. Once you plan it out properly and get into the flow of it, it really isn’t so bad.
In another post I’ll cover exactly what you should do to approach your college essay, but in this case, we’re going to take a look at what NOT to do. These are mistakes that I’ve seen over and over again in the almost 10 yrs I’ve been working with students.
If you’d like to take a look at the essay prompts, you’ll find them right here.
#1 on list of what not to do: Don’t make vague or general statements.
So what do I mean by that?
Simple. Provide examples/scenarios of the values you’ve learned in play. If you state that your grandmother is loving, caring, and kind, then provide an example of when you saw those qualities in action. SHOW the reader.
Ex. “As my nana listened attentively to my 8-year-old sister tell the same story for the tenth time, I realized that my nana really loved us. No matter which one of us she was talking to, she made sure that we had her full attention, that we genuinely felt that we were important to her. That doesn’t even include the time she takes to check in on us during the week or how she brings over our favorite foods when she comes to visit.”
Note: Limit your description to about 3-5 sentences max. Otherwise, you risk going off topic and making it about your grandma instead of about you. See point #6 to learn why that’s a bad move.
#2: Do NOT mention serious mental health or physical injuries.
*There’s a separate place for them!
The college essay is really meant to introduce you to the admissions team. So far, all they know are the various bits of data: SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and even your activities. While a reader can glean some idea about your personality from all those aspects, it really doesn’t provide a full picture of you as an individual.
So, what you don’t want to do is start with a pity-me approach. It’s makes things a little awkward for the reader, and that is NOT how you want them feeling about you.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“But, Priyanka, I had a concussion 3 years ago and that had me out of school for over a month and it impacted my GPA!”
Or “It’s my junior year and I was just diagnosed with ADHD! What about the hit that my GPA took for the last two years before anyone ever realized that I needed meds?”
All valid concerns. In fact, these pieces of information SHOULD BE MENTIONED, but not in your essay, instead in the ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of the application.
You have an extra 650 words to explain any extenuating circumstances, including health concerns, family problems, anything that you feel will provide a wholesome picture of your high school years. You can also use this space to write another essay or expand upon your extracurricular activities.
When talking about injuries/mental health/personal/family circumstances, use a matter-of-fact tone. Clearly describe the before, during, and after…and if it’s a work-in-progress, state where the current situation stands.
Clichés come in all shapes and sizes, from cultural clichés to word usage clichés, i.e overusing the word “passion/passionate”.
To expand a little more upon this topic:
With cultural clichés: if you happen to have certain stereotypes associated with your culture (i.e. Indian people are good at math & science), then unless you have a legitimate story to tell about your experience, AVOID mentioning it. It’s already listed in your “Activities” section, so use this space to tell the reader something about you that ISN’T already a part of your application…
…because otherwise, how are you any different from the other Indian applicants? How should the admissions officer differentiate between you and someone else?
The same premise holds if you’re a recruited athlete or applying in a program that requires a portfolio of some sort. In either case, you have already presented your work or best performance (in arts or sports), so why not tell the reader something else about you?
Ex. If you’re a recruited soccer player, great, but the admissions committee already knew that. How? Because a coach has been coming to watch you play & has already asked you for your GPA/testing info so that he/she could pass it on the admissions committee. So, if that’s the case, what’s the point of telling the admissions committee that you really love your sport? They already know! Share a different side to you. Maybe you paint to relax, or cook, or love puzzles/word games. You definitely have other aspects to you, it’s inevitable. By simply existing you have various interests, so think about those.
Bottom line: Don’t just mention stuff for the sake of filling the word count. Instead, think about what you have already listed in the “Activities” and “Honors” categories, then either expand upon one with a meaningful story, or introduce a new aspect to you. Even when you mention the new aspects to you, you can link them to your current activities, but limit that mention to 3-5 sentences.
#4: Do NOT list the activities in your résumé in paragraph form.
I’ve had students try to cram in a majority of their activities into their essay. It’s harder to make an essay flow smoothly/tell a story, plus the admissions officers have read that already, so why? Just why?
If you really want to expand upon your activities, like we’ve said before, do so in the “Additional Information” section.
As for your essay? Answer the prompt you picked. Think of all the stories and experiences you’ve had, some meaningful, some not so much, and then figure out how you want to pull one or two of them together. Your essay is a story, not a list!
#5: Sensitive/Divisive topics
I think in general, when you’re trying to apply somewhere, it’s probably a good idea to just stay away from topics that could potentially piss off your reader.
Crazy, I know.
If you DO decide to approach a sensitive issue – i.e. LGBTQ rights or I don’t know, something really crazy, like wearing masks- because they really are an important part of you & your high school journey, then make sure you are completely aware of how the university you’re applying to feels about the issue.
#6: Who you admire.
It’s natural to want to write about the traits that your idols embody, but most students don’t know when the story of the other person stops and when their own story begins. As a result, you end up with an essay that’s 50-75% about another person….a person who is NOT the one applying to college….you see how that might be a problem.
I’m going to stick to the same policy I’ve mentioned before, keep it to 3-5 sentences about the other person, then transition it to you. What did you learn from this person? How do you plan to implement it?
#7: Don’t be braggy.
The title says it all: be humble and give credit where it’s due. If it was a group effort, say that you collaborated with others to make XYZ happen. It shows the admissions committee that you’re a team player.
Yes, the essay is about you, but you don’t exist in a vacuum, you interact with others every day.
#8: Don’t make shit up!
This is more of an ethical concern than anything else. I’ve had students who’ve tried to claim that a student organization they led or were a part of or co-founded did more/accomplished more than it actually did. Friends of students have even gone as far as to make up entire “life-changing” trips. Why? Just why?
Just by the fact that you’ve been alive for 17-18 years, you have stories to tell—BY DEFAULT.
Of course after hearing me talk on and on about what NOT to do, you’re probably curious as to what you’re actually supposed to do, right?
Here, take a look at these from Johns Hopkins.
These essays come w/feedback from the admissions committee, so you’ll get an idea as to what the interpretation of the essay was. If you scroll all the way to the end, you’ll find more sample essays split up by school years.