College Essays

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College Essays –

What NOT to do…

Your Roadmap to

College Admissions Success
Lee Bierer – President/Coach
It seems people are always ready to tell you what to do. But, sometimes it’s even more helpful to know what NOT to do. Here are some suggestions:

Common essay mistakes:

  • Using an overly-confident tone

  • Reviewing your extracurricular activities and congratulating yourself on your achievements.

  • Writing about something emotionally controversial or risky

  • Using contrived Thesaurus vocabulary

  • Writing more than two pages

  • Writing about yourself in the third person

Most common and worst essay topics:

  • Declarations of love for your boyfriend or girlfriend

  • Sincerely held religious beliefs

  • Your political views

  • Sex

  • Sparkling SAT scores

  • Schemes for world peace


Here are some of the biggest blunders students make in their essays:

The essay repeats information contained elsewhere in the application

Sometimes students, to be on the safe side, simply repeat in the essay the same information that is in the application itself. This strategy results in the reader gaining no more insight into what drives you than he/she discerned from the rest of the application packet. Remember, your reader already knows from your application, for example, that you are in the California Scholarship Federation and a member of the Ethnic Studies Club. What the reader doesn't know is why you chose to participate in these activities and how your involvement in these activities is evidence of your particular interests and talents--your essay's theme. If one of these experiences is a good example of your essay's theme, then by all means include it. If you're just including it because you think that you'll impress the reader with everything you've ever done, think again.

Here's an example of this blunder:

In my junior year I was a cheerleader for my school. I worked really hard at it, and found it to be fun and challenging. I was also part of my school's Kids in the Kitchen program, which helped to make food available to poor people in my community. Cheerleading and volunteer work kept me very busy. I spent approximately twenty hours each week cheering and another five hours volunteering. I learned a lot from this experience and can manage my time effectively and maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity.

The writer complains about his/her circumstances rather than explains them.

Remember that admissions officers want to know how resilient you are. While it is certainly okay to write about obstacles you've faced, what is important to your reader is how you overcame the obstacle, not what a terrible obstacle it was.

Here's an example of this blunder:

Because my mother is a single parent, she has had to make a lot of sacrifices to keep me and my brother in a private school. It means that we have to go without a lot of things, which is sometimes embarrassing. But even though everyone in my school knows that we are poor, no one is willing to give me a break. This is especially true of my English teacher, Sister Magdalena. Because she didn't like me, and she is not comfortable with poor people, she gave me a C in English when I really should have gotten a B.

The writer discusses money or a college's ranking as a motivating factor for applying to a particular major/college.

Yes, we all want to attend college to earn more money. And we all want to attend the most prestigious colleges. But college faculty who read your essay want to know that you are motivated by a love of learning. So, even though money or a school's ranking may be important to you, keep this information out of your essay.

Here's an example of this blunder:

I want to study engineering because a recent US News and World Report article said that engineering is the fastest-growing industry in the nation and the best place to study engineering is UCLA. With a degree in engineering, I will be able to buy a house for my mom.

The essay relies on gimmicks rather than substance.

A "gimmicky" essay is one in which the reader tries to get the reader's attention through unconventional means. This does not mean that your essay has to follow one set format; what it means is that gimmicks can't replace substance.

Here's an example of this blunder:

College, oh college/How much I want thee/for college, oh college/will strengthen me/and with a degree in hand/I will change this land/and make a better life for you and me. (This is supposed to be a poem. )

The writer makes claims in the essay that are not backed up by the application.

The essay is a component of the application and is read within the context of the application. A description of yourself as the top student in the school should be supported by your grades. Similarly, claims made about your extracurricular experiences should be backed up by the application. For example, a student who claims that her lifelong ambition is to save the environment would want this claim supported by examples of involvement in environment-related hobbies, clubs and classes.

The essay contains the wrong school name

Oops! In these days of computerized cutting and pasting, this is an easy blunder to make. Proofread carefully!

The essay contains mechanical errors or errors of usage, clichés, or meaningless prose

Although your reader is not grading your essay or scrutinizing your grammar, a poorly written essay signals a reader that you are unfamiliar with conventions of good writing or simply did not put enough time into composing your essay. Either way, there will be other applications whose essays are very polished, so don't disadvantage yourself.

Here are some examples of this blunder:

My father always told me that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. (A cliché)

A feeling of indescribable disbelief overcame me. (Wordy prose)

The essay is too long or too short

Show that you know how to follow directions. An essay that is too short may indicate carelessness; one that is too long may signal arrogance. Remember that your readers have many other applications to read, so be sure that the limited time available to peruse yours will be spent reading an essay that is the appropriate length.

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