3 Essay Writing Risks To Avoid On Your College App

A Deck Of Cards

Here’s a commonly held view: “The Admissions Committees (adcom) at the colleges I’m applying to want to see a certain type of writing in the application essays students submit.”

The (unfortunate) logic here is that when the adcom reads an essay that perfectly matches their “style” and “criteria,” they instantly recognize that the applicant is a good fit for their school.

Thousands of college applicants spend countless hours trying to crack this code, trying to figure out what they THINK adcoms want to read in order to craft essays that fit into this apparent mold. In the mind of the hopeful applicant, it’s almost like the adcom is using a checklist while reading their essay, ticking off a box each time they get something right.

The truth is… this couldn’t me a more inaccurate approach.

In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the aforementioned strategy of essay writing is not only one of the most prolific, but also the most misguided. When you’re writing an essay to fit some imagined norms, you’re committing the cardinal sin of bad writing: which is… playing it safe.

Blending Into The Crowd Makes You A Boring Applicant

Striving for uniformity means that you’re trying to be like everyone else, and blending into a crowd makes you boring. When you produce yet another rote essay in an applicant pool of thousands, there’s nothing to set you apart from every other Joe and Sally. That means [cue ominous music]… you’re forgettable!

So how do you stand out in your application essay? By taking risks, of course! On the first review of your application, the AdCom is going to spend 5-10 minutes looking over the whole dang thing. That means they’ll take a minute or two (tops) to initially scan your essays. In that situation, a boring essay can sink your application right away. An essay that takes risks, on the other hand, is bound to raise a few eyebrows (in a good way).

Now, there are rules to risk. Before you dive into writing your essay from the perspective of a goldfish (I’ve seen it done, no joke), let me explain BAD RISK—so you can avoid it.

Avoid Taking These Types Of Risks While Writing Your College Essays

  1. Avoid trying to be clever for cleverness’ sake. If you’re just writing an essay to showcase your ingenuity and talent for wordplay without truly saying anything about yourself, you’re in trouble. The guy who wrote his essay from the perspective of a goldfish was clever (“As far as I know, the world is only as big as the bowl that contains me!”), but he wasn’t giving any real insight into his own character.
  2. Avoid writing for pure shock value. This includes going into unnecessary graphic detail (“I severed my thumb, and here’s what it looked like!”), being argumentative (“listen to this extremely controversial political viewpoint!”), and delving into your personal, erm, carnal experiences. The latter is actually quite common, since many teenagers are under the misapprehension that AdComs would totally love to hear about their hedonistic escapades.
  3. Avoid being dishonest. Sure, you spent hours preparing for your debate championship only to come in 7th place, so can’t you just say you came in 1st, y’know, for the dramatic arc of your essay? You can… if you want to get your application tossed in the trash. AdComs are bloodhounds when it comes to sniffing out even the smallest of lies. Truth is, honest writing has an intangible and wonderful quality, one that can never be imitated by half-truths or flat-out fibbery. So do yourself a huge favor: don’t even consider lying in your essays—not even a little.

Now that you’re a master in spotting and avoiding bad risk, you must become a master of—what else—GOOD RISK. Read on!

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