Our editors look at lots and lots of college application essays every day. Here are the three most common mistakes they see, along with some info to help you avoid them.
Writing a winning essay is often the most challenging part of putting together a college application.
In pursuit of this goal, you’ve perhaps read countless “how to” articles and sought a lot of advice. However, despite knowing “what to do,” there are several mistakes that kids tend to make in the process.
Here, we would like to outline three common issues that we see and how to avoid them:
1. Don’t fail to answer the prompt
Imagine you are having a conversation with someone, and they ask you a question. Naturally, you would respond with an answer to that question, not another one altogether, right? That’s exactly what you should be doing when writing your application essays. Answering the question.
Believe it or not, failing to provide a clear answer to the prompt remains a common problem in application writing. Don’t worry, we know that you aren’t doing this on purpose. Instead, it seems that when many students see a prompt’s general topic, they’re inspired to write whatever first comes to mind about that topic, even if it doesn’t exactly relate to the question that is being asked. Or a prompt reminds them of a story, fact, etc. that they’re dying to write about, so they decide to go with that.
You might find yourself asking, “But if the writing is great, who cares if I even answered the question?”
Well, the answer is simple: part of being a great student is being able to follow directions. So if you would like the admissions committee to see your potential as a student, then we suggest reading the entire prompt thoroughly and providing a clear answer to each and every question posed (just like you plan to do in your future courses!).
TIP: A good way to go about this is to first think of a straightforward, one-sentence answer to each question present in the prompt. Then, write an outline based on these answers. From there, it will be easy to elaborate!
2. Don’t write in a convoluted manner
Another common essay issue stems from the misconception that the most brilliant writing is hard to understand. While many masters have certainly written some brilliant, very dense, highly regarded prose, please… don’t try to emulate them when writing your application essays.
Long, wordy sentences with either too much detail or repetition can be difficult to follow. And quirky, inventive metaphors or other figures of speech could come across as creative… or they might make a reader’s head spin. Admissions officers have to sort through hundreds, maybe even thousands, of application essays, so you will be doing them a favor by writing in a very clear and straightforward manner. That being said, you should absolutely be creative when writing your essays! Just make sure that creativity does not get in the way of clarity.
TIP: How can you be sure if your essay is clearly written? Simple. Ask someone you trust to read it and let you know if anything remains unclear.
3. Don’t be too generic
“I want to attend XYZ college to gain knowledge and experiences.” Sure you do… but so does everyone else! What specific knowledge are you hoping to gain (and why)? What are you hoping to experience (and why)? In other words, why is XYZ college or university a great fit for you personally? If the main premise of your essay sounds like any applicant could have written it, then it’s time to reevaluate.
Think about the personal qualities and strengths that you would like to present. What about your background would you like to share, and how will it help you to contribute at a college or university? Think about your goals and what you’re hoping to accomplish by going to college. What specifically are you hoping to learn, and why do you think this knowledge will help to prepare you for the future?
TIP: The essay section of an application is your opportunity to help the admissions committee get to know you. So don’t be shy, get personal (while answering the prompt in a clear way of course!).