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Risk Taking In College Application Essays: What (and NOT) To Do

May 03, 2024 :: Admissionado Team

When it comes to writing your college application essays, playing it safe can make you seem less appealing, boring, and well, just plain forgettable in the eyes of the admissions committees (we call them adcoms). Who wants that? So then… you want to take risks in your writing, eh? Excellent. You’re on your way. But beware… there are bad risks as well as good ones, and you’re going to want to avoid them.

Writing Risks To Take 

GOOD RISK. Ah, magnificent, irreplaceable. Yes, good risk can elevate an essay to marvelous, memorable heights, and it comes in a few flavors—which aren’t mutually exclusive, mind you. Let’s explore your options.

1. Be Truthful About Who You Are, The Way You Feel, And Why

The first and best kind of good risk is emotional honesty. Many applicants are afraid to reveal their true sentiments for fear of being judged or seen as overly sensitive, weak, or even unstable. However, it’s so refreshing in an application essay to hear how someone really feels. We’re emotional beings, and one of the easiest ways to relate to another person (i.e. an admissions officer) is to share your feelings. Instead of describing the dry narrative of an achievement, tell us how you reacted emotionally. Baring just a little bit of your soul can go a long way.

2. Show Your Vulnerability, It Makes You Human

The second type of good risk goes hand in hand with emotional honesty: showing vulnerability. You can’t help but do this when being emotionally honest (you’re giving access to your innermost feelings, after all), but it goes deeper than that. Showing vulnerability is a way of humbling yourself, of saying, “Hey, I’m not perfect… I’ve got my flaws.” The important thing to remember is that you must always follow up with a positive glimpse into the future (i.e. talk about how you’re going to improve and address/conquer these shortcomings). Self-deprecation is good, but it’s most effective when paired with an earnest resolution for improvement.

3. Give Fresh Perspective On Something Common

Finally, good risk can mean presenting a seemingly bland topic from an unexpected angle. Many applicants write about their relationships with parents or older siblings—how they look up to them, are inspired by their example, etc. This is common, so if you’re going to write about it, you need a fresh perspective. I can’t tell you exactly what this fresh perspective is, because it needs to come from inside you. In other words, you’re the only person on Earth who is able to tell your narrative in a personal way.

For illustration, I’ll provide you with an example, straight from the mind of our brilliant senior consultant Cleo Handler. In her application essay, Cleo picked a common topic—her love of the Harry Potter series—and dealt with it in an unexpected way. Instead of gushing about the books or characters themselves, Cleo spoke about how her admiration of the series helped provide her with something more intangible: a feeling of interconnectedness with her generation.

In her essay, she described the collective atmosphere of waiting together with others for each book’s new release—everyone bundled up in the cold, chatting with excitement, sharing hot chocolate—as well as the companionship she felt later on while discussing the varied reactions to the novels. Ultimately, Cleo converted well-worn territory into fertile ground with her fresh perspective, allowing her to craft a unique, winning application essay.

Writing Risks To Avoid

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.” 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. The truth is… this couldn’t be a more inaccurate approach. 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. Here are things you want to avoid:

1. Being 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. 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. 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.

Still want to know more? Listen to Raj’s (co-founder and CEO) perspective on taking risks when writing application essays. He talks about two forces at play in many student’s heads while writing.

  1. The desire of a student to truly express themselves in a particular way.
  2. A “vapor of nervousness that enshrouds the entire process of not making mistakes, not stepping into danger territory.

Force #1 often gets overpowered by force #2. Where do students go from there? Listen in.