It’s summer! You’re off to the beach to go and sunbathe and worry about nothing for three mon—
HA. Oh, wait. You’re technically a senior now, which means that, for the next six months, you’re saddled to that lovely bundle of joy known as…college apps! I’m sure you’re positively enthused.
Summer is the prime time to start out on your essays, especially since you won’t have much time during the first semester of your senior year. Every year, thousands of innocent college essays die due to common mistakes that could have easily been cured.
Don’t kill your chances at that dream school by falling into one of these writing traps!
1) Bad grammar
Ah, grammar. It sounds like a petty reason to dump your essay, but bad punctuation and incorrect spelling are one of the easiest ways to lose the interest of readers. It tells your audience that you either didn’t care enough to proofread your writing or lack the basic writing skills essential to a successful college career. In one MIT Admissions blog post, for example, the Associate Director of Admissions claims that, “When there get to be a lot of errors, we start to question how much time and effort the student has put into the application.”
Make spell-check your slave.
It’s tempting to concoct a dramatic story about your heartwrenching childhood or your three-month trek to salvation in the deserts of Nigeria or that time you got kidnapped at the North Korean border…But please. Don’t.
Lying—even to a small degree—will bite you back, more often than not. It only affords more chances for contradiction and major errors later in your application.
Also, as cheesy as it sounds, sincerity does matter. If you’re telling the truth and really communicate thoughts and emotions that you believe in, it will come across as a lot more powerful than a false story. It’s difficult to describe an experience in a real, sincere, and moving manner if it never happened in the first place.
3) Using the wrong college name
Nothing says “I re-used this essay” more clearly than using the wrong college name in your college app! If you’re going to use the same essay to apply to multiple colleges, make sure to double-check and write the correct college name in each essay. Berkeley won’t want to know that you’ve always longed to be a bulldog!
4) Not answering the question
It’s awesome if you have lots of ideas and lots to say, but make sure to actually answer the question on the way! (Unintentional rhyme.)
Colleges pick the essay topics that they do for a reason. If you miss the entire point of the question, it certainly won’t help them, nor will it say great things about your ability to follow basic instructions.
5) Using cliché’s
Sticking dramatic, inspirational quotes at the beginning of your essays sounded great in middle school, but for college essays…not so much. Neither do cliché phrases like “There’s no ‘I’ in team!” or “Everything happens for a reason!”
These platitudes look fine as desktop wallpapers, but in college essays (or any essay, for that matter), they come off as trite and uninspired.
6) Don’t scare off admissions officers
There’s a fine line between creativity and…weirdness. And creepiness. Colleges receive some pretty strange essays from people who’ve pushed the envelope a little too far. Take one Yale applicant, for example, who wrote about how she urinated on herself rather than remove herself from an intellectual conversation…thus demonstrating how she prioritized mental over physical needs.
You know you’ve crossed the line when Lady Gaga doesn’t approve. Go ahead and be unique, but don’t cross into absurdity.
7) Restate your resume
“What matters to me? Being the student council president, varsity basketball captain, and senior newspaper editor, I have a lot on my plate to handle. That didn’t stop me from flying to Uganda to build an orphanage last summer, however—a trip inspired by my gig as a White House intern and, consequently, the many long, meaningful conversations I had with Barack Obama. On an unrelated note, I have a 4.8 GPA.”
Oh, my. Do not reiterate all of your extracurriculars into your essays because that completely defeats the purpose of the essay. Not to mention, you’ll come across as a kiss-up who’s trying too hard.
You already listed your extracurriculars in a different section. The essay section is for admissions officers to know your character more—to really know who you are and what you stand for. Rather than spewing out all your extracurriculars, why not focus on one? Or something that the admissions officer isn’t already familiar with?
8) Sounding like an entitled brat
Despite the evil, terrifying image of admissions officers that many of us have conjured up in our heads…
…they’re actually real human beings! It’s difficult to swallow, I know. When you’re writing your essays, then, it’s a good idea to sound like, you know, a reasonably decent person. (Even though you’re secretly evil, of course.)
So, don’t talk endlessly about your countless lavish vacations to foreign countries or talk about how “I want to go to Stanford because I am a triple Stanford legacy, and my family is a huge donor.”
Hard-earned accomplishments speak louder than privileged opportunities…Show them what you’ve done on your own—not the favorable circumstances you’ve been born into.
And that’s it! These mistakes are harder to avoid when you’re pressed for time, so try to get a head start and write a couple now. Until then, check out this amazing post on how to maximize your summers!
…Have fun writing those essays!
Photo Credit: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7
About Maddi Lee
Maddi is currently a high school junior in southern California. She is an avid freelance writer and has been featured in multiple literary publications and anthologies. When she isn't writing, she loves traveling, doodling, and most of all, sleeping. Through her own experience and passion, she hopes to help guide fellow students through the roller coaster that is SAT and college admissions...that is, as long as she survives the journey herself!
Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!
If there’s a sign of the times in college admissions, it may be this: Steven Roy Goodman, an independent college counselor, tells clients to make a small mistake somewhere in their application — on purpose.
“Sometimes it’s a typo,” he says. “I don’t want my students to sound like robots. It’s pretty easy to fall into that trap of trying to do everything perfectly and there’s no spark left.”
What Goodman is going for is “authenticity” — an increasingly hot selling point in college admissions as a new year rolls around.
In an age when applicants all seem to have volunteered, played sports and traveled abroad, colleges are wary of slick packaging. They’re drawn to high grades and test scores, of course, but also to humility and to students who really got something out of their experiences, not just those trying to impress colleges with their resume.
The trend seemingly should make life easier for students — by reducing the pressure to puff up their credentials. But that’s not always the case.
For some students, the challenge of presenting themselves as full, flawed people cuts against everything else they’ve been told about applying to college — to show off as much as possible.
At the other extreme, when a college signals what it’s looking for, students inevitably try to provide it. So you get some students trying to fake authenticity, to package themselves as unpackaged.
“There’s a little bit of an arms race going on,” says Goodman, who is based in Washington. “If I’m being more authentic than you are, you have to be more authentic next month to keep up with the Joneses.”
Officers seek connections
Colleges say what they want is honest, reflective students. As Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania puts it, “everybody’s imperfect.”
“Since that’s true for all (students), those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic.”
How do colleges find authenticity? They look for evidence of interests and passions across the application — in essays, interviews, recommendations and extracurricular activities.
“What we see are the connections,” said Christopher Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina. If a student claims working in student government has been a meaningful experience, it’s a more credible claim if recommenders have picked on that as well.
“That, in my mind, gives authenticity to an application, when you’re reading things more than once,” Gruber said.
Doubt a good essay topics?
But in the age of the hyper-achieving student, authenticity doesn’t always come easy. Some schools, such as MIT, now specifically ask students to write about disappointment or failure. Many can only come up with a predictable and transparent answer: perfectionism.
Will Dix, a counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, who also spent eight years in the Amherst College admissions office, struggles to persuade students that essays about doubt and uncertainty can be at least as interesting to admissions officers as those with a conclusion that’s sweeping but implausibly confident for a 17-year-old.
“No one expects you to solve the mystery of life,” Dix says. “I sometimes get in trouble with parents for advising that. They’ll say, ’(colleges) will think he doesn’t know anything.”’
Dix counters by paraphrasing Socrates via Donald Rumsfeld: “The first thing is to know what you don’t know.”
Essay topics provide challenges
Susan Weingartner, another former admissions officer and now college counseling director at Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School, surveys her juniors about shortcomings and weaknesses. The next year, those now-seniors often are unsure what to write about. She digs up their junior-year responses, where they often find their topic — like one student last year who ultimately wrote a moving essay about his experience being overweight.
Weingartner has noticed more students writing about being gay. Some pull it off, coming across as honest, humble and reflective about the challenges they’ve faced. But others raise alarm bells by appearing to be traumatized or just looking for sympathy.
The challenge for students is a tough one to get your mind around: If you’re authentic, you feel pressure to rise above the fakers. But try too hard to do that, then you just appear to be, well, inauthentic.
Dix summarizes the logical muddle the student is in: “As soon as you ask someone to be authentic it’s impossible to be authentic.”
Giving them what they want to hear
Goodman, the independent counselor who advises making a small mistake to look authentic, unapologetically tries to hit the right note of authenticity: be true enough to make the full application consistent and credible, but also give colleges what they want to hear. He compares it to a politician who has learned to give a stump speech that makes every audience feel like it’s new.
And he defends the tactic with a point that several admissions deans frankly acknowledge: Colleges are guilty of playing games with authenticity, too.
“They soften their image with pictures of kids under trees, smiling in front of the library, engaging with a professor in a small group discussion,” Goodman says. What’s the difference between a college trying to look good to students and the reverse?
David Lesesne, dean of admission at Sewanee, a small Tennessee liberal arts college, admits Goodman has a point.
“Students perhaps have become less authentic to themselves, trying to be what colleges want,” Lesesne said. But colleges have done the same. Schools “are looking to draw more applicants and students are looking to gain acceptance,” he said. “As those numbers grow I think that has caused both sides of the equation to lose a little focus on what should be most important: the match.”
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