Over the course of the past 16 years, I have read thousands of college applications and the personal statements that accompany them. Some essays have remained fresh in my mind – often because the topics were inspiring, powerful, humorous, or beautifully written – but other essays stand out for all of the wrong reasons. Below are four of my most noteworthy observations about college application essays, including blunders students should avoid at all costs.
- Poor Paragraph Formatting
You might be surprised by the number of students who submit an application essay that appears as one giant text block, with no paragraph delineations whatsoever. Not only is this kind of essay more difficult for admissions officers to read, it also gives the impression (perhaps falsely) that the author does not know how to properly use paragraphs in a formal essay. While it’s true that the Common Application occasionally does play (i.e. mess) with students’ formatting when text is cut and pasted into the essay section of the application, it’s absolutely imperative that applicants proof their essay to ensure that all appropriate formatting – including paragraph breaks – is intact. And if you’re not sure where those paragraph breaks belong, ask your English teacher for assistance!
- Introductory Paragraphs That Contain No Relevant Information
In school, many students are taught to begin an essay with a broad introductory paragraph to set the scene for the writing that follows. For example, in an essay about the importance of color in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a student might be encouraged to wax poetic about the role of color in all of our lives, and how some colors might elicit feelings of love, anger, or sadness. But in a college application essay that generally will not exceed a page in length, such flowery and often rambling paragraphs are both unnecessary and damaging to the overall essay. There is no room to include a paragraph that contains little to no personal information about the applicants themselves. By deleting your first paragraph outright, you allow the reader to jump right into the meat of your story and become instantly engaged.
- Overly Polished Main Essays & Weak Supplemental Essays
Imagine you read an application that contains a flawless personal statement. The topic is captivating, the writing is superior, and you can’t identify a single grammatical flaw. Then you turn your attention to that same student’s supplemental essay and see striking dissimilarities: the flow is awkward, mechanical errors abound, and the entire essay feels as though it were dashed off in a matter of minutes. Do you, as a seasoned admissions officer, believe that the same student wrote both of these essays? And what’s more, do you believe that the finely crafted main essay was a product of the student’s own efforts, with minimal outside assistance? Admissions officers will not be fooled, and they expect students to submit genuine examples of their own work that are factually true and honestly presented. If they have reason to believe that a student broke the ethical rules set forth by the Common Application (or any other application platform), the consequences could be significant. Students’ essays should always represent their own best work.
- Cookie-Cutter Supplemental Essays
Many colleges – including Duke, NYU, Tulane, and the University of Wisconsin – require students respond to an additional essay topic that asks, “Why are you interested in our college?” And most students do conduct at least a modicum of research to help them draft a solid response. It’s incredibly common, for example, to see students mention a particular major, class title, professor’s name, or club that’s associated with that particular college. But what’s unfortunate is how many students write generic responses to these supplemental essays using snippets of this same research they’ve gathered online. I almost liken it to a game of Mad Libs, where the student has a formulaic essay that ultimately becomes peppered with small (and often meaningless) examples that poorly demonstrate why they are supposedly interested in that college. If students want to make a positive impression and express authentic enthusiasm for the school, they should dig much deeper. My advice: Look for college-specific academic offerings that relate to your own interests; talk to current students or alumni to gather anecdotes about the school that you can’t find in a college guide book; think about the academic and personal goals you have for yourself and identify how that specific college can help you achieve them. Yes, it takes a lot more work to do this kind of intensive research, but this is what differentiates a lackluster essay from an outstanding one.
If you’re ready to begin writing your own college application essays, College Coach is here to help! Be sure to look through all of our blogs about college essays written by our college admissions experts. Additionally, you can find the 2019-20 prompts for the Common Application, Coalition Application, University of California Application, and Apply Texas Application here.