College Essay Help: Avoiding Essay Pitfalls

It’s officially fall, which means that early college application deadlines are just around the corner. For high school seniors who are (we hope!) working on their applications right now, never fear—last week’s episode of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation is here to help, with two segments on college essays and some timely questions on applying for financial aid.

College Essay Help: Avoiding Pitfalls

For the first segment, host Beth Heaton welcomed former Reed College and University of Chicago admissions officer (and Getting In co-host) Sally Ganga, to talk about essay pitfalls and how to avoid them. The idea for this segment was sparked by an essay that was making the rounds online—the “Costco essay,” written by a student who got into multiple highly selective institutions. She shared her unique essay online, which used a trip to Costco as an extended metaphor about her own values and perspective. While it worked for her, some students may read this essay and try to adopt a similar style and format, regardless of whether it fits their own personality and character.  In an enlightening conversation, Beth and Sally gave several great pieces of advice for students to help them avoid common pitfalls in approaching the essay:

  • Be sincere.
  • Avoid tricks.
  • Don’t read other students’ essays.
  • Beware the false epiphany.

Tune in for more on these and other essay tips.

Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompts

For the second segment, Beth welcomed College Coach colleague and former College of the Holy Cross and Babson College admissions officer Kimberly Asselta to discuss the Princeton University supplemental essay prompts. They went through this potentially daunting supplement, giving valuable advice on how to approach each piece:

  • Short answers: Answer off the top of your head, but then make sure your answers convey a balanced image of you, from serious to fun, academic to more personal.
  • Two short essays: Make sure these essays each tackle a different topic, and one different from your main Common App essay.
  • Long essay: Read the question closely, and chose the prompt that will most readily allow you to connect your main message to the original question.

Listener Questions: College Finance

After a brief spotlight on Purdue University, Beth welcomed back college finance expert Shannon Vasconcelos, who provided some in-depth answers to a couple of important—and timely—financial aid questions:

  • My daughter is a senior, applying to college this fall. When should we apply for financial aid?
  • My parents are divorced, and my father lives overseas. How do I apply for financial aid?

For answers to these questions and more information on all of the above, download the episode and have a listen! You’ll also want to carve out some time for our next episode, when host Ian Fisher takes a deep dive into the University of California essays, and also highlights scholarships with application deadlines in October, November, and December.


Written by Julia Jones
Julia Jones is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Julia previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Brandeis University and was the director of admissions at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School. Visit our website to learn more about Julia Jones.