In writing a successful admission essay we have found that it is just as important to know what not to do. This list of the worst essay-writing boo-boos comes from years of experience as well as from interviews with admission officers and students. While some seem obvious, it is always surprising how often these mistakes are committed each and every year.
Read this list and then read it again as you are writing your essay.
1. DON’T try to be someone else. This means you should avoid portraying yourself as Mother Teresa when the closest you have ventured to philanthropy was watching 10 minutes of the Muscular Dystrophy telethon. Often applicants are tempted to create an alter-ego of what they think is the perfect student. Because the essay is a creative effort, it is very easy to stretch the truth and exaggerate feelings and opinions.
How can admission officers tell a fake or forced essay? Easy. Phony essays don’t match the rest of the application or teacher recommendations. They may also lack details that can only come from real experiences. Admission officers have read thousands of essays and if they believe your essay to be less than the truth, you will diminish your chances of getting in. Besides, we guarantee that there is something about you that has the makings of a stellar essay. If you spend the time developing this in your essay, you will be able to blow the admission officers off their feet in a way that no pretense or exaggeration could.
2. DON’T get stuck on the introduction. In most cases students don’t spend enough time on their introductions. Often this is not an irreversible mistake since admission officers are reading for overall meaning. However, for a few students the introduction is where they spend all their time. We have seen introductions that took up an entire page. While the introduction was vivid and full of detail, it did not leave enough room for the rest of the essay. Do spend time on your introduction, but don’t let it become the best part of your essay. Get the attention of the reader, then move on to the heart of the essay.
3. DON’T write in clichés. Clichés include phrases like…
All’s well that ends well.
Practice what you preach.
It’s a no-brainer.
To you, phrases like these may seem clever. You may even use them regularly. But to admission offi cers, clichés are not only trite but they also reveal a lack of sophistication and originality. If you use clichés you will sound no better than a well-trained parrot. You want the admission officers to know that you are a capable writer who has the imagination and skill to write without the crutch of other people’s overused phrases.
4. DON’T over quote. Along a similar vein as clichés, quotations also tend to make essays sound parrot like. In analytical essays, quotations are often a valuable component. However, in the limited space of the college essay, maintain your originality and don’t allow quotations to distract from your voice. Since quotations are not your own words, don’t use them in a critical point or in place of your own analysis. Using a very well-known quotation is especially dangerous since many other applicants will almost certainly use similar quotations in their essays. If you want your essay to be memorable, it must be original. Put aside the Bartlett’s Book of Quotations and start writing for yourself.
5. DON’T cross the line between creativity and absurdity. Most of the time the problem with admission essays is that they are not creative enough. However, some applicants, in an effort to insure that their essay is one-of-a-kind, go too far. Rather than sounding original and insightful, their essays appear trite and silly. A general rule is that you want your work to be as creative as possible but not so creative that admission officers won’t take it seriously. If you have a question about whether your work crosses the line in the creativity department, get a second or third opinion. If one of your readers feels that the essay may be a little too off-the-wall, then tone it down or even abandon it. The college application is not the place to experiment and take radical chances. While you should write creatively, beware of the easy crossover into silliness.
6. DON’T go thesaurus wild. Imagine the following tragic scene….ambulance lights are flashing, debris is scattered across the road and yellow police tape lines the highway. What happened? A terrible headon collision between an essay and a thesaurus. It happens every year and nearly every time the results are not pretty. Writing your essay in the words of a thesaurus is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Many of the alternate words you find in a thesaurus will probably be unfamiliar to you. This means that if you use these alternate words, you run a high likelihood of using them awkwardly or incorrectly.
Admission officers possess keen radar for picking out essays co-authored by a thesaurus. Call them psychic for this, but such essays really are not that hard to spot. Here is an excerpt from an essay that was definitely under the influence of the thesaurus.
To recapitulate myself, I am an aesthetic and erudition-seeking personage. My superlative design in effervescence is to prospect divergent areas of the orb and to conceive these divergent cultures through the rumination of the lives of indisputable people.
This essay is the worst of its kind for using a thesaurus as a poor co-author. The author is clearly trying to impress, but has totally butchered correct word usage, not to mention common sense.
7. DON’T write a humorous essay if you are not humorous. Few people can write truly humorous essays, though thousands will try. Even if it may seem funny to you, all it takes is for one admission officer to be offended and you can kiss that letter of acceptance goodbye. Unless you are a truly gifted humor writer, the test being that people other than yourself have said so, then stay away from the humorous essay. Think about stage comedians. Not everything they say is funny to everyone in the audience. Remember who your audience is and that your sense of humor is different from theirs. Untested humor is too difficult and unreliable to use in such a high-stakes essay.
8. DON’T resort to gimmicks. Applicants have written their essays in fluorescent highlighter or nail polish, sent cookies baked in the shape of the university’s seal along with the essay and enclosed audio mood music that admission officers were supposed to play while reading their essays to create the right ambiance. These tricks, while entertaining, are no substitute for substance. While printing your essay in any other color than black is simply a bad idea from the point of view of readability. Sending videos, audio tapes, computer programs and other multimedia is also usually a poor idea since they are often less impressive to admission officers than applicants may think.
9. DON’T write a sob story. Some students feel that they should catalog all the misfortunes and challenges that they have faced. While obstacles and family tragedies are appropriate topics, focusing on them without commenting on how you have grown or overcome those barriers will not make for a strong essay. While college admission officers are interested in obstacles, they are even more anxious to learn how you have excelled despite these challenges.
10. DON’T flex. For some strange reason, many applicants have a tendency to write about the great mysteries of the world or momentous philosophical debates in an effort to show admission officers their intelligence and sophistication. At Harvard we called people who wrote essays that aimed to impress rather than educate flexors as in people who flex their intellectual muscles.
While these essays attempt to present the illusion of sophistication, they are usually entirely without substance. Often they simply parrot back the opinions of others and unless the writer is indeed knowledgeable about the subject, such essays are completely unoriginal.
College admission officers do not want to read an uninformed 17-yearold’s diatribe on the nature of truth or the validity of Marxism. And admission officers most certainly do not want to be lectured. Essays that try to impress with pseudo-intellectualism are definite candidates for the trash bin.
Remember the goal of the essay. Admission officers want to learn about the kind of person you are and the things that you have done. However, if your passion is reading Marx, then by all means write about it, but put it in perspective. Write about how you became interested in Marxism or its personal significance to you.
11. DON’T write a resume. A resume is the place where you detail your educational background, activities and jobs in terms of years of participation, titles and responsibilities. This should not be the topic of your college admission essay. Yet we have seen many students turn in essays that simply list their achievements like a resume, repeating information found elsewhere in the application and adding little if any insight.
12. DON’T try to second-guess what the admission officer wants to read. There are very few topics that you should avoid and there is absolutely no correct way to write an essay. Don’t be afraid to try something unconventional and don’t kill a good idea just because you think the admission officers wouldn’t like it. If you care about your subject and it is important to you, the admission officers will appreciate your essay.
13. DON’T wait until the last minute. We have said before that the only way to test a topic is to write. We have emphasized that the only way to improve an essay is to keep re-writing. All of this requires time. One of the students who shared his essay in this website went through 20 drafts before he was finished. It took a lot of work, but his final product was worth the effort. The earlier you start writing the better. Plus, you want to make sure that you have time after your editors see your work to be able to make changes. Always allow yourself two to three times the time that you think it will take to write the essay.
14. DON’T generalize. Don’t just say that you are a strong leader. Detail an example of when you’ve been a leader. Describe how you felt, what you did to motivate others and what you learned from the experience. Admission officers want details and examples from your life, not generalizations.
15. DON’T say it, show it. The best essays bring the readers into the middle of the action and help them see what the writer sees and hear what the writer hears. Appeal to the different senses. What can the reader see from your essay? Hear? Smell? (Hopefully nothing rotten.) The more you can draw the reader into your essay by using rich description the better.
16. DON’T get lazy with sentences. To write a truly memorable essay, each sentence needs to captivate the audience. That means that every sentence and each word in each sentence has to do its job of advancing the story or making a particular point. If you don’t need a word or sentence, get rid of it. Don’t settle for a long, convoluted sentence when a shorter one will do. Be much disciplined and make every word count.
17. DON’T start the essay with MY NAME IS. We don’t usually dedicate a mistake to a specific phrase, but this one is used so often to start essays that we felt it necessary. Never, no matter what the circumstances, start your essay with this phrase. Spend the time to come up with a decent introduction.
18. DON’T use ghost writers. There is a disturbing trend of students hiring other people to write their essays. Not only is this unethical, but if you are caught (even after you are in college) you can expect immediate expulsion. While we encourage you to find people to edit your work and give you feedback, we absolutely reject the idea of anyone other than you writing your essay.
19. DON’T treat online applications like email. Written hastily and casually, most of the email we receive is full of errors. Unfortunately, when students submit their essays online there is a temptation to compose and submit their essays as if they were writing an email. This means the essays are not printed and proofread as carefully as they would be if submitted the old-fashioned way. If you are going to submit your essays online, be sure to print them out first and have other people edit your work. Treat essays submitted online as you would essays to be mailed.
20. DON’T assume specific knowledge. It is easy to forget that what you are familiar with may not be apparent to an admission officer. For example, you might write about the qualities of a new cartoon that everyone is talking about at your school. Everyone except the admission officer that is. Remember that you are a different generation. If you are writing about a teen idol, show or song you might want to add a one-sentence description for the benefit of those who may not be as familiar with it.
21. DON’T write a Hallmark card. Many essays written about family, grandparents or even history tend to be sentimentalized. This is because you respect these people and their deeds. However, praising family members or teachers and presenting their life and achievements as a tribute does not make an effective essay. It also shows a lack of critical analysis. We can all write glowing stories about our families, but it takes a more insightful person to write truthfully and even critically.
22. DON’T spill your guts. When we say that you need to reveal something about yourself we assume that it will be positive, be something that you are proud of and impress anybody reading it. You don’t want to reveal secrets or write an exposé. Admission officers want to be impressed, not shocked or embarrassed. If what you are writing belongs in your diary then don’t submit it to a college.
23. DON’T turn anything in without having at least one other person read it. It is vital to find people to read the essay and make comments. They will alert you to areas that are unclear and catch mistakes that you miss. Often their input is critical to the process of building a successful essay.
24. DON’T let your editors ruin your essay. There is one danger with editors. If you thoughtlessly incorporate every suggestion, you can end up destroying your essay. Keep in mind that you are the author and not every recommendation an editor makes may be necessary. You must agree with their opinions. You must remain in control or else your essay will lose its voice and focus.
25. DON’T end with a whimper. A powerful conclusion leaves readers with a strong impression of you. Try to end with something insightful or thought-provoking. Give the reader a memorable line or revelation that will stick with them after they put the essay down. And whatever you do, don’t abruptly end your essay with the words THE END.