Improve your chances for success by avoiding these common and costly essay mistakes
Essays are one of the most important ways students can share the details of who they are with the colleges they’ve selected. Those colleges will see on the high school transcript what a person’s grades are and how much rigor they’ve taken. They’ll see the results of that person’s ACT and SAT scores and they can get a feel for what a student does in his or her free time by reviewing the activities and awards sections on the admission application and on the student’s resume. Those are all clues to what a particular student’s potential is based on their accomplishments, but nothing in the record of activities, grades, rigor, achievements, or test scores reveals who the person really is. That’s where the essay comes in and shines a light that can either be welcomed or hated.
The key here is to prepare in advance so you can take full advantage of this opportunity to impress the colleges, but surprisingly, most people don’t take the time needed to make this first impression really count. I talked a lot about how to prepare a winning essay in a previous blog post, so if you haven’t seen it yet, stop now and go over to check it out first. It will give you some foundational insights into how to build a winning essay and provide some framework for how to organize your content efficiently so you can have the greatest impact possible on your applications.
Now if you’re solid on that part and want to make sure you don’t write something that misses the mark, this article is for you. And what I’m going to share with you here is based on conversations I’ve had with Admissions counselors and on my own personal experience reviewing hundreds of college essays for colleges ranging from the Ivy Leagues all the way down. I’m sure I don’t have all of the answers, but I can assure you that if you’ll follow my guidance here, you’ll end up with a more powerful and more influential essay that will help you get more of what you’re looking for in your college applications.
So let’s look at some of the common mistakes I see from even the brightest students, some of which claim to be very accomplished writers. The college essay is a different animal, and no matter how much you’ve written in the past, you’ll need some added direction to make your college essay really jam.
You should already have your subjects and material I told you about in the previous post ready to use and once you have your essay drafts in place, look for these 10 common mistakes - and fix them – before you send anything to anybody.
1. Not answering the essay prompt: Sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in the story you are telling that you forget to actually answer the essay’s prompt. Don’t do that. Essay readers at the college will appreciate a good, well-written story, but if it is doesn’t address the prompt, it will fall flat and cost you bigtime. Read the prompt at the beginning of your draft and then read it again when you’re finished. If you feel satisfied that it fully addressed what the college wanted from you, then you’re probably on the right track. If not, tweak it and make adjustments until you’ve covered all of your bases here.
2. Making grammatical errors and typos: It would seem to some that being thorough and careful when it comes to avoiding typos and mistakes would be a given with your college essay, but I see dumb mistakes in people’s essays all the time. We encourage students to write their essays early in the process and then walk away from them for a while so when they do come back, the material will be fresher – and their ability to catch mistakes will be enhanced. Edit and edit some more, but as you go, read the entire essay out loud, yes, verbally out loud, so you can better spot any mistakes, omissions, or errors. Once you feel like you have a version you can be proud of, let someone else read it fresh for the first time. They won’t know the thought process behind what you’ve written and they won’t infer things like tone and implied meaning into your material. Let them give you honest feedback and make any changes that add clarity or improve the emphasis your points are making.
3. Talking about someone else other than you: I’ve mentioned before that a great essay is much like an entry into a storytelling contest. And sometimes your story involves other people or it overlaps with their story in a way that requires you to tell about them so the reader can more fully understand your story. That’s perfectly logical, but remember this is your time to shine. Don’t use too much of your precious essay real estate talking about someone else. Use their story to provide context only and focus on telling your story as the featured presentation.
4. Using overly fluffy language: I’ve seen numerous college essays that were obviously written with a thesaurus nearby, and while having a strong vocabulary is good, using every word you can think of in your college essay can be a bit too much. Colleges want to see that you possess good command of the English language and you can do that by varying sentence structure and using appropriate vocabulary terms to describe the story you are conveying. It can be simple as long as it isn’t simplistic. And it shouldn’t read like Shakespeare or require the reader to look up the meanings of any words. That’s distracting for most college essay readers. Even at Ivy League colleges, overusing fluffy vocabulary words can cast a negative light on your essay. Aim for clarity and richness in your writing, not an abundance of overblown unnecessary jargon that you think makes you look smarter than you really are. The admission officers at these colleges are professionals. They know the difference between fluff and the real stuff.
5. Not writing enough or writing too much: This is a tricky one, but following the steps I gave you in the last blog post will help you steer through this one too. Some colleges have long limits on their essays and some are actually unlimited, although I can’t imagine the person who has to read those essays really voted for that to be a part of the deal when they designed the school’s application! Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you have an essay prompt that gives you 750 words to work with and let’s say that it is the central essay in their application, so you want to tell your best, most impactful story as you answer their prompt. I sometimes see students write 150-200 words for an essay like this and think they’re done. While you can say some very meaningful things in shorter essays, don’t be tempted to cut things off too soon. Expand your story and go deeper while you have the chance.
You may also be able to tie in two stories with similar or complementary themes for longer essays, especially if they don’t give you opportunities to share that information anywhere else on their application. On the other hand, don’t feel like you have to keep writing just because you have space left. When the story is over, stop writing. Being concise, but complete, is a good thing too. Find the right balance between length and completeness and add meaningful examples wherever you can to round out your best points. You can go all the way up to the last word they give you if you need it, but for longer essays that’s often not needed.
6. Writing about things that are not true: The colleges don’t have time to fact check everything you say in your college essay. After all, it’s a writing assignment, not a deposition. But, as a general rule, you should write about something that is for the most part factually true. You can embellish the details, change the timing or order of how things happened, and creatively connect the dots to help make your point or your story flow better, but don’t just pull something out of the sky and try to pass it off as your college essay. Like I mentioned before, these college Admission folks are pros and they can spot a phony when they see one.
7. Copying someone else’s essay: This mistake is a lot like the one I just covered. Your essay needs to be your own. The colleges won’t necessarily know how, or when, or if something is actually true, but they can spot a fraud and I’m sure you don’t want to risk being overlooked because they felt like you tried to cut a corner using someone else’s essay. I’ve worked with siblings a couple of years apart who wanted to use the older sibling’s Common App essay for the same prompt with the younger sibling’s application. I’ve always advised against doing things like that. I think it’s fine to use someone else’s essay as a guide or as an example so you can model their framework. But, you need to write your own college essay yourself. Don’t use a friends or try to copy something you found online. That’s a risky move and we are trying to remove risk from your college application process by making wise choices, not add risk to it.
8. Using humor inappropriately or being negative or condescending to another person or group of people: Humor is a great tool to use in speeches and in essay IF and only if you can pull it off well. And that’s extremely hard to do. For most people, the best advice I can give is add something light-hearted to your essay if it is appropriate for the story your telling, but stay away from trying to be funny or tell jokes. You don’t know who will be reading it and you probably have a greater likelihood of seeing your efforts fail than blowing them away with your amazing sense of humor. A smile or a brief laugh can go a long way to making your essay enjoyable and memorable, but approach humor respectfully and with caution. And use it sparingly, if you’re going to use it at all.
Comedians who write humorously often test their lines on multiple audiences and refine their delivery, word choices, and inflection many times to get the final version you see or hear. It usually doesn’t start out nearly as funny and you can’t afford to bomb on your college application because the person reading your essay “didn’t get it.” The same goes for any sarcastic or snide remarks about broad groups of people or about any one person individually, blatant or otherwise. If you have to write about something negative or a negative experience to answer the essay’s prompt, tread lightly and spin the story in a positive light to reflect something affirmative about you. It’s always better to take the high road, especially if you have to put something in writing. This goes for your college essays too.
9. Being vague and too general: Most top students have a list of impressive accomplishments, but they may have never had the opportunity to talk about them. So, they cut their teeth on telling their story in their college applications – with everything riding on their ability to do a good job. That’s not entirely their fault, but in order to accurately share the essence of what has made them excel and rise to the top, they have to be able to share specific details about themselves and their accomplishments in a way that sounds natural and convincing. Listing a bunch of “I’m this and I’m that” kind of stuff won’t work. And saying things like, “I’ve learned many things over the years as a volunteer in my community” are just too vague to make any impact.
Whenever I see something like this last statement, I always write or ask, “like what?” Show me specifics. Let me give you an example. Take the sentence, “I’ve learned many things over the years as a volunteer in my community” and make it more specific by saying something like, “Serving hundreds of underprivileged people in my community has been a life changing experience for me because meeting the needs of others has helped me become more compassionate, more generous, and more thankful for the blessings and opportunities I’m so fortunate to have.” Do you see the difference?
Saying you’ve learned “many things” means nothing, but taking the specific approach I’m giving you says a lot more. It says you volunteer to help people who are struggling. It implies that you’re a dedicated person because you probably didn’t reach that many people with just one or two visits to a homeless shelter. It says you’re a compassionate, sensitive person who is thankful, generous and mature enough to be aware of how good you have it compared to others who aren’t as fortunate as you. There’s a lot in that second sentence and it’s exactly the kind of stuff you want to have in your college essay. Be specific because the colleges are choosing specifically which students they want to add to their class for next year. Taking this approach will definitely help you be one of them!
10. Not doing your homework to know what the college is looking for in an ideal candidate: In the very first episode of my Making College Affordable podcast I talked about selecting colleges based on what you wanted and then discovering what they want from you in return. If you start your college search this way, you’ll end up with colleges that are a good fit for you. Then you can find out what they want and reverse engineer yourself to be a perfect fit for them.
This is helpful information to have when writing your college essay because you can tailor your message to speak their “Love Language” and naturally get better results than if you only talk about what you want from your college experience. Know what you want for sure, but explain things in a way that each college will appreciate so they will want to give you the chance to get those things. Here’s a quick example of this so you can see how it works.
Let’s say you want a college that has a strong academic reputation. And let’s say that this particular college really values academics and extracurricular activities from their ideal applicants. So instead of saying in your essay that it’s really important that you get a good education so you can get a good job after college, which is ultimately what your goal is, you can say something like “my extensive experience in a variety of challenging extracurricular activities has not only helped me learn how to communicate better and improve my time management skills, it has also helped me earn higher grades and tackle hard assignments with a greater sense of confidence.”
Now that’s a lot different than just talking about what you want from them, isn’t it? And it doesn’t have to be exactly like this, but think about it. The student wants a good education so he can get a good job after college. Going to that college would definitely help him get to where he wants to go, but the college has to give him that opportunity. So what is that college looking for? A person with good activities and a strong academic history, right? And now we can give the college what they want – “a variety of challenging extracurricular activities they can see on the application and resume, plus the benefits those activities have bred in the student, which has also made him better academically – and therefore a better fit for this particular college’s community.
Would you think that excelling in a variety of challenging activities, plus having good communication and time management skills, plus demonstrating a confidence to overcome challenges would help a person be a good candidate to get a good job after college? Of course. It also makes him a good candidate to get into that college that will help him get a good interview opportunity after college too. And it starts with an approach that meets the college’s needs while showcasing your strengths in the process.
Information vs. Insights There are a lot of people trying to advise students and their family’s for college. Almost everybody gives different versions of the same advice, especially when it comes to admissions - pick good colleges, apply early, and look around for scholarship opportunities. That’s all good, but it’s not what I’ve shared with you here.
These are real insights and the only way you can get these kinds of proven insights is to get them from a College Planning Specialist. That’s why I’m sharing them with you now, so you’ll have a fighting chance to beat the colleges at their own game. And it’s very likely that you won’t hear them from anybody else but me. That’s because other advisors either don’t know about what I’ve taught you today or because they underestimate the power having a strong, well designed college essay has in helping you reach your goals. It can make all the difference for you and I’m glad you’ve had the chance to learn about it now.
If you’d like to know more about how different college planners stack up and better determine which kind of college planner you should work with to get the results your family wants, you can download a free report that will show you which type of advisor is right for different types of situations. It can help you clarify what level of service you need for your family too. It’s totally free and I think it will help you, so check it out today.