Avoiding Common College Admission Essay Errors

Crafting the personal essay, aka the ‘main’ college admissions essay, is easier than you think. At its most fundamental, the personal essay is simply a storytelling exercise that demonstrates your ability to write. It should reveal a bit about what makes you tick—your passions, your point of view, your motivations, or an anecdote that demonstrates personal growth.

Ideally, the picture you paint with your words will enable the admissions reader to understand the kind of person you are, and as a result, imagine you as an admitted freshman on their college campus.

Avoid reciting information that is already included in your application, such as your transcript or extracurricular activities. Instead, tell the admissions reader something he or she might not know about you by reading through ‘just the facts.’ For example, you may have included your summer job as a lifeguard in the Activities section of the CommonApp. But the admissions reader might learn more about you if you share the story of the 80-year old former Olympian you carefully watched swim each morning, and the enduring friendship you developed through daily poolside chats.

You be you. It is easy to overwork the personal essay by stuffing in too many adjectives that you might not normally use in everyday speech, or by using cumbersome sentence structure. Your essay topic might not be unique, but your voice as a writer is, so don’t lose it in the editing process. Use an active voice. Write it as you would tell it to a classmate.

On that note, try reading your essay aloud to yourself or to a trusted friend. This will help you understand how the flow of your ideas is digested by the reader. If you find your meaning getting lost in the reading, consider shortening your sentences by dropping in a few periods. If your read-aloud audience doesn’t ‘get’ what you are trying to say, revise.

Wasted words. Avoid repeating the essay question in the essay itself. This does little to engage the reader and uses up your precious 650-word count limit unnecessarily. Don’t tell the reader what you are going to tell them—just tell them. For example, if your essay begins with something like, “When asked … I would have to say that …” there is a high probability some of this introductory content can be eliminated.

Avoid using words that do not add much value, like ‘really,’ ‘very,’ or ‘interesting.’ Proceed with caution when using superlatives. Make sure your essay fully answers the essay prompt, and confirm that your essay is not so generic that it could have been written by just about anybody. Be specific with details that are true to you and which will show, not tell, the reader why you are a perfect fit.

Ask a counselor or teacher to read through your first draft and provide suggestions. Alternatively, give yourself a break. Write your first draft and purposefully avoid returning to the essay for a week or two. At that point, do a read-through with fresh eyes, reviewing not only for grammar, but also for story line, transitions, readability, voice, and tone. You may find, as I often do, that your story really begins in the second paragraph, and the writing before that point can be trimmed. This is also a helpful approach if you are struggling with a conclusion. So, give yourself a break and come back with your mind recharged. You may find you have a fresh perspective that will enable you to get to the finish line.