Top 5 College Application Essay Writing Mistakes

Janson Woodlee, co-founder, IvyEyesEditing
light_bulbNot to freak you out, but here’s the nasty truth: Your college admissions essay needs to be the most authentically genius piece of writing you do up to this point in your life. At Ivy Eyes Editing, we read thousands of admissions essays each month, and have an astute sense of what makes an amazing admissions essay—and what makes a dud.

And we get it. It’s not easy to reveal the sum total of who you are in 500 words or less, all while telling a great story and showcasing the kind of originality the AdCom (Admissions Committee) wants to see.

What to do? Since we knew you’d ask, here are the top 5 mistakes we see applicants making every day.

  1. Zero authenticity. Most applicants approach their essay by writing what they think the AdCom wants to hear (“winning the swim meet was amazing—I’m so proud I won!”) rather than the grittier alternative (“winning the swim meet was amazing but surprisingly difficult—my swim career was over”). In truth, the more difficult, reflective material will actually position you as a stronger potential community member, and a more likable candidate. Keep it real!
  2. Tackling too much. The last thing you need to do is regurgitate your life story or your resume (horrors!). Consider exploring a range of material, even that which initially seems insignificant; a banal moment in a coffee shop or a conversation with a stranger could yield the kind of pithy content that shows your unique take on the world. Get granular and dig deep!
  3. Generic angles. Yes, there are unfortunate trends in college essay writing: The hyper-descriptive intro that starts with the onomatopoeia (“KA-BOOM!”), the one-size-fits-all, resume-supporting litany (describing the photos on a nightstand), the melodramatic essay that explores a difficult circumstance (“When my dog died…”). In the same way you wouldn’t want to be caught wearing the same outfit as all your friends, your admissions essay should smack of you and you alone. The best way to accomplish this? Stop trying so hard to find a way to tell your story, and just tell it. Go organic.
  4. Language level. Your admissions essay must be reader-friendly. The AdCom will balk (or fall asleep) at reading content akin to a PhD dissertation, and will toss out anything that sounds like an e-mail to your BFF. Ideally, your essay will strike a balance between formal prose and your genuine voice. Write in your own language, remembering to show rather than tell. And whatever you do, avoid clichés like the plague.
  5. Misusing the admissions essay. Your essay is one of the few wild card opportunities in your application—what do you want to show the AdCom that nothing else in your application reveals? This is an invaluable moment to articulate your strengths and strengthen your candidacy by subtly marketing yourself.

Although admissions writing calls for skills you might not use often, avoiding these pitfalls will help you as you refine your CommonApp, supplemental and scholarship essays.