The 5 Biggest Mistakes in College Admissions Essays

College admissions essays are important — and different.

The following is a guest post by Janson Woodlee, co-founder of Ivy Eyes Editing.

Mistakes in College Admissions Essays

Your college admissions essay is probably unlike anything you’ve ever written. What other class or context has demanded you compose a self-actualizing, authentic piece of prose that also subtly “markets” your life experience? The admissions context is unique in this regard, and requires some strategic understanding of your audience: what they’re reading and what they want to be reading.

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At Ivy Eyes Editing, we have read thousands of college admissions essays and established a solid calibration for what makes an admissions essay extraordinary. So, what are the 5 biggest mistakes that we see applicants routinely make?

Top 5 Biggest Mistakes

1. A lack of authenticity. Most applicants obtusely write what the AdCom (Admissions Committee) wants to hear (“winning the swim meet was amazing—I’m so proud I won!”) rather than the more difficult, reflective alternative (“winning the swim meet was amazing but surprisingly difficult—my swim career was over”). Authenticity makes you you, it makes you a stronger community member, and it makes you likeable. Keep it authentic!

2. Tackling too much. Most applicants try to compress their life story into their admissions essay; however, remember that your essay isn’t your resume in narrative form. Focusing on a seemingly insignificant moment in a coffee shop will likely yield more interesting, thoughtful content. Typically, you only have 800 words or so. Get granular and dig deep!

3. Generic angles. The hyper-descriptive intro that starts with the onomatopoeia (“KA-BOOM!”), the one-size-fits-all, resume-supporting framework (describing the photos on a nightstand), the melodramatic essay that explores a difficult circumstance (“When my dog died…”): we’ve all read these essays before. Your admissions essay is somewhat like a 1st date or conversation, and hackneyed narrative tactics will cause most listeners to tune out.

4. Language level. Your admissions essay must be fundamentally reader-friendly. It should not read like a dense PhD dissertation OR an informal e-mail to your best friend; it should strike a balance between the two. Don’t use a series of clichés. Do write in your own language and remember to show rather than tell.

5. Misusing the admissions essay. Your essay can truly be a marketing opportunity. There is a correct, subtle way to articulate your strengths and strengthen your candidacy. So, take a step back. Given the rest of your application, what should your reader know about you—and what does your essay tell them?

New Skill Set

Admissions writing truly requires a new set of skills which most high school applicants don’t frequently get to practice or cultivate. However, avoiding some of these pitfalls will help you as you refine your CommonApp, supplemental and scholarship essays.

Best of luck!


Janson Woodlee

Ivy Eyes Editing ( is an admissions and writing consultation company based in Los Angeles, and was founded on the principles of client collaboration, authenticity and skill-building. As a testament to the superior quality of their work, they provide each prospective client with a free assessment of their first submission.

Updated September 4, 2019

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