College applications are stressful and nothing makes my students freeze up quite like the college essays portion. There are tons of examples of what good college essays look like out there and sometimes I see my students trying to imitate them — only to completely miss the mark.
And it’s okay to try emulating a successful style, but not at the sacrifice of you own voice or story. Plenty of my students seem to think if their essay doesn’t look exactly like one of the successful ones they saw online, then they think their essay is bad. Which brings me to what I’ll be covering today: what bad college essays look like and how to know if you need to re-do the ones you’ve written. Keep reading to learn more.
What Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays
As open as college essays are, there are still some things you need to avoid. I’ve compiled a list of the biggest mistakes my students have made on their essays to help you improve your essay. So before you hit the submit button, read over these carefully with your college consultant and see what improvements you need to make to your college essays.
Baring Your Soul
There is something very comforting and very cleansing about talking to a blank piece of paper. It makes you want to talk more and more about what you’ve been through and experienced. But your college essays are not here for you to share all of your personal information. The admissions committees don’t really need to hear about how you lost your virginity or the details about how your disability has impacted your bodily functions. Leave out the gruesome details and keep private things to yourself.
Bragging About Your Poor Judgement
I know it’s fun to talk with your friends about all the bad things you've gotten away with, but sharing them in your college essays will not make you seem cool. If anything, it will make accepting you to their school look like a bad idea. Breaking the law with illegal drugs, underage drinking, stealing, and the like will not make you seem like a good addition to any college campus. And maybe leave out all the colorful negative traits about yourself, too.
There is a very fine line between being confident and arrogant, and that line is even fuzzier when it’s in written form. Being a show-off is not going to make you seem like an appealing candidate or an obvious choice for any school. If anything, it will make you seem immature and not ready for the challenges you’ll face in life or college. Awareness and humility will go much farther than talking about how that one time you picked up trash to save the planet.
Telling the Expected Story or Lesson
The purpose of college essays is to help you stand out from the crowd. Admissions officers will read thousands of essays before coming to yours. Which means they’ve already ready a few hundred essays that are just your resume with some filler words, how doing community service in a third-world country completely changed your life, every sports-centered essay you can imagine, how death or divorce made you sad, meta essays, comparison essays about how your life or personality are exactly like this one everyday object, the essay that starts with an infamous quote, and how everyone else thinks they can save the world. These people have literally read all of that multiple times. Don’t be one of them. Be a breath of fresh air.
I’m sure your thoughts on how the seeing the Mona Lisa in person are very moving, that your Aunt Agnes deserves every tribute you want to give her, and that there are famous people with a lot of good thoughts as well. None of that belongs in your college essays. You have a very strict word count and it’s important that every sentence you use contributes to the main idea of your essay. Leave Aunt Agnes and the Mona Lisa for another time.
Being Controversial or Vulgar
You don’t know who will be reading your colleges essays and while it’s fun to shock people; you can end up turning off a potential advocate, because you opted for being offensive. There are plenty of other ways to get the admissions committee’s attention than writing a manifesto on heated political or religious topics. Don’t take the easy way out by choosing this route. You’ll only be hurting your chances in the end.
Don’t You Take That Tone With Me
Being whiny, cynical, and condescending in your college essays will not win you any brownie points or be impressive. If anything, you’ll turn off those who are reading your submissions and disrupt your chances of being accepted. Be mindful of your tone and make sure you’re not falling into a voice that leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.
On the flip side, don’t turn into a robot and be emotionless to avoid the tone problems I mentioned above. Emotions are still very vital to your story, because it is your story. Put yourself into it and give details so the reader feels part of the story. If your essay feels like the summary on the back cover of a book, you need to go back to the drawing board.
The Style No One Understands
In your quest to stand out, it’s tempting to submit your essay in a different format or to string together a bunch of big words to make yourself sound more intelligent. Let me just stop you right there. This is an essay. It needs to be submitted in essay format and only in essay format. Leave your musical talents out of this and write like the teenager you are instead of trying to pose as a college professor. You won’t be fooling anyone.
No Editing in Sight
They’re, their, there, we’re almost done. Submitting your essay without critically editing it for grammar errors, typos, punctuation issues, and making sure you’ve varied the words enough to keep your essay from being monotonous is a mistake. Also be sure to stick to the word limit. Admissions officers want to see how brilliant you can be inside of the boundaries they’ve set up for you.
College essays are tricky and there’s plenty of ways they can go wrong. And that’s okay. As long as you and your college consultant catch them before you send them in, it’s never too late to improve your essays.
Do you think we should talk more about bad college essays? Did you notice any of these things in your essays? Let us know in the comments section below.