5 Fatal Flaws in Most College Application Essays
The college application essay is a solitary creature.
Of all the things you’ve written throughout high school, and of all the things you’re going to write throughout your adult life, the college essay stands alone. There’s nothing quite like it.
And yet it’s one of the most important things you’ll ever write. It’s the one thing that can humanize you in the eyes of college admissions officers—the people who decide whether you actually get to attend the schools to which you are applying. The essay is not the most important part of your application—your transcript is—but the essay can be a critical factor in the process, and a poorly written college essay is, at best, a wasted opportunity.
So your essay has to be good. Luckily, there are plenty of books out there that will show you how to write a great college essay. There are even examples of “perfect” college essays that got so-and-so accepted to Harvard and Yale. With all these resources available, writing a great college essay should be a snap.
But it’s not, and there are a few good reasons why.
First, writing is inherently difficult. Even for the best writers, putting thoughts down on paper in a cogent, coherent way takes a lot of energy, patience and time.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, the college essay requires a completely different sort of writing than most high school students are used to. There is a very specific purpose to the college essay, and the audience is highly specialized.
Imagine that audience for a moment. Picture yourself as a college admissions officer: reading, day in and day out, thousands of variations on a few different themes. After a few months, it’s difficult to maintain focus. After a few years, the essays all start to blend together. And at some point you begin to notice that many of the those essays contain the same fatal flaws, year after year. Applicants fall into the same traps—and you’re reading what feels like the same essay—over and over again.
For admissions officers, this is the very definition of drudgery. For the astute applicant, however, it’s something else entirely: an opportunity.
Because if you know what those traps are, you can avoid them and—with some creativity and diligence—write an essay that feels compelling and unique to admissions officers. With that in mind, and without further ado, here are the five fatal flaws you should remember as you formulate and write your college application essay—the five traps that you’ll need to sidestep if you want your essay to stand out.
Flaw #1: Submitting an English Paper
Throughout high school, you’ve been taught to write a certain way. So when you hear the word “essay,” the first thing you think of is the tried-and-true five-paragraph formula that has been drilled into your head since middle school:
thesis + topic sentences + evidence + conclusion
This can be a valid approach in many writing situations. But when it comes to the college essay, the five-paragraph formula is a recipe for failure. When college admissions officers read your essay, they don’t want to read a tidy summary of your personality and character. They want to get a glimpse of the real you: something they don’t already know from the rest of your application. Trying to illuminate who you are while using the five-paragraph formula is like trying to juggle while wearing a straitjacket.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use the skills you learned in English class to write this essay; it only means you have to use the right skills. The college essay should be a story, not a dissertation. And that story, at its core, can only be about one thing: you.
Flaw #2: Regurgitating Your College Résumé
This common pitfall is closely akin to the English trap. You’ve accumulated a list of impressive achievements during high school; the college essay might seem like the perfect excuse to shine a bright light on those achievements.
It’s not. Do not, under any circumstances, regurgitate your college résumé in this essay. The essay is about you, sure; but it’s not the cover letter for a job application. Your college essay should reveal something about you as a person, rather than just listing the capabilities and accomplishments of a high-achieving student. Those are important too, but all that stuff is obvious from the rest of your application. Writing about it in your essay will be redundant.
You can, however, use your college résumé when you’re trying to come up with a topic for your essay. It can be extremely helpful to have a handy breakdown of everything you’ve been doing for the last few years, but only if it helps you find a story that will help admissions officers get an idea of who you are beyond the grades and accomplishments.
Flaw #3: Focusing on Other People
As someone in their mid-to-late teens, you might be tempted to shift the focus of your essay onto someone more seasoned—like a parent or grandparent. They’ve been around for a long time; maybe their story will be a better showcase for your writing skills.
You might be right, but even the most interesting story about your grandfather’s bootlegging days will do little to show admissions officers what they want to know. Grandpa isn’t applying to their school; you are. He can be a part of your story, but only to the extent that it helps shed light on who you are as a person.
Sometimes, finding your own story means sifting through the larger story around you. As meaningful as the stories of others might be to you, they should only serve as a backdrop.
Flaw #4: Pretending You’re Superman
This seems to happen in particular when parents have too much input regarding their child’s essay. It comes down to human nature: parents naturally see the best in their children, and they’re usually pretty accustomed to—however subtly—letting others know how spectacular their children actually are. The result, when that seeps into their child’s essay, is what I call the Superman Trap. The applicant is presented as superhuman and flawless.
The problem: when it comes to college admissions, “flawless” can often mean “lifeless.” Even worse, these “superhero” essays can seem insincere or unrealistic. Put yourself in the admissions officer’s place. It’s one thing to have a college full of perfect students; it’s another thing to have a college full of students who think they’re perfect.
Instead, imagine how wonderful it would be for that admissions officer to stumble upon an essay written by a brilliant young student who is also humble and introspective: someone who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and who expects to grow through the college experience. Perfection is not attractive. It’s not even possible, and admissions officers know that.
Flaw #5: Hiding Behind Your Sport
If you’re an athlete, your sport takes up a lot of your time. More importantly, your sport can be a large part of who you are.
So when it’s time to write your essay, it seems perfectly reasonable to put your sport front and center. But tread carefully. One of the biggest mistakes athletes make in their college essay is to allow themselves to be overshadowed or defined by the game they love. More importantly, it’s very difficult to make any sports-oriented essay seem fresh. Admissions officers have read—and will read again this year—stacks of essays about the big game, overcoming an injury, or that tournament-winning shot.
If you’re eager to share your love for your sport in your college essay, ask yourself why this is the case. Perhaps it’s because sports often bring out the best in us: the ability to handle challenges—including losing—or to balance all the expectations and the pressures we face.
Ask yourself what, specifically, you’d like to convey through your “sports” essay. Then ask yourself whether you can communicate this same thing through a different topic. If you can, you’ll show admissions officers that you’re more than just a jock. Instead of hiding behind your sport, use what you’ve learned from your sport to tell a story about yourself.
Those are the five most common traps
I see students fall into when writing their essays. Before I finish, I want to mention one other trap. I hinted at it above, but I want to state it plainly before I send you on your way. There is no such thing as a “perfect” essay
It doesn’t matter how many sample essays or how-to books you’ve read, you can’t write an essay that will make admissions officers swoon if all you’re doing is pretending to be the person you think they want at their school. The person they really want you to be in your essay is the person you already are.
Cassie Nichols is a private college admissions counselor in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Princeton in 2002 and earned her Masters of Arts degree in Education from UC Santa Barbara in 2008.
She is the author of The College Essay Trap, and one of the co-founders of Collegica, which provides premium college admissions counseling services to families worldwide via Skype.
Would you like to receive articles like this via email? Sign up for the Collegica Bulletin!