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5 College Essay Writing Mistakes to Avoid

thoughtful college student sitting at outdoor table with pen in hand

By Matt Musico*

The college essay is one of the most important parts of an application. While writing yours, avoid these five common mistakes.

The college admissions journey has different stages – and different stress levels associated with each one. Writing the college essay is among the most stressful parts of the process for students I’ve worked with. They often struggle — and stress out — during the writing process because of a number of misconceptions about what the essay is and how to approach it.

Below are five common blunders students sometimes make when starting their college essays, and some tips for how to avoid them.

1. Dismissing “Unremarkable” Stories

I always enjoy sitting down with students for an essay brainstorming session because we get to talk about them and the stories that stand out in their minds. There have been many occasions where someone says, “I don’t have anything good to write about.” Thankfully, that’s the furthest thing from the truth for many students.

The story you tell in an essay is important. However, it’s not more important than how you tell it and the impact it’s had on you. Simply talking about how you fixed a broken bathroom cabinet as a seven-year-old isn’t a remarkable story on the surface. But it becomes remarkable when you discuss how that experience laid the foundation for your mindset to not give up when faced with unknowns and other intimidating situations. And it becomes even more remarkable when you continue sharing events later in life displaying that same determination.

Just because a story doesn’t sound interesting at first doesn’t mean you can’t turn it into something memorable. The difference is digging a layer or two below the surface to uncover the true meaning and the impact the story has had on you.

2. Not Talking About Yourself Enough

Your essay is one of the few spots in a college application where you can display your personality. The whole point of writing the essay is to help an admissions officer get a sense of who you are. So, don’t waste this opportunity to give them a glimpse.

You might want to write about someone who has had a profound impact on you, or an event that was meaningful in your life. If you do, make sure you’re wrapping up the story with how this person or event changed you and how you’ve lived your life since that moment. While the story itself may be excellent, the reader wants to know what the person or experience means to you. Tell them! 

3. Approaching the College Essay Like an English Paper

If you’re assigned a paper in English, Social Studies, or any other class, there are certain essay elements to uphold. Having a dedicated introduction and conclusion, using sophisticated “SAT” words, as well as writing in a formal tone and using proper grammar are typical ones.

The Common Application only allows up to 650 words for an essay. That might sound like a lot of room, but it’s not. A typical introduction in a term paper might take up 150 to 200 words, leaving less room for the parts of your essay that are the most interesting.

So, don’t necessarily approach your essay like you would an English paper. The typical format you’re used to isn’t needed, and it’s okay to write in the first-person. A thesaurus isn’t necessary to make things sound more impressive. If you wouldn’t use the word “plethora” or “evocative” in daily conversation, then don’t force them into your college essay.

Having a hard time finding the right tone to use? Think of a teacher you have a good relationship with. If you saw them in the hallway and stopped to have a short conversation, what kind of tone would you have? It would likely be friendly, yet respectful. That’s the tone to aim for in your essay.

4. Trying Too Hard to Impress

As mentioned above, the college essay is supposed to give the reader a glimpse of who you are – not necessarily a list of what you’ve achieved. Don’t approach this part of your application as you would a cover letter for a job.

There is another place to list the extracurricular involvement and accomplishments you’re proud of. It’s in your activities list. Simply re-sharing that list without adding much context or new information won’t catch a reader’s attention.

Are you interested in pursuing politics because your involvement in student government inspired you? Then share stories about how that happened. Discussing the specific impact your activities and accomplishments had on you — and what you learned about yourself or how you grew as a result — will provide the reader with more context and make your essay more memorable and effective.

5. Not Getting Specific Enough

If you’re an athlete and want to write your essay about winning a championship or an important game, it’s easy to say how you learned the value of hard work and coming together as a team. However, just about any athlete could write that general statement and many have.

The best way to avoid broad statements that sound like clichés or too generic is to pick personal stories that illustrate your point. These should be stories where you can share a lot of detail — so much detail that once you read it back to yourself, there’s no doubt you’re the only person who could have told that story. To uncover important details, ask yourself how you were feeling at certain points in the story. Why were you feeling that way? How has this experience or person changed your perspective?

I’ve typically told students that the Common Application essay’s 650-word limit gives you enough space to share two or three detailed personal stories that relate back to the overall theme of their essay. Some students want to tell three different stories that display a personality trait of theirs. Others might want to share only one or two.

There are many ways to approach how to structure your essay. What’s most important is whether you told your stories with enough detail to make them meaningful and uniquely about you. If that can’t happen, then it’s time to brainstorm for other story ideas.

Writing your college essay comes with inherent pressure and expectations based on what you’ve heard from others. Steering away from these five common mistakes will hopefully help put your best foot forward in this area of your application. And last, but most certainly not least, remember to be yourself. That’s what admissions counselors want to learn about when they sit down to read your application. Best of luck on your college essays!

*Matt Musico is a freelance writer for CollegeData. He has worked in higher education for the better part of a decade in undergraduate admissions and with high school families as a private college counselor.

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