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Bad College Essay Examples: 5 Essay Mistakes To Avoid
Grades, GPA, and transcripts are important components when applying to college. But numbers only tell part of the story. The college admissions essay plays a much more powerful role in telling your personal story to college admissions officers. So while university admissions departments may set initial cut-offs based on numbers, they make their final decision based on your college personal statement essay.
At Wordvice, we know college admissions essays. Every year, we receive tens of millions of words to edit from students applying to college. Therefore, we know what good college essays, bad college essays, and great college essays look like–and what students should do in their essays to get the attention of admissions officers.
Here we will cover how to write a good college personal statement by looking at some common college admission essay mistakes to avoid and discuss ways to improve your college application essays.
What does a good college application essay look like?
Before looking at some essay mistakes to avoid (or “bad college essays” to be a bit more blunt), let’s discuss what a good admissions essay does. Effective college personal statements give broad, comprehensive insights into your personal and academic background, provide college admissions counselors with an overview of your goals, and answer the college prompt directly and clearly.
One of the best ways to learn how to write a good college application essay is to look at what successful students wrote.
Check out a few powerful examples of successful personal statements so you can recognize what a great college application essay looks like. Reading examples of college essays can help you to understand exactly what college admissions officers are looking for.
Useful Tips on How to Write a College Admissions Essay
Once you take a look at what some successful college essay examples look like, the second step should be looking at some useful tips and checklists. This will help organize your college essay writing process, so look at these tips before you start writing and check them off as you go.
- Quick Tips to Conquer the College Application Essay
- Six Tips for Proofreading your College Admissions Essay
Why it’s Important to Avoid Mistakes in Your College Essay
Even if you include all of the above positive tips in your college application essay, you still need to be aware of and avoid common college application essay mistakes. The importance of this cannot be understated.
Negativity bias is the concept in psychology that people will remember, dwell on, and act upon unpleasant thoughts and emotions as compared to positive or correct ones. Therefore, applicants should focus on the positive and productive elements of their personal narrative in the essay, even if this story includes some negative events or circumstances.
What does this mean for your college application essay?
Your personal statement is not only scanned by AI-powered grammar and spell checker apps to weed out simple mistakes outright, they are also read, interpreted, and graded by real human college admissions officers. These are seasoned professionals who will reject your college essay for any reason they deem fit.
Randi Heathman, an independent education consultant, gives a clear summary of why application essays are rejected :
Weak essays get skimmed. If a student’s essay isn’t great OR good, the admission officer will probably just skim past the essay and move right on to your transcript and your test scores to evaluate your candidacy for admission. Bad essays don’t get read. Period. A bad essay will prompt an admission officer to assume one of two things: 1) either you don’t care enough about your future at their school to take the time to write a good essay or 2) you aren’t academically up to attending their college or university. Neither of those assumptions will help you get admitted.
Do you see a theme here? Your college admissions essay needs to not only engage in and answer the prompt but also not give admissions officers any reasons to discard it.
For this reason, students must actively avoid the following college admissions essay mistakes.
Common College Essay Mistakes To Avoid
Below is a list and analysis of the types of mistakes to avoid on your college personal statement and avoid writing a bad college essay that will likely NOT get you into your program of choice.
Your Application Essay Repeats the Essay Prompt
Many universities have strict word counts that are designed to make the admissions process more efficient but also force you to write concisely.
For example, Villanova University has two application essays . The free choice essay is limited to 250 words while its “Why Nova?” essay is limited to just 100 words!
So if you really want to ruin your chances of admission, repeat the essay prompt. Veteran college admissions officers will instantly trash your essay. It shows laziness and is interpreted as you not respecting their time. You need every opportunity to show who you are, your goals, and how you align with your target university. The best students have plenty to write about, and so should you.
Your Application Essay Uses Cliches
One of the biggest mistakes to avoid in your college admissions essay would be including tired clichés that don’t add interesting points or content. Don’t try to sound profound, exclusive, or postmodern in your writing. This will be obvious to the reader, and you probably will also not be the best writer or candidate on paper they have seen. What’s actually important is to demonstrate your self-awareness, your self-confidence, and your priorities and goals.
Trying desperately to sound special will make you end up sounding like every other applicant, and admissions officers are experts at spotting fakes. You have plenty of resources to work with. Make sure your ideas are your own.
Example of clichés in an essay
When explaining a personal setback or a difficult decision, instead of writing, “This event was a disparate result antithetical to my character,” show some personal ownership and be straightforward. Here is a better way to phrase this sentiment: “This is a decision I am not proud of, but it helped me learn a valuable lesson and put me in a better place today. Without this formative experience, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who applies myself in every challenging circumstance.”
Need extra help improving your essay writing? Check out these 14 tricks to make your writing clearer and more engaging :
Your Admissions Essay Shares Too Much Personal Information
You have probably read everywhere that your personal statement should be, well, personal. Colleges want to get to know not just your academic background but also your personal worldview and interactions with successful people.
This doesn’t mean you should discuss deeply personal issues at length or in too great of detail. Even controversial topics such as religion and politics are often welcomed if your perspective is well reasoned and fair. However, you must be able to demonstrate you can respect, recognize, and maintain personal boundaries. That is a key life skill that college admissions committees are looking for.
Examples of sharing too much personal information
- Don’t discuss your sexual experiences. Your sexual orientation may be a key part of your overall identity. However, limit this by keeping out details of personal activities. Use common sense and understand that most admissions officers are members of the general public who might not respond favorably to explicit details of your personal life.
- Don’t confess to strange, illegal, or immoral behaviors or beliefs. If you have a strange obsession, keep it to yourself. Only include unique aspects about your character or preferences if are key parts of how you view the world or your success as a student.
- Don’t insult subgroups of people . You never know who your college admissions officer will be. You want to show you know how to interface with the world, and your college application is a big first step to showing your maturity and inclusive views.
Your Admissions Essay is a Sympathy Essay
This essay mistake is very similar to oversharing personal information. These types of essays are usually a long list of all the terrible things that have happened to you with the hope that the admissions committee will take pity because they feel bad for you.
Newsflash: the “sympathy approach” likely is not going to work. A lot of prospective students have gone through the divorce of their parents, the death of a friend or family member, medical issues, disabilities, mental health issues, accidents, etc.
If you do want to include these life-changing or identity-forming events, they must be used to explain how they shaped you as a person, what you learned, and how you handled adversity. Show how you grew as a person or how your worldview and character were altered to make you into the excellent college candidate you are today.
Examples of “sympathy essays”
- “Everyone around me kept me from succeeding.” Like the lyrics of an early-2000’s rock song, some application essays foreground their experiences on a canvas of pain and oppression by all the people around them. This is just self-defeating. Even if something happened that changed your plans, upset you, or harmed you in some way, reframe your story to show how you were able to shift your priorities and succeed after you learned what you were unable to do.
- “Becoming injured my senior year ruined my plans.” If you are an athlete and suffered a career or scholarship-ending injury, that is a big deal. But your potential doesn’t just disappear because of a setback. Whatever events and influences made you who you were before are still more important than a single unfortunate occurrence in your past.
Your Application Essay Gives You All the Credit
While you may have top SAT scores, a high GPA, and lots of awards, don’t forget this one simple truth: there are always bigger fish in the sea. No matter how good of an applicant you are, there will be someone better based on whatever metric you are proud of.
So what should you write about in your college application essay to stand out from the many overachievers?
Try humility and perspective. Don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. No person is an island, so in your essay you can give recognition to those who helped you along the way. Try not to belittle or minimize the contribution of your high school teachers or mentors. Admissions counselors, as educational professionals, will be looking to see if you are ready to interact with the next level of academic educators. So including friends, family members, and mentors who helped you grow and develop could be a good topic for your college personal statement.
Examples of “giving yourself all the credit” in an essay
- “I was valedictorian and did it all by myself.” You should be proud of your academic achievements, as they are important for your college application among other goals. However, give credit to someone who helped you learn. You didn’t teach yourself!
- “In the end, I found the only person I could rely on was myself.” Some students come from very tough backgrounds, and so it can be tempting for these students to stress this in their essay. But remember that college admissions offices want you to add value to the university community as a college student at their school. Even the smartest students cannot do this if they fail to acknowledge the contributions of others.
Your Personal Statement Has Not Received Proofreading or Editing
A sure way to get your college essay thrown aside is to have it full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The college admissions process is very competitive, and you need every edge you can get. You should spend a substantial portion of your essay preparation editing and proofreading after writing your personal statement.
Start by reviewing and revising the essay yourself. Read it aloud. Run it through a couple of online spelling and grammar checkers. And start early on each college application–at least two weeks before the application deadline. You should also consider giving your admissions essay to a friend, parent, or teacher to review. This can help you improve your essay in many ways because other people can give quite different perspectives.
Check out the Benefits of Peer Review vs Self-Editing .
Finally, you should look into using an application essay proofreading and editing service to revise and improve your application essay. Just as peer review is superior to self-editing alone, professional proofreading services and application essay editing services are superior to peer review. The hard truth is that too many other students (your competition) are going above and beyond in preparing these important essays. Being short on time and expertise makes using an editing and proofreading service a good solution.
How Does Wordvice Improve Your College Application Essay?
Wordvice editors are required to have graduate or postgraduate degrees. This means you are getting guaranteed expertise compared to other services, which typically only require editors to hold a bachelor’s degree. Wordvice is also among the top-rated essay editing services and personal statement editing services by Wired.com. We achieved this recognition by following the Wordvice Customer Promise . That means providing value to every student and every personal statement we edit.
Additional Admissions Essay Steps to Take
We hope you learned a lot from these examples of successful college personal statements. So what’s next?
I want to learn more about the college admissions process
Interested in learning more tips from experts about the college admissions process, personal statements, or letters of recommendation? Check out the Wordvice Admissions Resource blog .
I am interested in professional editing for my personal statement
We also got you covered! Check out our English editing services to get started on improving your college essays. Or jump straight in and use our editing price calculator to get an editing price quote and start the ordering process.
Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, bad college essays: 10 mistakes you must avoid.
Just as there are noteworthy examples of excellent college essays that admissions offices like to publish, so are there cringe-worthy examples of terrible college essays that end up being described by anonymous admissions officers on Reddit discussion boards.
While I won't guarantee that your essay will end up in the first category, I will say that you follow my advice in this article, your essay most assuredly won't end up in the second. How do you avoid writing a bad admissions essay? Read on to find out what makes an essay bad and to learn which college essay topics to avoid. I'll also explain how to recognize bad college essays—and what to do to if you end up creating one by accident.
What Makes Bad College Essays Bad
What exactly happens to turn a college essay terrible? Just as great personal statements combine an unexpected topic with superb execution, flawed personal statements compound problematic subject matter with poor execution.
Problems With the Topic
The primary way to screw up a college essay is to flub what the essay is about or how you've decided to discuss a particular experience. Badly chosen essay content can easily create an essay that is off-putting in one of a number of ways I'll discuss in the next section.
The essay is the place to let the admissions office of your target college get to know your personality, character, and the talents and skills that aren't on your transcript. So if you start with a terrible topic, not only will you end up with a bad essay, but you risk ruining the good impression that the rest of your application makes.
Some bad topics show admissions officers that you don't have a good sense of judgment or maturity , which is a problem since they are building a class of college students who have to be able to handle independent life on campus.
Other bad topics suggest that you are a boring person , or someone who doesn't process your experience in a colorful or lively way, which is a problem since colleges want to create a dynamic and engaged cohort of students.
Still other bad topics indicate that you're unaware of or disconnected from the outside world and focused only on yourself , which is a problem since part of the point of college is to engage with new people and new ideas, and admissions officers are looking for people who can do that.
Problems With the Execution
Sometimes, even if the experiences you discuss could be the foundation of a great personal statement, the way you've structured and put together your essay sends up warning flags. This is because the admissions essay is also a place to show the admissions team the maturity and clarity of your writing style.
One way to get this part wrong is to exhibit very faulty writing mechanics , like unclear syntax or incorrectly used punctuation. This is a problem since college-ready writing is one of the things that's expected from a high school graduate.
Another way to mess this up is to ignore prompt instructions either for creative or careless reasons. This can show admissions officers that you're either someone who simply blows off directions and instructions or someone who can't understand how to follow them . Neither is a good thing, since they are looking for people who are open to receiving new information from professors and not just deciding they know everything already.
College Essay Topics To Avoid
Want to know why you're often advised to write about something mundane and everyday for your college essay? That's because the more out-there your topic, the more likely it is to stumble into one of these trouble categories.
The problem with the overly personal essay topic is that revealing something very private can show that you don't really understand boundaries . And knowing where appropriate boundaries are will be key for living on your own with a bunch of people not related to you.
Unfortunately, stumbling into the TMI zone of essay topics is more common than you think. One quick test for checking your privacy-breaking level: if it's not something you'd tell a friendly stranger sitting next to you on the plane, maybe don't tell it to the admissions office.
- Describing losing your virginity, or anything about your sex life really. This doesn't mean you can't write about your sexual orientation—just leave out the actual physical act.
- Writing in too much detail about your illness, disability, any other bodily functions. Detailed meaningful discussion of what this physical condition has meant to you and your life is a great thing to write about. But stay away from body horror and graphic descriptions that are simply there for gratuitous shock value.
- Waxing poetic about your love for your significant other. Your relationship is adorable to the people currently involved in it, but those who don't know you aren't invested in this aspect of your life.
- Confessing to odd and unusual desires of the sexual or illegal variety. Your obsession with cultivating cacti is wonderful topic, while your obsession with researching explosives is a terrible one.
Too Revealing of Bad Judgment
Generally speaking, leave past illegal or immoral actions out of your essay . It's simply a bad idea to give admissions officers ammunition to dislike you.
Some exceptions might be if you did something in a very, very different mindset from the one you're in now (in the midst of escaping from danger, under severe coercion, or when you were very young, for example). Or if your essay is about explaining how you've turned over a new leaf and you have the transcript to back you up.
- Writing about committing crime as something fun or exciting. Unless it's on your permanent record, and you'd like a chance to explain how you've learned your lesson and changed, don't put this in your essay.
- Describing drug use or the experience of being drunk or high. Even if you're in a state where some recreational drugs are legal, you're a high school student. Your only exposure to mind-altering substances should be caffeine.
- Making up fictional stories about yourself as though they are true. You're unlikely to be a good enough fantasist to pull this off, and there's no reason to roll the dice on being discovered to be a liar.
- Detailing your personality flaws. Unless you have a great story of coping with one of these, leave deal-breakers like pathological narcissism out of your personal statement.
While it's great to have faith in your abilities, no one likes a relentless show-off. No matter how magnificent your accomplishments, if you decide to focus your essay on them, it's better to describe a setback or a moment of doubt rather that simply praising yourself to the skies.
- Bragging and making yourself the flawless hero of your essay. This goes double if you're writing about not particularly exciting achievements like scoring the winning goal or getting the lead in the play.
- Having no awareness of the actual scope of your accomplishments. It's lovely that you take time to help others, but volunteer-tutoring a couple of hours a week doesn't make you a saintly figure.
Too Clichéd or Boring
Remember your reader. In this case, you're trying to make yourself memorable to an admissions officer who has been reading thousands of other essays . If your essay makes the mistake of being boring or trite, it just won't register in that person's mind as anything worth paying attention to.
- Transcribing your resume into sentence form or writing about the main activity on your transcript. The application already includes your resume, or a detailed list of your various activities. Unless the prompt specifically asks you to write about your main activity, the essay needs to be about a facet of your interests and personality that doesn't come through the other parts of the application.
- Writing about sports. Every athlete tries to write this essay. Unless you have a completely off-the-wall story or unusual achievement, leave this overdone topic be.
- Being moved by your community service trip to a third-world country. Were you were impressed at how happy the people seemed despite being poor? Did you learn a valuable lesson about how privileged you are? Unfortunately, so has every other teenager who traveled on one of these trips. Writing about this tends to simultaneously make you sound unempathetic, clueless about the world, way over-privileged, and condescending. Unless you have a highly specific, totally unusual story to tell, don't do it.
- Reacting with sadness to a sad, but very common experience. Unfortunately, many of the hard, formative events in your life are fairly universal. So, if you're going to write about death or divorce, make sure to focus on how you dealt with this event, so the essay is something only you could possibly have written. Only detailed, idiosyncratic description can save this topic.
- Going meta. Don't write about the fact that you're writing the essay as we speak, and now the reader is reading it, and look, the essay is right here in the reader's hand. It's a technique that seems clever, but has already been done many times in many different ways.
- Offering your ideas on how to fix the world. This is especially true if your solution is an easy fix, if only everyone would just listen to you. Trust me, there's just no way you are being realistically appreciative of the level of complexity inherent in the problem you're describing.
- Starting with a famous quotation. There usually is no need to shore up your own words by bringing in someone else's. Of course, if you are writing about a particular phrase that you've adopted as a life motto, feel free to include it. But even then, having it be the first line in your essay feels like you're handing the keys over to that author and asking them to drive.
- Using an everyday object as a metaphor for your life/personality. "Shoes. They are like this, and like that, and people love them for all of these reasons. And guess what? They are just like me."
Unlike the essays you've been writing in school where the idea is to analyze something outside of yourself, the main subject of your college essay should be you, your background, your makeup, and your future . Writing about someone or something else might well make a great essay, but not for this context.
- Paying tribute to someone very important to you. Everyone would love to meet your grandma, but this isn't the time to focus on her amazing coming of age story. If you do want to talk about a person who is important to your life, dwell on the ways you've been impacted by them, and how you will incorporate this impact into your future.
- Documenting how well other people do things, say things, are active, while you remain passive and inactive in the essay. Being in the orbit of someone else's important lab work, or complex stage production, or meaningful political activism is a fantastic learning moment. But if you decide to write about, your essay should be about your learning and how you've been influenced, not about the other person's achievements.
- Concentrating on a work of art that deeply moved you. Watch out for the pitfall of writing an analytical essay about that work, and not at all about your reaction to it or how you've been affected since. Check out our explanation of how to answer Topic D of the ApplyTexas application to get some advice on writing about someone else's work while making sure your essay still points back at you.
(Image: Pieter Christoffel Wonder [Public domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)
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With this potential mistake, you run the risk of showing a lack of self-awareness or the ability to be open to new ideas . Remember, no reader wants to be lectured at. If that's what your essay does, you are demonstrating an inability to communicate successfully with others.
Also, remember that no college is eager to admit someone who is too close-minded to benefit from being taught by others. A long, one-sided essay about a hot-button issue will suggest that you are exactly that.
- Ranting at length about political, religious, or other contentious topics. You simply don't know where the admissions officer who reads your essay stands on any of these issues. It's better to avoid upsetting or angering that person.
- Writing a one-sided diatribe about guns, abortion, the death penalty, immigration, or anything else in the news. Even if you can marshal facts in your argument, this essay is simply the wrong place to take a narrow, unempathetic side in an ongoing debate.
- Mentioning anything negative about the school you're applying to. Again, your reader is someone who works there and presumably is proud of the place. This is not the time to question the admissions officer's opinions or life choices.
College Essay Execution Problems To Avoid
Bad college essays aren't only caused by bad topics. Sometimes, even if you're writing about an interesting, relevant topic, you can still seem immature or unready for college life because of the way you present that topic—the way you actually write your personal statement. Check to make sure you haven't made any of the common mistakes on this list.
Admissions officers are looking for resourcefulness, the ability to be resilient, and an active and optimistic approach to life —these are all qualities that create a thriving college student. Essays that don't show these qualities are usually suffering from tone-deafness.
- Being whiny or complaining about problems in your life. Is the essay about everyone doing things to/against you? About things happening to you, rather than you doing anything about them? That perspective is a definite turn-off.
- Trying and failing to use humor. You may be very funny in real life, but it's hard to be successfully funny in this context, especially when writing for a reader who doesn't know you. If you do want to use humor, I'd recommend the simplest and most straightforward version: being self-deprecating and low-key.
- Talking down to the reader, or alternately being self-aggrandizing. No one enjoys being condescended to. In this case, much of the function of your essay is to charm and make yourself likable, which is unlikely to happen if you adopt this tone.
- Being pessimistic, cynical, and generally depressive. You are applying to college because you are looking forward to a future of learning, achievement, and self-actualization. This is not the time to bust out your existential ennui and your jaded, been-there-done-that attitude toward life.
(Image: Eduard Munch [Public Domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)
Lack of Personality
One good question to ask yourself is: could anyone else have written this essay ? If the answer is yes, then you aren't doing a good job of representing your unique perspective on the world. It's very important to demonstrate your ability to be a detailed observer of the world, since that will be one of your main jobs as a college student.
- Avoiding any emotions, and appearing robot-like and cold in the essay. Unlike essays that you've been writing for class, this essay is meant to be a showcase of your authorial voice and personality. It may seem strange to shift gears after learning how to take yourself out of your writing, but this is the place where you have to put as much as yourself in as possible.
- Skipping over description and specific details in favor of writing only in vague generalities. Does your narrative feel like a newspaper horoscope, which could apply to every other person who was there that day? Then you're doing it wrong and need to refocus on your reaction, feelings, understanding, and transformation.
There's some room for creativity here, yes, but a college essay isn't a free-for-all postmodern art class . True, there are prompts that specifically call for your most out-of-left-field submission, or allow you to submit a portfolio or some other work sample instead of a traditional essay. But on a standard application, it's better to stick to traditional prose, split into paragraphs, further split into sentences.
- Submitting anything other than just the materials asked for on your application. Don't send food to the admissions office, don't write your essay on clothing or shoes, don't create a YouTube channel about your undying commitment to the school. I know there are a lot of urban legends about "that one time this crazy thing worked," but they are either not true or about something that will not work a second time.
- Writing your essay in verse, in the form of a play, in bullet points, as an acrostic, or any other non-prose form. Unless you really have a way with poetry or playwriting, and you are very confident that you can meet the demands of the prompt and explain yourself well in this form, don't discard prose simply for the sake of being different.
- Using as many "fancy" words as possible and getting very far away from sounding like yourself. Admissions officers are unanimous in wanting to hear your not fully formed teenage voice in your essay. This means that you should write at the top of your vocabulary range and syntax complexity, but don't trade every word up for a thesaurus synonym. Your essay will suffer for it.
Failure to Proofread
Most people have a hard time checking over their own work. This is why you have to make sure that someone else proofreads your writing . This is the one place where you can, should—and really must—get someone who knows all about grammar, punctuation and has a good eye for detail to take a red pencil to your final draft.
Otherwise, you look like you either don't know the basic rules or writing (in which case, are you really ready for college work?) or don't care enough to present yourself well (in which case, why would the admissions people care about admitting you?).
- Typos, grammatical mistakes, punctuation flubs, weird font/paragraph spacing issues. It's true that these are often unintentional mistakes. But caring about getting it right is a way to demonstrate your work ethic and dedication to the task at hand.
- Going over the word limit. Part of showing your brilliance is being able to work within arbitrary rules and limitations. Going over the word count points to a lack of self-control, which is not a very attractive feature in a college applicant.
- Repeating the same word(s) or sentence structure over and over again. This makes your prose monotonous and hard to read.
Bad College Essay Examples—And How to Fix Them
The beauty of writing is that you get to rewrite. So if you think of your essay as a draft waiting to be revised into a better version rather than as a precious jewel that can't bear being touched, you'll be in far better shape to correct the issues that always crop up!
Now let's take a look at some actual college essay drafts to see where the writer is going wrong and how the issue could be fixed.
Essay #1: The "I Am Writing This Essay as We Speak" Meta-Narrative
Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine. I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.
In my junior year, I always had in mind an image of myself finishing the college essay months before the deadline. But as the weeks dragged on and the deadline drew near, it soon became clear that at the rate things are going I would probably have to make new plans for my October, November and December.
Falling into my personal wormhole, I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!" I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.
I fell into a state of panic. My college essay. My image of myself in senior year. Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there. My heart lifted, I took his advice and listed three of my greatest achievements - mastering my backgammon strategy, being a part of TREE in my sophomore year, and performing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from The Pirates of Penzance in public. And sure enough, I felt inspiration hit me and began to type away furiously into the keyboard about my experience in TREE, or Trees Require Engaged Environmentalists. I reflected on the current state of deforestation, and described the dichotomy of it being both understandable why farmers cut down forests for farmland, and how dangerous this is to our planet. Finally, I added my personal epiphany to the end of my college essay as the cherry on the vanilla sundae, as the overused saying goes.
After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal. Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.
In the middle of a hike through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, I realized that the college essay was nothing more than an embodiment of my character. The two essays I have written were not right because they have failed to become more than just words on recycled paper. The subject failed to come alive. Certainly my keen interest in Star Trek and my enthusiasm for TREE are a great part of who I am, but there were other qualities essential in my character that did not come across in the essays.
With this realization, I turned around as quickly as I could without crashing into a tree.
What Essay #1 Does Well
Here are all things that are working on all cylinders for this personal statement as is.
Killer First Sentence
Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine.
- A strange fact. There are different kinds of tornadoes? What is a "landspout tornado" anyway?
- A late-night-deep-thoughts hypothetical. What would it be like to be a kid whose house was destroyed in this unusual way?
- Direct engagement with the reader. Instead of asking "what would it be like to have a tornado destroy a house" it asks "was your house ever destroyed."
Gentle, Self-Deprecating Humor That Lands Well
I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.
The author has his cake and eats it too here: both making fun of himself for being super into the Star Trek mythos, but also showing himself being committed enough to try whispering a command to the Enterprise computer alone in his room. You know, just in case.
A Solid Point That Is Made Paragraph by Paragraph
The meat of the essay is that the two versions of himself that the author thought about portraying each fails in some way to describe the real him. Neither an essay focusing on his off-beat interests, nor an essay devoted to his serious activism could capture everything about a well-rounded person in 600 words.
(Image: fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons .)
Where Essay #1 Needs Revision
Rewriting these flawed parts will make the essay shine.
Spending Way Too Long on the Metanarrative
I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.
After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal.
Look at how long and draggy these paragraphs are, especially after that zippy opening. Is it at all interesting to read about how someone else found the process of writing hard? Not really, because this is a very common experience.
In the rewrite, I'd advise condensing all of this to maybe a sentence to get to the meat of the actual essay .
Letting Other People Do All the Doing
I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!"
Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there.
Twice in the essay, the author lets someone else tell him what to do. Not only that, but it sounds like both of the "incomplete" essays were dictated by the thoughts of other people and had little to do with his own ideas, experiences, or initiative.
In the rewrite, it would be better to recast both the Star Trek and the TREE versions of the essay as the author's own thoughts rather than someone else's suggestions . This way, the point of the essay—taking apart the idea that a college essay could summarize life experience—is earned by the author's two failed attempts to write that other kind of essay.
Leaving the Insight and Meaning Out of His Experiences
Both the Star Trek fandom and the TREE activism were obviously important life experiences for this author—important enough to be potential college essay topic candidates. But there is no description of what the author did with either one, nor any explanation of why these were so meaningful to his life.
It's fine to say that none of your achievements individually define you, but in order for that to work, you have to really sell the achievements themselves.
In the rewrite, it would be good to explore what he learned about himself and the world by pursuing these interests . How did they change him or seen him into the person he is today?
Not Adding New Shades and Facets of Himself Into the Mix
So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.
Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.
In both of these passages, there is the perfect opportunity to point out what exactly these failed versions of the essay didn't capture about the author . In the next essay draft, I would suggest subtly making a point about his other qualities.
For example, after the Star Trek paragraph, he could talk about other culture he likes to consume, especially if he can discuss art forms he is interested in that would not be expected from someone who loves Star Trek .
Or, after the TREE paragraph, the author could explain why this second essay was no better at capturing him than the first. What was missing? Why is the self in the essay shouting—is it because this version paints him as an overly aggressive activist?
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Essay #2: The "I Once Saw Poor People" Service Trip Essay
Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive. My whole outlook on life changed after I realized that my life was just being handed to me on a silver spoon, and yet there were those in the world who didn't have enough food to eat or place to live. I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.
During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness. But my most vivid memory was the moment I first got to the farming town. The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water? As these questions rolled around my already dazed mind, I heard a soft voice asking me in Spanish, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?" I looked down to see a small boy, around nine years of age, who looked starved, and cold, wearing tattered clothing, comforting me. These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate ahead of themselves. It was at that moment that I saw how selfish I had been. How many people suffered like this in the world, while I went about life concerned about nothing at all?
Thinking back on the trip, maybe I made a difference, maybe not. But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.
What Essay #2 Does Well
Let's first point out what this draft has going for it.
This is an essay that tries to explain a shift in perspective. There are different ways to structure this overarching idea, but a chronological approach that starts with an earlier opinion, describes a mind changing event, and ends with the transformed point of view is an easy and clear way to lay this potentially complex subject out.
(Image: User:Lite via Wikimedia Commons)
Where Essay #2 Needs Revision
Now let's see what needs to be changed in order for this essay to pass muster.
Condescending, Obnoxious Tone
Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive.
This is a very broad generalization, which doesn't tend to be the best way to formulate an argument—or to start an essay. It just makes this author sound dismissive of a huge swath of the population.
In the rewrite, this author would be way better off just concentrate on what she want to say about herself, not pass judgment on "other teenagers," most of whom she doesn't know and will never meet.
I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.
Coming from someone who hasn't earned her place in the world through anything but the luck of being born, the word "compassion" sounds really condescending. Calling others "less fortunate" when you're a senior in high school has a dehumanizing quality to it.
These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate in front of themselves.
Again, this comes across as very patronizing. Not only that, but to this little boy the author was clearly not looking all that "fortunate"—instead, she looked pathetic enough to need comforting.
In the next draft, a better hook could be making the essay about the many different kinds of shifting perspectives the author encountered on that trip . A more meaningful essay would compare and contrast the points of view of the TV commercials, to what the group leader said, to the author's own expectations, and finally to this child's point of view.
Vague, Unobservant Description
During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness.
Phrases like "cries of the small children from not having enough to eat" and "dirt stained rags" seem like descriptions, but they're really closer to incurious and completely hackneyed generalizations. Why were the kids were crying? How many kids? All the kids? One specific really loud kid?
The same goes for "filthy rags," which is both an incredibly insensitive way to talk about the clothing of these villagers, and again shows a total lack of interest in their life. Why were their clothes dirty? Were they workers or farmers so their clothes showing marks of labor? Did they have Sunday clothes? Traditional clothes they would put on for special occasions? Did they make their own clothes? That would be a good reason to keep wearing clothing even if it had "stains" on it.
The rewrite should either make this section more specific and less reliant on cliches, or should discard it altogether .
The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality.
If this is the "most vivid memory," then I would expect to read all the details that have been seared into the author's brain. What did their leader tell them? What was different in real life? What was the light like? What did the houses/roads/grass/fields/trees/animals/cars look like? What time of day was it? Did they get there by bus, train, or plane? Was there an airport/train station/bus terminal? A city center? Shops? A marketplace?
There are any number of details to include here when doing another drafting pass.
Lack of Insight or Maturity
But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water?
Without a framing device explaining that this initial panic was an overreaction, this section just makes the author sound whiny, entitled, melodramatic, and immature . After all, this isn't a a solo wilderness trek—the author is there with a paid guided program. Just how much mortality is typically associated with these very standard college-application-boosting service trips?
In a rewrite, I would suggest including more perspective on the author's outsized and overprivileged response here. This would fit well with a new focus on the different points of view on this village the author encountered.
Unearned, Clichéd "Deep Thoughts"
But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.
Is it really believable that this is what the author learned? There is maybe some evidence to suggest that the author was shaken somewhat out of a comfortable, materialistic existence. But what does "there is more to life than just being alive" even really mean? This conclusion is rather vague, and seems mostly a non sequitur.
In a rewrite, the essay should be completely reoriented to discuss how differently others see us than we see ourselves, pivoting on the experience of being pitied by someone who you thought was pitiable. Then, the new version can end by on a note of being better able to understand different points of view and other people's perspectives .
The Bottom Line
- Bad college essays have problems either with their topics or their execution.
- The essay is how admissions officers learn about your personality, point of view, and maturity level, so getting the topic right is a key factor in letting them see you as an aware, self-directed, open-minded applicant who is going to thrive in an environment of independence.
- The essay is also how admissions officers learn that you are writing at a ready-for-college level, so screwing up the execution shows that you either don't know how to write, or don't care enough to do it well.
- The main ways college essay topics go wrong is bad taste, bad judgment, and lack of self-awareness.
- The main ways college essays fail in their execution have to do with ignoring format, syntax, and genre expectations.
Want to read some excellent college essays now that you've seen some examples of flawed one? Take a look through our roundup of college essay examples published by colleges and then get help with brainstorming your perfect college essay topic .
Need some guidance on other parts of the application process? Check out our detailed, step-by-step guide to college applications for advice.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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College Admissions Officers Are Sharing The Worst Essay They've Ever Read, And I'm Going To Hell For Laughing
"For an essay about your 'happiest place,' she wrote that her happiest place was the bathroom...while pooping."
If you've ever applied to a university in the US, then you know that writing your personal essay can be agonizing. While getting accepted to any school is a crapshoot and totally subjective, some essays can be, well, pretty objectively bad. And after seeing college admissions officers on Reddit share the worst or most ridiculous essays they've read , you might feel a bit better about yours.
To emphasize how subjective these are, u/tingwong pointed out that John F. Kennedy, who attended Harvard, famously wrote in 1935:
"The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a 'Harvard man' is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain."
(Legacy admissions, amirite?)
Without further ado, here are 26 of the worst or most ridiculous college essays these admissions officers have read:
1. "the worst cv i ever saw as part of an application for a graduate program was a barely intelligible, unformatted mess that included bits of information such as how she likes to spend her free time reading and her favorite book is ' fifty shade gray .'".
2. "I used to intern at the admissions office at my university and got to read a couple of essays from time to time. While it's not exactly the worst, the most cringeworthy essay I read was by a guy who talked about how he was more mature than anyone his age, how he never talked to anyone in school because they were too dumb for him, and how he spends his free time having conversations with scientists on the internet. For some reason, he also felt the need to mention — multiple times — that he was straight edge and didn't understand how other kids of his generation found alcohol and drugs fun. His GPA was pretty good and he seemed like a decent kid, but fucking hell, that essay was hard to read."
"You won't believe how many of these essays contain a sob story or a story about how the kid went on a service trip and how it changed their lives."
3. "A couple of years ago, a girl sent in an application in larger-than-normal packaging. Someone in the admissions office decided it was suspicious-looking and might be a bomb. A section of campus got shut down, and the bomb squad used their fancy toys to figure out that the girl attached lights to her application so it would stand out."
4. "i did data entry for the admissions office of the university i attended as an undergrad. it wasn't my job to read the applications, but since the job was tedious as hell, i often did, and i've seen some exceptional shit. the 'best' worst one i ever read was a personal statement from a female student explaining a disciplinary action on her school report. apparently, she and her boyfriend both ran track and attended an invitational track meet on our university's campus. she went into detail about a fight they had at the meet and then explained that he had asked to talk to her privately to 'make up.' she said that they found an empty room in the field house, he 'was feeling romantic,' and they got caught having sex. she tried to play it off in her statement as her enthusiasm for the campus in the most awkward and horrible way possible.".
"My shift got nothing done that day because we all crowded around the computer reading it out loud — even the supervisors got in on it.
"I teach high school now, and I tell my students exactly what happens when you write an idiotically over-the-top, trivial-problem sob story or pretentious essay: The underpaid data monkeys who process your shit will pass it around the bullpen and laugh our asses off. Otherwise, my job mostly included confirming the identification numbers on papers and e-docs sent in and entering the application components into a sort of checklist on the applicant's profile in the system.
"TL;DR: If you get caught fucking while visiting a university, maybe you shouldn't apply there mere months later. Or perhaps you shouldn't try to spin it to demonstrate your enthusiasm about attending said university."
5. "A college admissions officer once told me that a student wrote that they could 'distinguish bra cup sizes by a simple glance at a woman.' They were not impressed."
6. "I remember an applicant who wrote, at length, about how she panics under pressure, lacks leadership skills, and can't stand hospitals. It was a medical school application. I called her to make sure we weren't getting trolled. Ten seconds into the call, she began panicking, said she doesn't do well with stressful phone calls, and hung up. I called later to check up, and she seemed to have recovered."
"No interview for her, though."
7. "I was an admissions assistant at a religious university. Every applicant had to sign an 'honor code' that included no tank tops, no drinking, no premarital sex or anything close, etc. I think many kids have parents who make them apply because, occasionally, we'd get unrepentant stories about drunken nights of passion, like, 'The candles flickered gently as he asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?"' Each application packet also included an interview with a religious leader. Once, I read one that noted, 'Do not let this girl in under any circumstances. She belongs to a polygamous cult and may be coming to recruit.'"
"I'm not as religious anymore, so this does not reflect my personal views."
8. "An applicant literally wrote something along the lines of, 'Please don't accept me; I don't want to go to your school,' in the addendum section of our application because his parents forced him to apply. Another time, an applicant submitted an essay consisting of Japanese characters that, when put through Google Translate, turned out to be a loosely translated version of The Cat in the Hat ."
9. "I read essays for a scholarship, not admissions, and most were about mission trips through churches and how much the student learned. They're typically boring and mediocre. However, this one was packed with amazing imagery as the writer described her birth: Into the world of freedom and adulthood, she was born. She described pushing open the 'doors' and the light striking her face for the first time. It was so vivid. Then I reached the end, where she described getting a luxury car at her graduation party. This was a scholarship for needy kids."
"She didn't get it."
10. "He translated his essay into binary by hand. I'm not an admissions officer, but this student's mother was at an engineering conference, bragging about his 750 math score on the SAT, how brilliant he was, and how his application essay was so unique that he'd surely get into MIT."
11. "I've read numerous essays this year from middle- to upper-class white kids talking about how hard it is to be Christian in the United States because they are ridiculed, mocked, and even persecuted(!) for their beliefs."
12. "I'm not an admissions officer but a college essay proofreader. Once, I had a student who wrote a page's worth of complete, metaphorical bullshit. I could make zero sense of it. In it, he talked about how his fedora was his most prized possession. However, the best sentence was something along these lines: 'I delight in pondering life's endless choices, such as whether to indulge in extra guac: Is my palate worthy enough of the delicate mingling of avocado and coriander?'"
"Another time, I had a student who wrote about how adventurous she was, and used the time she lit her kitchen on fire as a supporting detail. No, just...no."
13. "When he can volunteer, my dad reviews college admissions for a not really well-known college in Wisconsin. Of course, the essay prompt stereotypically asks, 'What's an important thing in your life?' One year, this kid wrote that he had Asperger's and thus 'superior intelligence to all of the other normals.' (Yes, that's a quote.) He continued writing about his superiority and how people just don't 'understand him.' I didn't get to read the whole thing before my dad threw it away, but it just went on and on. The word limit was around 500 words, but he extended it to 2,000 words."
"I've got to give him credit for going the extra mile, I guess."
14. "This person answered a Johns Hopkins essay question asking what he would do if he had $100 — meant to see how you would spend a small amount of money for the greatest effect — by explaining that he would go to the local playground where homeless people congregated and host a mini Olympics. He would use the $100 to purchase 150 burgers from Burger King (during the Tuesday special), and the homeless people would compete for them. The idea was to feed them while also doing a study on human behavior."
"Nope, this person did not get in."
15. "I have a few favorites. When asked for their GPA, one student wrote 95. Another student listed their high school as 'IDK,' and another put their intended major as 'teaching' and their minor as 'principle.' Once, I asked an applicant how to spell their name, and they had to ask their mother. Multiple people have also tried listing their IQ as a reason for admittance. Lastly, when you write your personal essay, do not title it, 'Why?' and write for the entire body of the essay, 'Why not?'"
"To clarify for the first student mentioned: The application does make it apparent it's asking for your GPA on a 4.0 scale. Maybe these aren't too ridiculous, but they stuck with me."
16. "'My Mexican nanny was like a second mother to me, and I know she felt the same way because she spent holidays with us instead of with her own family.'"
17. "I am in graduate admissions and read one essay that was essentially a love letter to the faculty superstar with whom the student wanted to work. By the end of the essay, I knew nothing about the actual student. However, what made it more cringe was the fact that the faculty member had never heard of the student. She didn't contact him before applying, but her entire essay took information from his website. His lab was also full then, so he wasn't taking new students."
18. "I have three: 1) An essay about your 'happiest place.' Her happiest place was the bathroom...while pooping. 2) An essay about meeting poor people while on a service trip to South America — a frequent cliché — that ended with them tossing soap, pens, and pencils to a small child who danced for them until he cried out of gratitude (or perhaps because teenagers were throwing things at him). 3) An essay about her school trip to Ireland, where she mentioned staring out at the Pacific Ocean from her hotel."
19. "I'm not an admissions officer, but I worked in writing centers for several years. We helped people write application essays. Once, somebody came in with a med school essay about how she wanted to become a doctor to offer her family free surgery. When I asked her about it and if she knew much about medical ethics, she said she thought operating on family members — especially for plastic surgery — would be fine. I then asked her if she knew about the Hippocratic oath; she'd never heard of it."
20. "I've talked with other admissions officers, and their biggest peeve is when someone talks about volunteering for an underserved population and ends with, 'I went there to help them, but they ended up helping me!'"
21. "It's not as ridiculous, but we once had an applicant send in a book they wrote and published themselves. However, it was difficult to read because, for some reason, the book really stank. We just put it in their file and shut the door."
"It was awful. The book itself seemed fine, but the odor made it really difficult to read."
22. "Former admissions counselor here. The worst essays, generally, are not particularly interesting. They receive the worst scores because they are short, incomplete, riddled with grammatical mistakes, or written by nonnative speakers. It takes 30 seconds to give the lowest score and move on. However, one memorable essay sticks out. A (rich, white, private school) student wrote eloquently about how inner-city Black students ought to take up more sports — specifically polo, lacrosse, and squash. With conviction, this particular student, woefully unaware, wrote about how inner-city students could learn more about competition and overcoming adversity by taking up these sports. His proposal was to host sports camps (in the suburbs) for students of color to attend."
23. "The essay question asked, 'What makes you think you can get into [university name]?' One essay was more memorable than the others; it started pretty decently. About 200 words in, the essay then read, verbatim, 'And bob was like, thats bodacious! but what sucks is...hes a pedophile! and he was stealing pizza when he was in high school man.'"
"I can't make this shit up."
24. "I read essays for a scholarship foundation, and the worst essay I have ever read was from a girl who wrote about how she was a good person. She backed that up by stating she was a virgin. First of all, I don't think that being a virgin makes you a good person or not being one makes you a bad person. Second of all, who the hell talks about their virginity on a scholarship application?"
25. "a student began his essay by bragging that he was the king of his school. he was a linebacker and captain of the lacrosse team and had been with 'four older, attractive girls in the last six months.' he was attempting to contextualize himself as a 'dude bro' to juxtapose his discovered love of poetry, but he only provided the committee with laughs and eyerolls.", 26. "admissions counselor here. i've been doing this for almost nine years, so everything blends at this point. i can't think of a specific 'worst essay,' but many fall into broad categories: sympathy essays, oversharing essays, poorly written essays, low-effort essays, and boring essays. in reality, for most students, the essay is the weakest part of the application. we realize that. for that reason, the essay is the least valued part of the application file in every office i've worked in. we're much more interested in whether you challenged yourself academically, earned good grades, scored well on the sat/act, and got involved in extracurricular activities. these things are all way more important.".
1) Sympathy essays: These are usually an extensive list of all the terrible things that happened to a student in hopes that we will admit them because we feel bad. Don't just tell us everything that happened to you and nothing else. A lot of prospective students have gone through the divorce of their parents, the death of a friend or family member, medical issues, car accidents, etc. You need to explain how these events shaped you as a human being, what you learned, how you handled adversity and still managed your academics, and so on.
2) Oversharing essays: These are like sympathy essays, only with more graphic details. I've had some essays where students share intricate descriptions of sexual abuse they have experienced or abusive relationships they were in with high school girlfriends or boyfriends — this significant experience may have shaped you as a human being, but I don't think it is appropriate for a college essay. If I feel the need to take a shower after reading your essay, that's not good for anyone.
Also included here are essays in which you admit that you didn't try hard in high school or take your academics seriously but are going to start in college. Maybe you should start in junior college, then, and we'll see how it goes before you get to a four-year university.
3) Poorly written essays: Spelling errors, grammar mistakes, no formatting...there is no excuse for this. Have someone read your essay before you submit it. Have several people read it! It's not cheating; we encourage you to do this. Also, if you're using the same essay for multiple colleges, make sure you change the name of the college referenced in your essay before you send it to that college.
4) Low-effort essays: Some students submit an essay about five sentences long and don't say anything. If it takes you more time to attach your essay to the application than to write it, that is not a good thing.
5) Boring essays: Most essays are not all that interesting to read, and that's not necessarily bad. If your essay doesn't stand out, it probably means that you answered the essay topic and didn't make any or many mistakes. That's about as much as we can ask for. It's not your fault that the typical high school experience for the vast majority of high school students is...typical. You probably didn't enter your first year thinking, I better do some really cool stuff during the next few years so that I can write about it in my college essay. That's fine; we get that. Just do the best you can."
What do you think about these? Would you have given these students a chance? Did they make you reflect on your own essay? Alternatively, do you know someone who sent in an objectively ridiculous essay? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.
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The 3 types of essays: Good, Bad, Risky
If they made a movie about nailing the perfect admissions essay, the title might be: “The Good, The Bad and The Risky.”
Let’s start with “The Risky.” One of the favorite stories being passed around by admissions officers these days is a young man’s response to an open-ended essay prompt: “Ask yourself a question, and then answer it.” So here’s what one bold young man chose to write:
Question: Do you play the tuba? Answer: No. That was it, his entire essay. You’ve got to admit that was a gutsy move. He was accepted at that college and several other colleges. Students can’t afford to take that kind of risk unless that’s really part of who they are. There are colleges that actively seek students like that young man: He stepped outside the box and to some, and he hit a home run. For others undoubtedly, he miscalculated, because he may be perceived as being cocky and overconfident. In this case, he had strong credentials and very likely would have been accepted anyway, but I am certain that his pseudo-essay was joyously passed around the admissions office. That was an “easy-read!”
Common admissions wisdom has advocated that students should avoid the 3 D’s — Death, Divorce and Drugs. The Death Essay is unfortunately more common than we all would like. Don’t think I’m heartless, but it’s very difficult for high school students to say much more than this special person had a tremendous influence and now that they’re gone they will miss them. These essays can be tremendously powerful, but they need to share the “whys” of the loss.
If there is a “typical” divorce essay that colleges receive, it starts with “I was happy until my parents split — now I am unhappy.” Students can take this topic and make it work for them if they talk about how they feel, how it has changed their lives and hopefully what they may have gained through this difficult experience.
Drugs: Some students want to share inappropriate details of their lives. Don’t do it. Even if it’s in the past, drug use sends up a red flag.
Parke Muth, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, has likened college essays to fast food. “Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays.” They don’t do an effective job of setting the student apart from the sea of applicants.
- Choose your topic wisely, but even if you choose a topic that other people choose, spend sufficient time brainstorming how to own your piece of the topic.
- Don’t try to write what you think colleges want to read. They’ve already read that in the first 50 essays they read today. Find and preserve your own voice.
- Focus on the details when you tell a story. The rule of great writing: “Show, Don’t Tell” still holds true.
- Read your essay out loud to several people and ask them if they believe it sounds like you. It will also help you find and fix the clunky parts that need help
Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: [email protected]; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com
Contact us at 805.618.2340 to schedule a free introductory meeting.
5 Fatal Flaws in Most College Application Essays
The college 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 application 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 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 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 about that, but even the most interesting story about your grandfather's bootlegging days will do little to show admissions officers what they want to know: who you are. 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 college 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.
College essay resources
6 topics to avoid in your college applications, the college essay.
Writing about cultural heritage, bad grades or personal flaws, music, sports, drama, politics, or a family member’s serious illness in college essays is tempting, but dangerous. We show why these topics can hurt students with admissions teams and how to handle them well.
Sad news. Some of the most common application essay topics are also the ones most likely to get you into trouble, according to an analysis by our essay experts.
- Cultural heritage
- Bad grades or personal flaws
- Music, sports, drama
- A family member’s serious illness
Why don’t these topics lead to strong essays? Briefly, it’s because they don’t focus on your particular, individual strengths. Rather, their focus is generally on someone or something else.
Let’s take an in-depth look at each of the topics that can lead to trouble, why they tend not to work, and how to go ahead and write about them successfully, if that’s what you really want. (BTW, here are some of the best college essay topics .)
Students tend to write about things that are meaningful to them — it can lead to trouble
It makes perfect sense that students so often write about the topics listed above. Who doesn’t feel strongly about their cultural heritage? Who doesn’t love thinking about the things to which they’ve devoted their extracurricular time — whether that’s music, sports, drama, politics, or something more unique (Robotics? Knitting?).
Similarly, if you’ve had a sick family member, that experience likely formed a huge, meaningful part of your life. Discussing it, thinking about it, and analyzing it will matter to you. Same with your own flaws or an experience with bad grades. These are likely things that you are grappling with; obstacles that matter deeply to you; or the catalysts to deep insight into the life you want to live.
So we understand the urge to tackle these topics. (And in fact, we’ll show you how you can do so effectively, in many instances.) But, when it comes to college admissions, these topics can lead to some extremely harmful traps.
You should choose college essay topics that show off your strengths
The problem with the topics listed above is that admissions officers want to know about you . Specifically, they’re trying to figure out whether you’ll be successful in college (and beyond) . In our experience, the best way to show you have what it takes is to write an essay that shows you have one of the 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants . (These are Drive (grit), Initiative, Contribution, Intellectual Curiosity, Diversity of Experience.)
Therefore, we suggest brainstorming which of your experiences show off these traits and writing about a topic that you come to via that exercise. Assuming you’ve read almost any other of our articles, you know all this already. (If not, go explore those links above!)
Let’s examine these topics in turn to see how they can lead you astray, and how you can write about them successfully.
Cultural heritage - write about yourself, not your family
It’s no surprise that culture is one of the most common application essay topics. The problem is that, unlike you, the admissions officer doesn’t feel deeply about your background, family, culture, ethnicity, or religion. At least, these aren’t things that are going to move your application into the “accept” pile by themselves.
However, there is a way to write about your cultural heritage that will win the admiration of college admission readers. Basically: write about how you have interacted with and shone through that heritage.
For example — Your school didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. You decided to change this. You worked hard, amassing support, figuring out when and where and who could come in to do a lion dance, persisting when you were initially told it wouldn't work and making it happen.
Guess what? That sounds like a winning college admissions essay. This is because this story discusses your cultural heritage while also showing off your drive , initiative , and diversity of experiences .
Any number of cultural topics would work well, so long as you make sure that the bulk of the essay focuses on the actions you have taken. (And not on teaching admissions officers about the origins of Black History month , or whatever it might be. They can always learn about that in their own time! Not in their “do I accept this student or not” time.)
Music, drama, sports - avoid the “makes me feel alive” trap
These are the absolute most common topics, which makes a ton of sense. The problem is that students tend to write about them rapturously — we call it the “makes me feel alive” trap.
For example, if you talk about how performing in the school play “makes you feel alive,” what are you really saying about yourself? The admissions officer is learning nothing about your personal characteristics. They just know there’s something out there that you like — not how hard you worked to achieve that thing or the discipline with which you approach it.
The best thing to do here is to switch the focus from “playing soccer makes me feel alive ”— to “my relationship with soccer shows what a potential-filled person I am.”
Again, find ways to tie your love of the extracurricular or activity to your personality traits. For instance, where has your love of music taken you? Maybe it’s taken you to a lot of indie venues around town for concerts? Maybe it’s taken you to the Philharmonic! Maybe it led you to learn three instruments on your own, or to learn to read music, or sight-read, or to compose. All of these are examples of intellectual curiosity (with some drive and initiative thrown in). All of these will lead to much stronger essays than “music makes me feel alive.”
Politics - focus on your work in politics, not your abstract beliefs
Politics is a trickier sub-set of the extracurricular topics. Many students get fascinated by politics in high school, and generally that’s a great thing. But, on top of the issues we explored above, there are additional problems involved in writing about them in your college essay.
First, it’s so easy to upset your reader, who may disagree with you — in fact, they may vehemently disagree with you. This is not the impression you want to leave on admission officers. Second, as with all the topics we’re talking about here, this topic can lead you away from you to focus on something extraneous, in this case: goings-on in the world.
As with the other topics, the fix is relatively easy (with the caveat that it’s hard to predict whether or not your issue will offend your reader): focus on your actions. For example, talk about the intellectual curiosity you’ve exhibited in learning deeply about politics, or talk about the drive and initiative that went into your run for office or your taking on a political issue.
But be extremely cautious in choosing what political issues to share with admission readers. If you worked on a campaign to increase bike-riding in your city, that *might* be less contentious than a campaign to reduce abortion access, but even bike issues can raise hackles with many people. Politics ignites passions!
Sick family member - write about how the illness affected your actions
The pitfalls here are two-fold. First, you don’t want to focus your essay on someone other than yourself. The admissions team is interested in you because their job is to evaluate you, not your mom or sibling. Second, you don’t want your essay to come off as too self-pitying or passive. This could unintentionally show you in a bad light.
Instead, this essay could be successful if you focus on how the illness changed you, and particularly on what actions you take now that are different.
For example, if your mom was seriously ill, maybe you developed a number of important skills as you took greater responsibility at home — empathy for your younger siblings, responsibility for running the household, etc. Or, perhaps your little sibling’s rare illness led you to research this illness deeply and develop an expertise in many aspects of her care and related issues. These scenarios could lead to great, authentic essays where the focus is on your initiative or your intellectual curiosity (active), and not on a bad thing that happened to your family (passive).
Bad grades - a topic generally worth avoiding entirely
It’s hard to shed light on your greatest strengths when talking about bad grades. The story is generally “I got a bad grade, worked really hard, and then got all As.” But it’s raising not-great questions, such as, why weren’t you working hard in the first place?
If a grade is truly bad and you feel you can explain the circumstances, save that for the Common App Additional Info section or its equivalent. (See our comprehensive Additional Info guidance .)
Personal shortcomings or failures - maybe save them for your best-selling memoir
Writing about personal failures can be some of the most beautiful, meaningful, inspiring literature out there. You can find such writing in the memoir section of the library. We recommend leaving it there (and not introducing it into your college essay) for a few reasons.
The main problem is that a college essay should focus on your strengths; writing about personal failings is a real mismatch for this essay’s “job.” Secondarily, it’s simply really, really hard to write about this topic well. (You can hone your craft in college and write that wrenching memoir by the time you graduate!)
Finally, we do think there are some extremely narrow exceptions here where you can pull it off. That’s generally where the failure led to lessons learned that form the bulk of the essay (the essay should mostly talk about the actions you took post-failure). For example, you could write about failing in your run for student council, with a focus on what that failure added to your life.
Note on mental health issues : This is another extremely tricky area that is generally worth avoiding in college essays. For more on thinking through this topic, see our article on the Additional Info section.
Want help getting started with good essay topics? A great place to start is at our College Essay Help Center .
More articles on our admissions-boosting methods:
- Work with a college essay coach
- Don’t let influencers influence your college essays
- Should I apply test-optional?
Should you use ChatGPT for your College Essay?
What Highly Selective Colleges Look For in College Applications
How parents can support kids applying to college — without driving anyone crazy
Thanks, but no thanks: Why you should skip the New York Times’ “Best College Essays”
Early Action vs. Early Decision: Everything You Need to Know
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Why are “good” college-application essays so awful to read, for many, our education in first-person writing begins with the college application essay, which rewards uplifting narratives with neat-bow conclusions. this is a bad thing..
I started thinking about the Common App essay when I was in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t remember who—my parents, my English teacher, a copywriter of fear-mongering college emails—but someone had told me it was never too early to begin brainstorming, and so I set out to choose a topic.
My brother had written his essay on the beauty of math; my mom, on the importance of education in her immigrant household; my dad, on living in the shadow of three high-achieving older sisters. (He tells me now, however, that he didn’t actually feel that way. He just thought it would make for an interesting story.) There was no single right answer, they said, which should’ve put me at ease, but their advice didn’t end there. There was no single right answer, but there were wrong ones. My aunt’s college-admissions essay was about the suicide of a family member. It was not uplifting, salvific. There was no positive spin. When she was rejected from her top choices, despite her stellar scholastic achievements, everyone assumed her essay was the reason why.
College-essay prompts are vague enough to seem capacious, but, in practice, they accommodate very little. As Kate Sonnenberg, a college-admissions consultant and former application reader at Princeton, tells students , if they want to write about more negative experiences, “they need to make sure that the personal quality they are conveying in that essay is a strength, like resilience.” They should want their readers “to fall in love with them, to feel like the campus needs them and will be enriched by their presence there.”
Unsurprisingly, colleges themselves tend to be more reticent about what they’re looking for. But sniff around and you’ll find a tip sheet from Stony Brook University, which advises to “be careful to not offend your reader” and to avoid writing “overly risky” essays. Or consider UNC at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center, whose guide to (graduate school) application essays allots an entire section to “taking risks.” UNC’s verdict? Just a casually ominous directive: Be warned . If an applicant wrote, say, “an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school,” such an essay would be “risky because it called on the reader to infer things about the student’s character and abilities from the story.” And heaven forbid the reader should be called on to infer things!
So here’s the story I told in my college-application essay: I was performing in the original Broadway cast of School of Rock the Musical (humblebrag much?) when my thirteen-year-old voice started to change. “I could not believe the sound that had escaped my mouth—strained and croaky,” I wrote of a particularly humiliating rehearsal, because who doesn’t love a cringey opening in medias res?
I was cast to play a fourth grader and expected to sing melodies of a wide vocal range, so I began speaking solely in my falsetto register—think more Mickey Mouse than Prince—because I was terrified that, at any moment, I might be fired from the show simply for daring to grow up. I walked around with my knees bent and head compressed into my neck, anything to shave a couple inches off my giant five-foot frame. But—as I explained in archetypal college-essay fashion—I overcame these adversities, “found my voice,” and generally Learned A Lot Along the Way.
I could’ve written that, in denial of a burgeoning pubescence, I consulted three voice teachers. The first recommended I drink hot tea with lemon and cayenne. The second handed me a mini LED flashlight, which I was supposed to shine at the back of my throat as I raised and lowered my uvula, but I have a hair-trigger gag reflex and, accordingly, found myself in a perpetual state of dry heaving. And the third was so fascinated by the mechanics of my malfunctioning voice—the way my speech had cleaved into the manly and the murine—that she presented my case at a vocal-studies conference. “I hope that’s okay,” she told me, though I wasn’t sure if she was posing a question or proffering a declaration. At the time, this all seemed too scattershot for a 650-word piece. How were these anecdotes related to the very clear lessons I’d taken away?
I could’ve written that my fourteenth birthday party was a karaoke party, because of course it was. It was my last month in School of Rock , and, joined by a fellow actor, I kicked off the night with a rendition of Alicia Keys’s “If I Ain’t Got You.” I sang in my falsetto. After, I asked my mom how it sounded.
“Good,” she said, “but I couldn’t really hear you.”
For the rest of the evening, I sat in sullen silence. A disco ball bathed the room in glittery light; I was tucked away in the corner booth, struggling to evade its glare. I was angry with my parents for making this the theme, angry with my castmates for belting fifth-octave notes I’d never again be able to reach, angry with my body for its powerlessness to resist time. But including any of this in my college essay might’ve reflected poorly on me, especially when I hadn’t yet come to terms with it all. Why was I so ungrateful, and, besides, if I didn’t want a karaoke party, why didn’t I take initiative and say no?
I could’ve written that I haven’t sung in public since leaving School of Rock in 2016. And not just on a stage—I’m talking singing along to the radio when friends are around, humming to myself on the sidewalk if others are present. But that wasn’t the redemptive resolution I was going for.
The random, the unflattering, the brutally honest: These qualities rarely have a place in the college-application essay.
For many of us, the college essay serves as our entry into first-person writing. At our most impressionable age, we are instructed to eschew risk-taking and nuance in favor of uplifting narratives with neat-bow conclusions. It would be one thing if the indoctrination ended here, if we could renounce these highly curated renderings of post-traumatic growth and leave them in our teenage years.
But does this negotiation of self-presentation ever truly end? You get to college, and there may be application-based classes that call for similar essays. Postgrad, you have cover letters, grant proposals, work-permit statements of purpose: all nonfiction “forms” whose primary intention is to impress a reader. Given the literary industry’s instability, even criticism and book reviews can fall into this trap, when they become “ an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine .” (Certain corners of the publishing and entertainment worlds, as well, incentivize artists to “solve” their traumas in the span of a couple thousand words—ongoing struggles be damned—and defang their stories in service of a reader’s catharsis.)
If the end goal is for your audience to like you, to find you impressive, to “accept” you—odds are your writing won’t get to that register of candor and rigorous self-examination that forgoes easy answers, chronicles the true messiness of our lived experiences, and helps distinguish a quality work. The college essay, then, is only the initiating point into an entire economy of mildly (if not wildly) dishonest grandstanding. It’s a single assignment, sure, but it’s also a mode of writing that comes to shape students’ entire worldviews on composition and craft.
Can the Platonic ideal of the college-admissions essay not be such a terrible piece of writing? Maybe, if admissions staff and other gatekeepers are the ones encouraging audacious, boundary-pushing work. If they expand word counts, so that students don’t feel forced to “chop down all the emotion” of their statements or fictionalize components to save space. If institutions revise their rubrics, become open to sentences that don’t explicitly corroborate a capital-T thesis, and offer examples of less-formulaic submissions. Because, presently, there is a kind of formula to this genre—a formula refined and perpetuated by counselors, tutors, and the like. I know I followed one: From my family, I gained an understanding of the right (and wrong) sorts of topics; from my high school’s college advisor, I realized I was meant to expressly name the wisdom I’d gleaned through my misadventures.
One could argue this standardization lends some sense of fairness to a subjective procedure of evaluation. But not everyone has access to college-prep counseling and tutoring. Not everyone has relatives with successful blueprints to emulate or cautionary tales to learn from. Behind the ostensible open-mindedness of college-essay prompts lies a minefield of unwritten rules. If admissions readers truly welcome all kinds of essays, though, and not strictly the customary, simplistic templates, perhaps the application process can be just a little bit more egalitarian. Not everyone, after all, has conquered their hardships. Not everyone’s story has a happy ending.
When I hear guidance that amounts to “exploit your trauma, but do it tastefully, strategically,” I bristle. I used to think: If I take a bad experience and fashion it into something valuable, then it will all have been worth it. Sometimes I still do. It’s this twisted, unhealthy form of “everything happens for a reason” logic, and in my heart of hearts I try not to give credence to it. But the fact is, when I flattened those moments from my teenage years at School of Rock into a legible narrative—polished them until they were shiny, aseptic—I was rewarded. I was admitted to Stanford University. The convention I’m critiquing is one I’ve very much benefited from.
At Stanford, I’ve sought to take the chances I wish I could have sooner. I’ve incorporated fictional characters into research papers, sent experimental cover letters to various internships. The papers were well-received; the internships, I never heard back from. Risks don’t always pan out, I suppose—that’s what makes them risky. And when they do—how delightful. As I learn to acclimate to the mixed reactions, I remind myself: Growing pains are normal. I should know.
As for singing—that initial growing pain—I’ve been exhorted to audition for a cappella groups and student-run musicals since coming to campus. I say I’m too busy, but maybe next year. (This part of my story, honestly, I’m still working through.) When people find out I’ve been on Broadway, they get excited.
“You must be a really good singer then,” they say.
And I say, “Yes. Yes, I am.” And they go back to singing along to some parody of Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” while I model my best closed-mouth smile. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve politely nodded along to an “All Star” spoof, I’d have two nickels. Which isn’t a lot—a mere 0.001 percent of Stanford’s application fee—but it’s weird that it happened twice, right?)
I’ve never been adept at endings. The worst portion of my Common App essay might have been its closing line: “I am looking forward to the next part of my journey.” A journey, that is, of unceasing applications and their attendant pressures. I wonder, is it worth it to buck the trend? If I write freely, dangerously, am I doing anything but penalizing myself?
When your voice changes, there’s a period where your range collapses into no more than a few notes. When you become physically incapable of singing more than a narrow selection of songs. Or at least that was the case for me. I waited for the second shift, for the F4s and G4s to return to me. I’m still waiting.
I could wait, too, for admissions readers to change their tune. To see maturity, not liability, in my aunt’s essay. To find value in a work of writing beyond its narrator’s likability. I could wait because I’ve done it before. But I’m not sure I want to.
Jared Klegar is a writer from New York City. He currently attends Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter @jaredklegar.
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