Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of College Application Essays

Almost ready to submit your college applications? Check your essay against this list before you do.
November 16, 2020

When you're working on the Common Application, you can avoid these critical essay mistakes that admissions officers see over and over again.

Sin #1. Your personal essay is not your work.

Your essay is expected to be your work, and if an admissions officer figures out that your essay is not your work, she will reject you. Don’t “hire out” your essay. Don’t copy or mimic a sample essay you find online (or in Inline!). Don’t let a well-meaning editor like your mom or dad rewrite it or “tweak” it beyond all recognition. Write your personal essay yourself.

Sin #2. Your personal essay is not an essay.

Essays are specific forms of writing. You are asked to write an essay, so write an essay. Don’t write a poem. Don’t write a screenplay. Don’t write an academic treatise. Don’t write an autobiography. Write an essay.

Sin #3. Your personal essay is not personal.

Your personal essay is supposed to be PERSONAL. That means it should primarily be about you, not primarily about the person who influenced you, not about a political issue, not about a beautiful turn of phrase, but about YOU. With each of the Common Application essay topics, notice how the meat of the question or instruction involves the word "you."

Sin # 4. Your personal essay is not specific enough.

Your essay must be specific enough to be about you and only you. You are not the first, last, or only applicant who will write about being a child or immigrants or scoring the game-winning goal or having to pick herself up after losing a school-wide election. In fact, thousands of applicants will do that every year. And that is perfectly fine, as long as your essay is distinctive enough that it wouldn’t work equally well for some other applicant. Your essay will stand out if it is your voice and shares your perspective. Avoid clichés, and avoid generalizations. Even if the general theme is one that admissions officers have heard lots of times, don't forget that you are the unique ingredient.

Sin #5. Your personal essay is off-putting or worrisome.

Admissions officers read all components of an application with an eye for the applicant who is “off” in some way that could be threatening or disruptive in a college community. Diatribes don’t sit well with them, nor do personal essays that are just plain creepy (like an in-depth discussion of your fascination with serial murderers).

Sin #6. Your personal essay is not well written.

Misused words, grammatical errors, and typos are simply not acceptable when you are applying to college. Your personal essay should be your best piece of writing ever. It should deserve an A++ from the most critical English teacher you have ever had (but make sure she understands that you’re not meant to be writing in term-paper language). Polish it until it becomes that A++ essay. You can find more essay polishing tips and checklists in Inline.

Sin #7. You skip the personal essay entirely.

Some colleges using the Common App do not require the personal essay. You should still write it, because submitting a great essay shows a couple of good things about you to admissions officers: (1) you meet at least a competent level of writing skill, something that matters a whole lot for success in college; (2) you care enough about that college to want to stand out from the pack and put in the extra work; and (3) you're seizing one of the few opportunities in the application to let them go beyond your numbers and statistics and get to know you as a person. YOU know you're more than a GPA and a standardized test score, but they can't read your mind. Here's where you can show them you're a three-dimensional person and where you can focus on what you have to offer beyond your numbers. DON'T SKIP THE ESSAY. We've got many more essay tips for you in Inline. You don't have to muscle through on your own.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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