How Not to Write an Admissions Essay: Pitfalls You Can (and Should) Avoid

Remember that college admissions officers are looking for genuine essays that represent the student’s own voice.

There are many ways to write a college admissions essay, and students’ approaches range from the meticulous (pre-writing, outlining, and then writing) to the more free form. While we have offered advice on how to write the admissions essay, giving you advice on what to do is only part of the story. Here are some things that you should avoid when writing your college admissions essay (or any essay for that matter):

1. Writing Too Much – The Common Application main essay has a 650 word maximum though a shorter essay is acceptable. Supplemental essays and some colleges that offer their own application can offer prompts that range from 50 words to unlimited. This word limit might seem like a dare to more verbose writers, but it is a limitation that you should respect for several reasons. Rather than looking at it as an imposition or dare, you can view it as a challenge. As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” While writing concisely can be difficult, it is almost always clearer and more compelling for the reader.

The more practical reason for not writing pages and pages beyond what your essay merits is that this almost guarantees that the admissions officers will not read your essay thoughtfully. Since many of them read dozens (if not hundreds) of essays each admissions season, being brief can help them approach your essay without trepidation and remember it fondly when they are done (rather than remembering it as a behemoth that they had to read at the end of a long, dark day in January).

2. Picking a Topic Only Because You Think It is What the Admissions Officers Want to Hear – This might be the most tempting trap of all of the ones listed here. When it comes to selecting a topic, some students immediately think about their activities list and try to decide which activity or project would seem the most impressive to the admissions deans. While it isn’t necessarily bad to write about a topic like community service, problems arise when you are writing merely to impress rather than writing about service because it is genuinely important to you and a significant focus in your activities and your life.

This ploy can backfire because it can be obvious to the readers that you are writing what you think they want to hear. Also, selecting a topic for this sole reason can lead you to writer’s block, since you might not have an intriguing story or unique angle to use in your writing.

Consider which essay topics are best and avoid bragging.

A way to avoid this is to think about a possible topic and ask yourself, “Why do I want to write about this?” If your only answer is, “It sounds like a topic that is important,” then perhaps you should consider your other options.

3. Making Up Events or Exaggerating the Truth – This problem often goes hand-in-hand with pitfall number two. Students who pick a topic for the sole purpose of looking good to admissions often find that they have a hard time writing anything interesting about the topic, and they resort to making up important details or exaggerating the events. At first, this seems like a very simple undertaking. A few keystrokes, and “volunteering at a daycare center” can become the seemingly more impressive “running a daycare center for underprivileged children.”

However, this presents several issues. Besides the fact that most admissions officers are savvy to this trick, there is also the issue of your integrity. Dean Sarratt at Vanderbilt University once told her students, “Today, I am going to give you two examinations, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry.” Yes, college is important, and getting into a college of your choice might seem like the most important thing in the world at the time. However, it is not worth compromising your character.

4. Telling the Reader Things that You Could Be Showing – “Show, don’t tell” is the English teacher’s mantra for good reason, but many people have a difficult time mastering this important skill. Essentially, the idea is a variation on the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Rather than telling readers what they should be getting from your essay, you need to relate specific anecdotes that illustrate your main point. For instance, compare simply stating “I was so bored on bed rest that I thought I would go crazy” with:

I sped through the entire series of The Office three times. My cell phone Sudoku record shrunk down to 1:29. I wrote a song about Arnold Palmer, the golfer. I wrote a song about Arnold Palmer, the drink. By July, I had run out of useless things to do and decided that if I was going to be stuck in bed for the summer, I would use this time to try some things that I had always wanted to try, but never had time to do.

Showing, not telling, is a vital part of writing an engaging and intriguing essay. Besides providing more evocative proof of your main point, it also allows the reader to get a better sense of what you’ve experienced and the perspective you are bringing to the essay.

If you are still skeptical, this YouTube video provides a telling example of how showing something can be much more effective than telling about it.

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