Common College Essay Mistakes: Things to Avoid, Part 2

We’ve already given a summary of ten of the biggest mistakes that students can make in their college essays. From Cardinal Education, here are a few more to stay away from.

Not being close enough to the word count.

On the 650-word Common App, you may be tempted to think that 500 or even 550 words are good enough. Heck, if you’re given a 250-word essay, you might wonder if you can get away with only doing 100! While you don’t have to fit the word count exactly, we suggest trying to get as close to the word count as possible, with a suggested margin of only 10 words short of the word limit, 15-20 words less than that at most. 

As you write, you may find that the words go by so fast that your real struggle is staying within the maximum. But you may also struggle with finding enough to say to fill the count, or you may want to save time by turning in a shorter essay. If the latter sounds like you, think harder, as every word you don’t use is a missed opportunity to talk about another facet of yourself. What’s more, college admissions officers will see an essay that falls far short of the word count as a sign of weak writing, which would hurt your chances.

Sounding too privileged.

Colleges are all about helping the disadvantaged, and that means they have a particular aversion toward those who appear too privileged. If your essay is all about how your community service trip to a developing country changed your life by making you aware of “how lucky you were,” you’ll want to consider reframing. In general, whether your community service took place at home or abroad, there is hardly anything about helping the less fortunate that hasn’t already been said. From “the reality hit me for the first time,” to “I came away with a newfound appreciation for everything I had,” college admissions officers have heard it all, and all of it ultimately comes from a privileged perspective. There’s nothing wrong with being socioeconomically privileged, but if you are, you’ll have to put in extra effort to come up with something fresh.

Other things to watch out for, too, including discussing in detail or even just mentioning any lucrative careers your family might have, or—God forbid—trying to play up legacy status. If you’ve worked with a professor or some other important personage, you’ll have the best results if you emphasize how you yourself worked hard to build that connection and learn something new, rather than treating it as something that’s handed to you. Colleges won’t want to admit someone who treats their connections to that university as though it’s a guaranteed ticket to acceptance. 

Sounding too boastful, with no vulnerability.

College essays are all about crafting a great image of yourself to present to colleges, and this may lead some students to write as though their essay is a perfection-powered bragging sheet. Don’t fall into this trap! Your essay’s story is best served if you showcase some moments where you stumbled, instead of simply showing off triumph after triumph. 

Colleges know that their applicants aren’t perfect achievement machines who can churn out life-changing results in their extracurriculars without any obstacles. It’ll actually reflect better on you if you demonstrate that you’re aware of this, that you’ve made mistakes, and that those mistakes have ultimately made you more successful. Of course, stay away from heavy topics such as mental health issues that might have held you back during your studies. However, showing some moments of vulnerability or failure on your way to triumphs, such as a rejected proposal or a lost competition, will humanize you and add depth to your college application. This leads us to…

Not sounding personal enough.

This can be one of the biggest problems in a college application essay. Many rejected essays are written without a real sense of the writer’s voice or personality. This is an especially common flaw because the style of essay required by colleges—the personal essay—isn’t taught very frequently in class, with students predominantly learning how to write academically. As a result, you may tend toward the impartial and impersonal rather than the warm and emotional in your writing: great for an academic setting, not so much when you’re trying to portray yourself on the page.

Your essay should not be like an academic recounting of your achievements. For those of you who have to experience writing cover letters for jobs, it shouldn’t be too much like those, either. Your essay should be a heartfelt narrative where you showcase your unique personality through your equally unique voice. Your tone should be formal enough while also being conversational, as though you’re right there in front of the admissions officers telling them your story. 

If you feel like you need help in the crafting of your personal essays, we are here to help! Contact us!