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What Not to Do on College Application Essays

By Edited Jun 7, 2016 0 2

Writing College Application Essays

Three Things You Shouldn't Do

Going to College

In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Stephen Wilburs called writing college application essays one of those "quintessential experiences" that "from time to time in the history of our country we as a people undergo certain rituals that remind us of what it is to be Americans."[1774]  While these words hang significance on one small part of a college application, it is not an exaggeration to say that a college application essay can make or break the overall college application.

I can remember over twenty years ago applying for college and I have no memory of what I put in my college application.  I did get into my (non Ivy League) school of choice, however.  Half a dozen years later I would be working in a university admissions office where we would shake our heads at and pass around those college application essays that were written terribly or that bordered on psychotic (just before those applicants were denied admission).  I'm finally on the other end of process, as a parent of a high school sophomore who is already worrying about SATs, AP exams and, yes, the college application essays she'll have to write.  So this article is for her and for parents like me.  There are many online resources that can show you how to write those college application essays.

Off to College

I want to point out some of the things students applying to colleges should not do or not include in their college application essay:

  • Don't lean too far towards the self-effacing tone in your application essay and don't go too far into bragging territory either.  The key in a college application essay is detail your past academic, work and overall life experiences as things you're bringing to the table.  These are experiences that shaped the person writing the essay and you don't want to pooh pooh them.  Neither do you want to build them up in epic proportion.  Every experience you include in your college application essay should be there for a reason.  Be sure to write about your experiences and also how they have shaped the person you are now so that the college admissions staff can get the true picture of you as an individual.
  • Don't use humor in your college application essay.  Although it might be fun or easier to write using humor, you don't know who is reading your essay.  If you make a joke about Australians (for example), how do you know the person reading your essay won't be Australian, or be married to an Australians, or really love Australian movies?  You don't.  It is safest, therefore, to avoid humor in your college essay as a way to avoid alienating your readers.
  • Don't use passive sentence construction in your college application essay.  When you use the passive voice in your writing, you sound static because it sounds like something is being done to someone or something rather than someone doing the something.  For example, I can tell you that "passive sentence construction should be avoided" instead of writing "avoid passive sentence construction" but the first example is too wordy and sounds a bit vague without a subject doing something in the phrase. The second example has an implied subject seemingly carrying out an action by avoiding it: "(You) avoid passive sentence construction"; and it says the same thing as the first example with fewer words.
  • Don't make statements without backing them up with a concrete example justifying that statement.  You can say something like "King Lear is Shakespeare's best play" but you will need to add more detail to back up your statement and it has to be more than "because it is well-written". On the other hand, you can say something like "King Lear is Shakespeare's best play because both Lear and Gloucester misread their children's lust for power as love for them, suggesting that greed takes root in families and works outward."  In a sentence like the previous example, not only will your reader see that you value King Lear the play, but also why you do and how you define its merit.  In other words, your reader will see how you think and it doesn't have to be a complicated concrete example since most college application essay writers are coming from high school.  It just has to be a reflection of how you think.  Don't be afraid to let that come through in your college application essay.

Writing College Application Essays(76160)

Writing college application essays can be scary.  Fortunately there are plenty of free resources online that can offer some tips for how to write them.  My "things not to do" list is a good start to get you thinking about what that essay should look like and how it can truly reflect the person applying for college admission.

Further reading:

10 Tips for Writing the College Essay

Essay Skills

SparkCollege: The College Search

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Comments

Dec 28, 2011 9:43am
Deborah-Diane
This is all great advice for college applications. You might add not to write about medical problems you have. I know a girl with great grades who had trouble getting accepted because her college essay was about her anorexia!
Dec 29, 2011 1:56pm
tekaha
great suggestion, Deborah-Diane, for all of those people reading this article who might writing their college application essays. thx!
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Bibliography

  1. Wilbers, Stephen "Some Tips for Handling College Applications." Writing for Business and Pleasure. 17/11/2000. 26/12/2011 <Web >

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