College essays: love ‘em or hate ‘em, but you have to write them - and they’re somehow due in three hours?! (Kidding. PLEASE don't let this be you.) Over my years as a writing coach, I’ve come to recognize a number of common mistakes students make each and every year. Going over all of them would take many, many blog posts. Let’s start with just three.
1. You make sweeping statements about yourself without backing them up.
Many students’ first drafts are full of sweeping statements about themselves but low on specific examples that support or elaborate on these statements. If you say something is important to you or a big part of your personality, talking about how this thing actually manifests itself in your life in concrete ways makes for a more interesting and descriptive essay. Remember, colleges assign these essays in an attempt to get to know you more personally, so take this opportunity to explain who you are with specificity and vividness. Here are a few examples that illustrate how to do this:
First Draft: I’m passionate about serving my community.
Revision: Every month, my soccer team and I get together to wash cars in exchange for a small donation to a local charity. We set up shop in the school parking lot, pump up some music, and help our friends and neighbors get their rides squeaky-clean. Our all-time most successful car wash was in August, when we raised over $500 for SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition!
First Draft: I love animals.
Revision: I remember when my mom first took me to the Aquarium of the Pacific. I was so fascinated by the amazing creatures there that I refused to move on to a different exhibit before I had read the descriptions of every single animal. It took us all day! I’m grateful now that my mom was so patient with me, because that trip was the start of a lifelong love affair with marine life of all kinds.
First Draft: Sports mean everything to me.
Revision: My day starts at 4:30 AM; I roll out of bed, drink a big glass of water, pull on a warm hoodie, and go on a two-mile warm-up run. This leaves my body limber and energized for morning practice, where I’ll run at least another three miles in between cycling through drills on the court with my teammates. By the time I start class, I’m already thinking about how to schedule my day so I can finish homework and still have time to practice lay-ups at the park before sunset.
Tip: When writing a statement about yourself, imagine you’re arguing before a jury. How can you prove what you’re saying? What evidence can you offer?
2. Your language is too formal or unnecessarily complex.
I know how stressful writing these essays can be. Students feel a ton of pressure to acquire the vocabulary of Herman Melville and the evocative power of Toni Morrison overnight. Not only are these goals unrealistic, but they also often result in students feeling like they have to use the most formal, overwrought, “academic” language possible to impress admissions officers. Of course, your readers don’t want to see language that’s way too informal (it shouldn’t look like your text conversations), but instead of improving an essay, language that’s too elevated or elaborate can come off as confusing and fake. Check out these examples:
First Draft: The date was June 6, 2017 when I first endeavored to enter into the tradition my family had observed for countless generations before me.
Revision: June 6, 2017 was the day I first observed an ancient family tradition.
First Draft: Before I could approach my sister with a request for her assistance, I first had to ask permission from my mother in order for us to proceed.
Revision: Before I asked my sister for help, I had to make sure my mom was okay with it.
First Draft: It was in that moment that I was fully cognizant of the fact that education would be an invaluable asset in my efforts to throw into disarray the patterns that had plagued me thus far.
Revision: In that moment, I realized education would be the key to disrupting the patterns that had been bothering me.
Tip: When writing, avoid consulting a dictionary or thesaurus. Only use words you’re confident using, and try to keep them under five syllables long.
3. You aren’t specific and thoughtful about what you like about the college.
(This mistake doesn’t apply to the Common App’s personal statement or any other essays that will be sent to multiple schools.) The fact that so many students decide they love a college just because of its general reputation, location, or number of mature trees is an issue for another blog post. What’s relevant here is that your essay’s reader will want to know that you value their school for more than just those kinds of superficial things. They’ll want to know that you’ve actually dug deep, researched, and can explain what, specifically, makes you want to go to that school rather than others. (Note: If you don’t know the answer to this, you may want to reconsider your list of schools!) Consider these examples:
First Draft: USC is the right choice for me because it has a great business program, and my goal in life is to help build businesses that help other people.
Revision: I’m attracted to USC’s Marshall School of Business not only because of its reputation for excellence but also because of its focus on social and ethical responsibility, without which the study of business would be incomplete. I look forward to attending luncheons held by the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab and seminars sponsored by the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making to learn more about how I can better the world by building great businesses.
First Draft: The University of Montana and I share a passion for the environment, and I’m confident I would be at home with like-minded people while studying Wildlife Biology.
Revision: Though I’ve always been fascinated by the study of living things, it was only during a backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevadas that I knew I was interested in the biology of wildlife above all else. The University of Montana’s W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation offers an opportunity to study Wildlife Biology right where it lives. The college’s unrivaled opportunities for hands-on field research in the rugged wildlands of western Montana make it the best choice for an animal-lover and outdoorswoman like me.
First Draft: I think folklore is really interesting, and the fact that the University of Oregon has a Folklore and Public Culture major caught my attention right away.
Revision: I think that when many people think of folklore, they think of ancient traditions and European fairy tales, but I’m really interested in the way we continue to create new folklores - even here in the US! At the University of Oregon’s Folklore and Public Culture Program, I look forward to taking courses like Folklore and US Popular Culture and The Anglo-American Ballad and Folksong so I can learn more about the secrets and stories behind our contemporary culture.
Tip: Explore the college’s website THOROUGHLY. This includes the website(s) of the department of your chosen major. Take notes.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief overview of common mistakes and all the fake stories I made up to illustrate them. If you’d like to learn about the other mistakes I alluded to earlier or just want a second set of eyes on your college essay drafts, check out our college counseling and essay help services.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
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