College Essays: Six Common Mistakes You Must Avoid

by Kim Lifton

Do you know what college admissions committees want to see in college essays? Do you know what makes them cringe? Make your college essays stand out by avoiding these common mistakes:

1. Featuring someone other than yourself. You might genuinely admire your football coach, love your dog or dream of growing up to be just like your great uncle who won a Nobel Prize, but do you think college admissions committees care about them? Nope. They want to learn more about you. You can write about your dog or your favorite relative as long as you explain how that relationship or experience helped you discover something about yourself.

2. Not answering the question. If the prompt specifies that you write a story about an experience during the last year, and asks you to explain how it has prepared you for College X, don’t talk about getting cut from the soccer team when you were a freshman. If the prompt asks for a reflection about your plans to serve the community in the future, don’t focus on your favorite book. Read the prompt before, during and after you write your draft, then ask someone else to tell you whether or not you responded to it.

3. Using the wrong school name in your essay. Want to be a Florida Gator? You can modify your University of Wisconsin essay for your Florida application, but don’t accidentally forget to remove the line about how your experience will help you contribute to the UW-Madison community. This mistake shows that you don’t care enough to proofread your application. Admissions committees might forgive a typo, but they don’t like to hear that you wish you were going to school somewhere else.

4. Copying most (or all) of someone else’s essay. There aren’t too many things you can do to ensure rejection, but plagiarism, also known as cheating, is one of them. Just assume you will get caught. College admissions professionals are smart and they notice trends when they read essays. When Erica Sanders, managing director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Michigan, discovered two essays that sounded the same, both candidates were rejected immediately without explanation.

5. Relying on the thesaurus. If you use a thesaurus to find words rather than trust the words you know and use every day, you will not sound like yourself. What’s more, you might use a few big words incorrectly, which will never impress an admissions officer. Colleges are not looking for the next Ernest Hemingway or Toni Morrison. You will sound smart when you use your own words and your own voice to tell a genuine story that shows who you are.

6. Getting too much help. There is a fine line between asking someone you trust to review your essay and getting too much help. When your mom, dad, teacher or tutor starts giving you words to use or edits too much, your voice disappears. Duke University Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag put it this way: “By the time essays come to us, many of them have gone through so many hands that the essays are sanitized. I wish I saw more of a thoughtful voice of a 17-year-old.”

Every essay you write for a college is an opportunity to stand out; don’t mess up by making a common mistake!