The Most Common College Application Essay Mistake

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop
Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essay
Lifton: Don’t make the same college application essay mistakes we see year after year.

Every year, college reps tell Wow Writing Workshop that the biggest mistake students make in their application essays is not answering the prompt.

Take the example of Katie, who came home from school one day, flustered over a seemingly simple English class assignment: Write a personal statement for college.

Her father had never seen this side of his daughter. She could always manage her schoolwork on her own. Not this time. The teacher sent students home to write the essay with no instructions. Katie, not knowing where to start or what to do, was fixated on a topic — ice-skating. And why not? She was a competitive skater. It was integral to her life. Would that topic help her stand out, she asked her father?

avoid college application essay mistake: answer the prompt

The dad, Alan, knew a little bit about the essay. He had been doing some research on college admissions so he would be prepared to guide her. In fact, a few nights before she showed him the assignment, Alan had participated in one of our online parent chats. They’re free and open to the public. We host them monthly to answer parent questions and provide tips for them to help their children.

Katie was too far ahead of herself in the process, and her dad knew it. She was thinking about a topic before she understood the prompt. The topic, he told Katie, was not as significant as the subject. In other words, the essay needed to be about Katie (the subject of the essay), not ice-skating (the topic).

Katie was about to make one of the most common mistakes colleges see in application essays. She was prepared to write about an experience, rather than what she learned from it or what that experience demonstrated about her. Katie was so focused on finding a good topic that she paid little attention to the prompt, one her teacher selected from the Common Application: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Fortunately, her father was able to guide her. He asked her the one question we use repeatedly with our students to help them slow down before choosing an essay topic: What do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?

After a 30-minute conversation with her father, Katie decided she wanted colleges to know she was compassionate.

Ultimately, she did find a topic through her experience on the ice. In her essay, Katie showed colleges she was compassionate in a focused story about a time she taught a young child how to skate. That experience could have happened at a library, teaching a child to read, or on a nearby sidewalk, teaching a child how to ride a bike. The setting did not matter because it showed introspection into Katie’s character in a way that could help colleges get to know her better.

Our gift to your parents
Learn how to avoid making college application essay mistakes.

To learn more about writing your college essay, and how to avoid making college application essay mistakes, order your copy of Wow Writing Workshop’s How to Write an Effective College Application Essay –  The Inside Scoop for Students! Parents, don’t worry, we wrote a companion guide for you, too. Because we know you want to help your students, we’re gifting to you a free parent guide.

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic writing and communications firm.

Wow is a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. We can even help you write a great poem or short story. If it involves words, we can help!