Biggest Blunders Bombarding Graduate School Admissions Essays

I’ve been on both ends of the graduate school admissions process – first as an anxious student applying to business and medical school and then later as an administrator/faculty member/academic adviser at Duke providing feedback on admissions essays for undergraduates applying to business and medical school – and over the years I’ve repeatedly noticed the same fundamental mistakes when it comes to the all-important admissions essays.

In this post I build upon the great tips from the May 11, 2015 post about the do’s and don’ts for writing successful college admissions essays and discuss two of these blunders along with how to overcome/avoid them.

Blunder #1: Being Generic

The most frequent blunder that undergraduates make is writing their admissions essays at the forest level while forgetting to delve into the trees and the grass. In other words, they write too many general declarative comments and not nearly enough detailed supporting ones. So instead of ending up with admissions essays resembling vivid, detailed portraits that help distinguish them from everyone else, they end up resembling abstracts that could belong to anyone.

One great place to find such nebulousness in abundance is business school applications. For instance, applicants often must write an essay that details their leadership experience. So they scour their resumes and memories for as many examples as possible and then write an “essay” that can often be distilled to the following template:

1. “I have leadership experience. Here are some examples.”
2. Example 1: Organization name, leadership position, length of time served, responsibilities
3. Example 2: Organization name, leadership position, length of time served, responsibilities
4. Example 3: Organization name, leadership position, length of time served, responsibilities
5. Example 4: Organization name, leadership position, length of time served, responsibilities

Applicants do this because they believe there’s a correlation between number of examples and extent of proof. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This approach is problematic for two reasons. First, it’s a glorified laundry list, which no human being enjoys reading let alone analyzing. Second, while it certainly provides important details about your leadership experience (or whatever trait or skill you’re trying to prove), it doesn’t provide nearly enough to distinguish you from the hundreds or thousands of other applicants who are trying to prove that they are the future Tim Cooks and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world.

What to do then?

It goes back to the old saying: “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of doing a brain dump, pick a few illustrative examples and bring each one to life with a narrative that includes specific, but relevant details.

For instance, if one of the leadership examples that you want to write about was when you were the president of your undergraduate finance club during your senior year, don’t just include a few sentences about your responsibilities, say that this experience will help you in business school and call it a day. That’s what all applicants do at a minimum. Instead, ponder these types of questions in order to make a memorable impression:

  • How many people and/or committees or teams did you oversee?
  • What was your leadership style and what examples can you provide that prove this?
  • What challenges did you face as a leader and how did you overcome them?
  • And perhaps most important: What results did you achieve and what difference did you make to the organization?

Remember: While general statements are fine, not sufficiently backing them up isn’t. General without specific equals generic.

Blunder #2: Being Dramatic

Ironically, the other big blunder that I’ve run across repeatedly is made because the students are making a concerted effort to not be generic.

Lights, camera, action! It’s the dramatic students.

Many undergraduates take the dramatic approach because they believe that their admissions essays need to “stand out” and be “unique.” While the belief is correct, the execution is wrong: they try to write about an experience that they believe no other human being will ever write or has ever written about.

So if they read an essay prompt that says, “Describe a meaningful experience in your life,” they take a trip down memory lane into the farthest crevices of their brains – bypassing the less Hollywood-worthy moments where they ate chocolate ice cream with grandpa every Sunday on the porch or finally learned how to fly a kite so that they can instead impress the admissions officers with their grueling trip to Kenya via four different types of transportation where they suffered through the heat, insects and lack of Internet connection . . . but of course felt that it was it was the most enriching, watershed moment of their lives because they learned about how other cultures live and that more importantly – surprise, surprise – despite the differences, we’re really all the same people.

There are two problems with the Hollywood blockbuster approach. First of all, your experience probably isn’t as unique as you think: the admissions committee has read thousands upon thousands of essays, which means they’ve read about almost every “unique” experience out there. Second of all, and more concerning, when you do go Hollywood solely for the sake of standing out, it comes across insincere, which is worse than being generic. Nobody wants to be around fakes except art forgers.

So remember: “standing out” isn’t about writing about the most dramatic life thing that happened in your life. Writing about everyday occurrences is often more moving and more importantly, more authentic, if written well.

Ziggy Yoediono, MD MBA is a psychiatrist who was educated at Harvard, Yale, Duke and the University of Rochester. He is a Yale College alumnus interviewer and former Duke faculty, Duke undergraduate academic adviser and Associate Director of a business masters program at Duke.

He is also the founder and sole adviser of ZIG Consulting (www.zigconsulting.com), a luxury boutique education and career firm specializing in graduate school admissions, academics counseling, career counseling and college admissions counseling. Please contact info@zigconsulting.com with any questions or comments.


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