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8 Common Mistakes Students Make on the Essay

What’s the biggest mistake students make on their college application essays?

I routinely talk to countless admissions officers at a variety of colleges: Ivies, competitive public, small liberal arts, faith-based. Whether they’re reading a personal statement, a “Why Us?” supplement, or an answer to any other prompt, admissions officers throughout the U.S. seem to agree the biggest mistake they see is this:

No. 1 Mistake: Students do not answer the prompt!

I just reviewed a student’s “Why Us?” essay for a Big 10 university. This prompt asks applicants to share why the program appeals to them and how the school’s curriculum will support the student’s interests.

This boy’s story focused on the many Saturdays he drove 250 miles from his hometown to the college football stadium with his father, an alumnus. His memories were great; he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; he felt at home inside the stadium.

Will the admissions team like this story? (Unlikely) Will it stand out? (Probably not) More importantly, does this story answer the question? (No)

Your child’s job on any college essay – their only job – is to answer the prompt. If the prompt specifies that an applicant write a story about an experience during the last two years and asks them to explain how it has prepared them for College X, they should not talk about getting cut from the soccer team in seventh grade.

If the prompt asks for a reflection about plans to serve the community in the future, they should not focus on their favorite book. Make sure your child reads the prompt and understands what it is asking.

“Answer the question,” urges Shawn Felton, Cornell University’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”

Your child should read all instructions on every application! They can also make their college essays stand out by avoiding these other common slip-ups:

1. Featuring someone other than themselves

Your son might genuinely admire his 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? No. They want to learn more about your child. They can write about your family dog or favorite relative as long as they explain how that relationship or experience with helped them discover something meaningful.

2. Using the wrong school name in their essay

Does your daughter want to be a Florida Gator? She can modify the University of Wisconsin essay for her Florida application, but she should not accidentally forget to remove the line about how her experience will help her contribute to the UW-Madison community. This mistake shows that applicants don’t care enough to proofread the application. Admissions committees might forgive a typo, but they don’t like to hear that your child wishes they were going to school somewhere else.

3. Copying most (or all) of someone else’s essay

There aren’t many things students can do to ensure rejection, but plagiarism, also known as cheating, is one of them. Just tell your child to assume they will get caught. College admissions professionals are smart, and they notice trends when they read essays. A few years ago, Erica Sanders, Director of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of Michigan, discovered two essays that sounded the same, word-for-word; both candidates were rejected immediately without explanation.

4. Relying on the thesaurus

If your child uses a thesaurus to find words rather than trust the words they know and use every day, the essay will not sound like them. They 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. Your child will sound smart when they use their own words and voice to tell a genuine story that shows who they are.

5. Getting too much help

There is a fine line between asking someone your child trusts to review an essay and getting too much help. When you, or a teacher or tutor, starts giving a student words to use or edits too much, the student’s 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.”

6. Focusing on a topic, rather than the student

An application essay does not have to be written about an impressive topic. Your child is impressive, not the topic. A college application essay is your child’s opportunity to share something meaningful and personal. Colleges want to know what your child has learned, not what they did. “What does it mean to you? That is what we want to know,” said Calvin Wise, Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University.

7. Not taking the essay seriously

Students (and parents) sometimes believe no one reads the essays, and therefore they do not matter. Of course they read the essays. And they can help your child! They wouldn’t ask your child to write something they did not plan to read. I have asked dozens of admission officers from every type of college if they read the essays. The answer is a collective “yes.” For many, it is their favorite part of the job.

Every essay your child writes for a college is an opportunity to stand out; don’t let yours miss out by making a common mistake! If you would like to learn more about the essay, sign up for my upcoming webinar with Applerouth, “Time to Write Those College Essays! How Parents Can Help Without Overstepping.” I will share my best tips and resources and will answer any of your questions. Click here to sign up.


Because we know you want to help your child avoid making college application essay mistakes, we’re giving you a free copy of our popular parent guide, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay –The Inside Scoop for Parents. Click here to redeem your book.

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!

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