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Maddi Lee

Common Mistakes That Will Kill Your College Essay

It’s summer! You’re off to the beach to go and sunbathe and worry about nothing for three mon—

HA. Oh, wait. You’re technically a senior now, which means that, for the next six months, you’re saddled to that lovely bundle of joy known as…college apps! I’m sure you’re positively enthused.


Summer is the prime time to start out on your essays, especially since you won’t have much time during the first semester of your senior year. Every year, thousands of innocent college essays die due to common mistakes that could have easily been cured.


Don’t kill your chances at that dream school by falling into one of these writing traps!


1) Bad grammar

Ah, grammar. It sounds like a petty reason to dump your essay, but bad punctuation and incorrect spelling are one of the easiest ways to lose the interest of readers. It tells your audience that you either didn’t care enough to proofread your writing or lack the basic writing skills essential to a successful college career. In one MIT Admissions blog post, for example, the Associate Director of Admissions claims that, “When there get to be a lot of errors, we start to question how much time and effort the student has put into the application.”

Make spell-check your slave.



2) Lying

It’s tempting to concoct a dramatic story about your heartwrenching childhood or your three-month trek to salvation in the deserts of Nigeria or that time you got kidnapped at the North Korean border…But please. Don’t.

Lying—even to a small degree—will bite you back, more often than not. It only affords more chances for contradiction and major errors later in your application.

Also, as cheesy as it sounds, sincerity does matter. If you’re telling the truth and really communicate thoughts and emotions that you believe in, it will come across as a lot more powerful than a false story. It’s difficult to describe an experience in a real, sincere, and moving manner if it never happened in the first place.

3) Using the wrong college name

Nothing says “I re-used this essay” more clearly than using the wrong college name in your college app! If you’re going to use the same essay to apply to multiple colleges, make sure to double-check and write the correct college name in each essay. Berkeley won’t want to know that you’ve always longed to be a bulldog!

4) Not answering the question

It’s awesome if you have lots of ideas and lots to say, but make sure to actually answer the question on the way! (Unintentional rhyme.)

Colleges pick the essay topics that they do for a reason. If you miss the entire point of the question, it certainly won’t help them, nor will it say great things about your ability to follow basic instructions.

5) Using cliché’s

Sticking dramatic, inspirational quotes at the beginning of your essays sounded great in middle school, but for college essays…not so much. Neither do cliché phrases like “There’s no ‘I’ in team!” or “Everything happens for a reason!”

These platitudes look fine as desktop wallpapers, but in college essays (or any essay, for that matter), they come off as trite and uninspired.

6) Don’t scare off admissions officers

There’s a fine line between creativity and…weirdness. And creepiness. Colleges receive some pretty strange essays from people who’ve pushed the envelope a little too far. Take one Yale applicant, for example, who wrote about how she urinated on herself rather than remove herself from an intellectual conversation…thus demonstrating how she prioritized mental over physical needs.


You know you’ve crossed the line when Lady Gaga doesn’t approve. Go ahead and be unique, but don’t cross into absurdity.

7) Restate your resume

“What matters to me? Being the student council president, varsity basketball captain, and senior newspaper editor, I have a lot on my plate to handle. That didn’t stop me from flying to Uganda to build an orphanage last summer, however—a trip inspired by my gig as a White House intern and, consequently, the many long, meaningful conversations I had with Barack Obama. On an unrelated note, I have a 4.8 GPA.”


Oh, my. Do not reiterate all of your extracurriculars into your essays because that completely defeats the purpose of the essay. Not to mention, you’ll come across as a kiss-up who’s trying too hard.

You already listed your extracurriculars in a different section. The essay section is for admissions officers to know your character more—to really know who you are and what you stand for. Rather than spewing out all your extracurriculars, why not focus on one? Or something that the admissions officer isn’t already familiar with?

8) Sounding like an entitled brat

Despite the evil, terrifying image of admissions officers that many of us have conjured up in our heads…


…they’re actually real human beings! It’s difficult to swallow, I know. When you’re writing your essays, then, it’s a good idea to sound like, you know, a reasonably decent person. (Even though you’re secretly evil, of course.)

So, don’t talk endlessly about your countless lavish vacations to foreign countries or talk about how “I want to go to Stanford because I am a triple Stanford legacy, and my family is a huge donor.”

Hard-earned accomplishments speak louder than privileged opportunities…Show them what you’ve done on your own—not the favorable circumstances you’ve been born into.


And that’s it! These mistakes are harder to avoid when you’re pressed for time, so try to get a head start and write a couple now. Until then, check out this amazing post on how to maximize your summers!

…Have fun writing those essays!



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About Maddi Lee

Maddi is currently a high school junior in southern California. She is an avid freelance writer and has been featured in multiple literary publications and anthologies. When she isn't writing, she loves traveling, doodling, and most of all, sleeping. Through her own experience and passion, she hopes to help guide fellow students through the roller coaster that is SAT and college admissions...that is, as long as she survives the journey herself!

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