Top Five Mistakes Students Make on their College Application Essays

words once upon a time on a typewriterThe following is a guest post by Randy Levin. Randy has one focus–helping students with their college application essays. Based on his experiences, Randy has created a list of commonly made mistakes by students which he shares here. You can see a sample of his presentation here.

It is important to first understand the purpose of the college application essay. A student’s transcripts as well as his academic and extra-curricular achievements do not give any unique insight into the student as a person. Yes..they will illustrate hard work, intelligence, drive, aptitude, etc. However, these are the same attributes reflected in 28,000 other applications for the same institution. I know that grandpa says, “No one is as perfect as my granddaughter” but in this arena..the obvious is commonplace.

Simply put, essays help the admissions office evaluate your teen’s potential to fit into their school’s community and culture as a person. (Not as a student..not as club president..not as the driving force for raising money with a dance-a-thon or relay-for-life team and not as a swimmer who placed first in his county). Once again.the 28,000 other students..many of whom were driven to get 2400 on their SAT were also club presidents and competitors who gave their time to charity work..if not a kidney.

TOP FIVE MISTAKES.
.and a few more for good luck

ONE: Writing about academic accomplishments

  1. Deja Vu: These accomplishments are on the student’s transcripts. The admissions officer already knows your teen achieved high marks in twelve AP classes.
  1. Birds of a feather flock together: Remember your son’s best friend when they were in the 6th grade? They drifted apart in high school once your son started getting straight A’s and his friend ended up on America’s Most Wanted. They aren’t applying to the same schools. On the other hand, everyone who is has similar or identical academic accomplishments as your son.(Similar Classes / Similar Grades / Similar Test Scores / Similar Extra Curricular Activities: President of Physics Club, Class President, Swim Team Captain, 1st Violin in School Orchestra, Yearbook Editor, Mathletes Captain, 1000 hours of community service.)
  1. Blind date: Seldom does a blind date work out. My parents met on a blind date. After years of therapy, I’m still angry at the person who set them up! Academic accomplishments don’t tell the school anything about your teen as a PERSON..as an INDIVIDUAL.

TWO: Trying too hard to appear intellectual

  1. I can curse in twenty languages: A thesaurus is not necessarily your friend. Using words like, “plethora” or “myriad” only serve to drive an admissions officer to early retirement. Your teen need not swallow a thesaurus to “sound” intelligent.

This comes from The University of Virginia: An actual excerpt from a TERRIBLE essay..

“From an early age, we accept death as the inevitable, but do not comprehend its actual denotation. Death is the impending future that all people must eventually grasp. In my early teens, my grandfather tragically perished. As a youth who did not identify with such a cataclysm I was saturated with various emotions. Initially, I was grieved by the loss of a loved one and could not understand why this calamity had to befall upon my family. I always considered death to have a devastating effect, but was shocked by the emotional strain it places upon an individual.”

Do you get any sense of the PERSON who wrote this? It’s just a collection of clichés put together with “Ten dollar words.” I get NO insight into this teen as an INDIVIDUAL.

  1. That Pythagoras was no square: Your teen doesn’t need to discuss her love of Shakespeare or Milton if she thinks this slight fib sounds better than discussing the merits of the Twilight series. On the other hand, if she’s reading Fifty Shades of Grey you have bigger issues to worry about than what college she gets into.
  1. Eszopiclone, Ramelteon, Triazolam, Zaleplon, Zolpidem: There are enough sleeping pills on the market so the admissions officer doesn’t need an essay to put him to sleep. I am not suggesting that the essay rival that of a SNL monologue but it can’t be boring either. Your teen can write about something as dry as my mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving turkey but it needs to sound interesting in story, sub-text, personality, connotation, sentence length, syntax, and unique in perspective.

THREE: Trying too hard to appear creative

  • Sweat dripped from my brow as the proctor meticulously handed out the nationally recognized assessment examination. My pulse raced and my heart pounded through my chest.
  • It was a cold and dreary night when I first arrived in London. I could hear the faint whispers of the Bard himself beckoning me to the Globe Theater.
  • It was all up to me. Bases loaded with two men out in the bottom of the ninth. We were suffering a dearth of three runs. I dug my cleats into the dusty granules of dirt, held my bat firmly and watched for the pitch like an eagle watches for its prey.

FOUR: Taking a generic approach

Check the basement for Pods or Avoid clichés like the plague.

  1. “I volunteer with special needs kids.”
  2. “I am captain of our Mathlete team.”
  3. “I’m hardworking, ambitious, and driven.”
  4. “I love to be challenged.”
  5. “I am intellectually curious.”
  6. “I get along well with my peers. They often look to me for leadership.”
  7. “My grandfather’s death made me want to be a doctor.”
  8. “I want to make a difference in the world.”

FIVE: Not understanding the true point of the essay.

  1. I can touch my nose with my tongue: What makes your teen unique and not like every other student who is applying?
  1. When I was five, I was abducted by Aliens:?  What life experiences imply that your teen will fit in academically and socially?
  1. Read between the lines: What do you really mean by that? There is a sub-text to every essay. A girl is the youngest in her family and relies on her older sisters for help until they leave for college. Now the only child home, she is forced for the first time in her life to be independent and solve problems without her sisters’ help. This tells the admissions officer that she can be self-sufficient and has clearly matured.

The point here is to demonstrate the human qualities developed and honed through life experience.

  • Is this student independent yet a team player?
  • Is this student an extrovert? (Shy is okay, reclusive is probably a red flag.a misanthrope is destined to have a show on Fox News).
  • Does this student seem to have a sense of humor?
  • Will this student handle failure or rejection well or will he be up on the clock tower with an automatic weapon?
  • Will this student add to the community? (He loves to bake cookies..she loves playing touch football.he is really into Angry Birds..she turns mathematical equations into Rap lyrics).
  • What kind of character does he seem to have?
  • What are her personal beliefs? (Other than the clichés of hard work, diligence, etc).

Next Week: Three bonus mistakes for good luck


Randy Levin (www.WriteToCollege.com) holds a MA in English and a MFA in Creative Writing. He is a former high school English teacher who worked in highly competitive Long Island districts. Randy is a published writer, editor, speech writer and public speaking coach. Because of his expertise and reputation, he is the only college essay expert asked to speak at the National College Fair- Nassau Coliseum – Oct 6, 2013

About Randy Levin

Randy Levin (www.WriteToCollege.com) holds a MA in English and a MFA in Creative Writing. He is a former high school English teacher who worked in highly competitive Long Island districts. Randy is a published writer, editor, speech writer and public speaking coach. Because of his expertise and reputation, he is the only college essay expert asked to speak at the National College Fair- Nassau Coliseum - Oct 6, 2013

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