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Top 10 Mistakes Students Make on their College Application Essays

Typewriter with text once upon a time representing Top 10 Mistakes Students Make on their College Application EssaysThe 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 the other 30,000 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.

Quick Reality Check:

Class of 2020

College Applicants Accepted
Harvard 39,041 2,037
Yale 31,455 1,972
Princeton 29,303 1,894
M.I.T. 19,292 1,485
Columbia 36,292 2,193
UPenn 38,918 3,661

Harvard turned down 500 students with 2400 on the SAT and….
1,100 students were turned down with 800 on SAT Math Component.


Simply put, essays help the admissions office evaluate your 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 30,000 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.

Just remember, your parents aren’t the only ones with a bumper sticker that reads, “My child is an Honor Student.”

You will notice that in the second sentence at the very beginning of this, I wrote “unique” Bold, italics and with quotation marks. That’s like the trifecta of emphasis.
For years, teachers, guidance counselors and even yours truly have said that the purpose of the essays is to show the college what makes you “unique.”

However, after reading this…

“Our admissions officers are looking for something that is Authentic and Imperfect.”
Amy Gutman, President UPenn – Time magazine, April 18 2016

….I think this is a much better way to frame these essays. Essays are the only tool a college has to figure out what makes you authentic and imperfect. Basically….what is REAL? They don’t want manufactured “smoke and mirrors.” They want to know who you really are simply as a teen.


1) Writing about academic accomplishments.

Deja Vu: These accomplishments are on your transcripts. The admissions officer already knows you achieved high marks in twelve AP classes.

Birds of a feather flock together: Remember your best friend when you were in the 6th grade? You drifted apart in high school once you started getting straight A’s and your friend ended up on America’s Most Wanted. The two of you aren’t applying to the same schools. On the other hand, everyone who is applying has similar or identical academic accomplishments as you do such as

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.

Academic accomplishments don’t tell the school anything about you as a PERSON…
…as an INDIVIDUAL. It’s no different than stating the obvious… “I am smart.”

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2) Trying too hard to appear intellectual.

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. You need not swallow a thesaurus to “sound” intelligent.

This excerpt illustrates my point nicely. In fact, the college used this to show potential applicants what not to do…

“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.

That Pythagoras was no square: You don’t need to discuss your love of Shakespeare or Milton if it’s not true and you think it sounds better than discussing the merits of the Twilight series. On the other hand, if you’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey you have bigger issues to worry about than what college you get into.

Say What?: Watch the way you phrase things. “high impact professors” or  “I want to partake in the diffusion of knowledge” Stop the madness!!!!!!!!

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. You 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.

3) Trying too hard to appear creative.

These tend to become pretentious in their attempt to be creative. These are NOT creative writing assignments and again, you are not being evaluated as a creative writer. They want to know who you are as a person. They aren’t looking for “clever.” They are looking for YOU.

Don’t let this happen to you:

“The sun relentlessly beat down upon the terra firma; perspiration poured from every pore. I sauntered up to the batter’s box. The pressure was on. It was the bottom of the 9th with two out and runners in scoring position. We were suffering a dearth of two runs…”

By the way, I have never met a high school athlete who “sauntered” or one who used the word “dearth.” Come to think of it…I don’t know anyone who says “dearth” while “sauntering.”

4) Taking a generic approach.  Stay far away from these types of clichés.

Check the basement for Pods or Avoid clichés like the plague.
 “I’m hardworking, ambitious, and driven.”
“I love to be challenged.”
“I am intellectually curious.”
“My peers often look to me for leadership.”
“My grandfather’s death made me want to be a doctor.”
“I want to make a difference in the world.”

5) My Major interest is to Major in Chemistry

No matter which common application question you choose, don’t write about what you plan on  majoring in. Let’s say you want to be a Chemistry major. (My homage to Heisenberg and Breaking Bad) Your resume is filled with AP Chemistry, internships and summer programs in chemistry, chemistry clubs, etc. And now you write that the place you are most comfortable is in a Chemistry Lab??????? You appear one-dimensional. You don’t look like a well-rounded person with multiple interests, perspectives, etc

Most colleges have supplemental essays….one of which asks why this major. If your main essay is about your major….what will you write for the supplemental essay? It will appear repetitive and further promote you as a one-dimensional person.

6) Not understanding the true point of the essay.

I can touch my nose with my tongue: What makes you authentic and imperfect? What makes you REAL? What life experiences imply that you will fit in academically and socially?

You didn’t have to be abducted by aliens, or work with terminally ill dolphins. It’s about you as a teenager…not a student, an athlete, a volunteer. Just as a human being.

7) Not reading the school’s website.

I want to go to (Name of School Here): “I want to go to NYU because it is in New York City and I want that city experience.”  There are more than TWENTY colleges in New York City….so why specifically NYU? What does NYU offer that all the other institutions don’t offer?

Professor Smith’s maiden name was Quackenbush: Read through the school’s website and discover that 80% of the faculty are Nobel Prize Winners, that there are 250 clubs and the school provides internships in Papua New Guinea. But don’t write this. Be specific as to what internships and why….and what clubs and why…BE SPECIFIC

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*Don’t cut and paste. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t regurgitate the website’s stats. Merely show the admissions officer that you KNOW the school and what makes the school UNIQUE.

Don’t use the website information to sound like you are working in their advertising department. Here is an example of that….as well as too many clichés to count. (That itself is a cliché)

Penn Nursing’s motto, “Care to Change the World,” speaks to who I am.  I want to be that nurse practitioner who impacts families, who betters society, and who makes a difference.  I want to be that PNP who smiles, who makes children feel comfortable, and who heals.

And Penn’s School of Nursing will help me achieve that goal.  Where else can you gain clinical exposure in the sophomore year with access to world-class hospitals, such as The Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania?  Where else do you have the opportunity to engage in real-world research, like at LIFE, and improve quality of elder care?

But practical experience is just one side of the double helix of education.  The rigor of Penn’s academic curriculum also calls my name. The emphasis on leadership appeals to me.

Don’t sound like you are reviewing the college for a magazine or practicing to become a restaurant critic”

“Strolling around the tree lined Quad in the shadow of magnificent architecture hearing students discussing issues ranging from evolution, to hypothesizing Lincoln’s views on current politics, the energy and intellectual diversity on campus was palpable.”


Why do you want to go to our school?
What are the SPECIFIC things the school says about….Academics, Internships, Clubs, Organizations and Traditions that appeals to you? And SPECIFICALLY WHY?

DON’T KISS THEIR $#[email protected]%.
Why do you want to go to our school?
Telling them it’s a prestigious university with distinguished professors, unparalleled resources and a spectacular campus tells them nothing that they don’t already know…and you sound like a Kiss Up!

8) It all began when I was born in a log cabin on a snowy winter night.

Grandma isn’t reading your essay. An overworked admissions person with a monstrously large stack of essays is. Grandma wants to hang on every word, every page and there is no such thing as “too long” for your little grammie. The admissions person wants to go home before midnight. GET TO THE POINT. Don’t overwrite. Don’t create “introductions.” Tell your story. Get in, get out.

Although these are overused and clichéd topics…(The SEVEN DEADLY SINS)…. 
i) Vacation: Club Med / Costa Rica/ Cruise
ii) Sports Injuries
iii) Death
iv) Disease
v) Divorce
vi) Disorders
vii) Relationship break-ups

9) THEY ARE FINE IF your perspective is authentic and imperfect

  • It’s Okay to Fail
  • How I discovered my love of science when all I really wanted to do was impress a girl in class.


“Students at my high school are insanely cutthroat, only caring about their own grades”
“I’ve grown up at a school full of upper-middle class white people”
“Our new administration was completely incompetent”
“Forced to work with others”
“I want to study abroad to get away from my parents”
“I am very competitive in every aspect of my life.  It is important to me to show that I am better than everyone else”
“Escape the complaints of my overbearing mother”

“Any time we did not get the desired results from an experiment, we modified the data for the sake of getting good grades”
“I and my group of insatiably curious young geniuses”
“I know I want to do something with the human body”
“My favorite aspect of the school is its location.  As an avid skier and snowboarder, I am overjoyed that Cornell is less than half an hour away from a nearby ski resort”
“9th grade girl accused me of stalking her”

BONUS: A few more points.

It’s not the activity, it’s YOU in the activity
When you are asked about your most meaningful extra-curricular activity, it’s not about being a member of the swim team because you swim. It’s about the relationships you developed, the life lessons you’ve learned…without the “hard work” and “driven to win” stuff. This applies to everything you write about. It’s about YOU in the topic…not about the topic.

“Catchy” Openings
Most are artificial and feel forced: a quote, a question, dialogue or something that ends with, “Everything changed the day I received…”

Authentic…Organic…Real is okay: “Embrace the goose poop,” “I had lost my sister’s ‘A,’” “The last of the ghosts and goblins left my life at seven-year old along with Saturday morning Scooby Doo cartoons,” “For some odd reason, many of my peers think of Science Olympiad as a “cult.” Sacrifice one goat and we are labeled for life,” “I grew up being told that hard work always pays off.  Apparently, whoever first said that never had a groin injury.”

Leave it in Middle School
Never start any essay with the exact words from the question:  Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities that was particularly meaningful to you. “My most meaningful extracurricular activity is…”
Never write in second person: “If you ask your teacher, you will see…”
Don’t insert meaningless dialogue: “I ask myself, ‘why am I so passionate about…?’”

Common Application Essay Topics 2018-19

No matter which prompt you choose, all the rules I talk about in the Top Ten Mistakes still apply. These essays are about YOU as a person; not as a scholar, an athlete, a musician, etc. Who are YOU as a seventeen or eighteen year old that they can’t learn by looking at your transcripts? Remember, everyone looks the same on paper so this is your best chance to stand out from the crowd. You want the admission person to get a sense of you when he finishes reading your essay. An admission person once said to me, “I know it’s the right student when I’m reading the essay and thinking, ‘I want to run into this kid next year to ask her how’s it going….if she likes it here and is doing well.’”

1. 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.
Don’t write about being a first generation American. It’s incredibly commonplace. Is there something you do that is just for you? No grade, no award….just for you? Art, music, etc….intrinsic value? Or a talent or something that totally defines you…other than your academic interest that you will major in. You don’t want to appear one dimensional.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
I caution students to not write, “I faced the challenge (or setback) by working harder.” That tactic becomes very cliché. “I failed the first AP test. I studied harder. Now I’m an A+ student.” “I tore my ACL. Worked hard in PT and now I’m the starting pitcher.” Your answer has to be much more than the cliché “I worked harder.” Did you have to leave your comfort zone to overcome the obstacle? Did you have to change your thinking or behavior to overcome it? What did you do well beyond “hard work?”

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Have you questioned “news?” Is it “fake news” or spin or “alternative facts.” Who do you believe? What about rules or laws? Obviously you want to remain respectful toward authority so the college doesn’t think you’ll burn down the administration building if they don’t start serving vegan meals. Just make sure you have demonstrated experience. You can’t simply say you questioned an idea in your head and did nothing about it. What did you do? Who did you talk to? What happened after this epiphany?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
This could be starting a club, recognizing an issue you can do something about. Not Global Warming or Terrorism. A problem in your “backyard.” It could be something in your family, your school, your community or simply your life.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
I love this question. This is about YOU and your personal growth, whether a realization about yourself or someone else.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Be very, very careful with this one. You don’t want to be appear one dimensional by writing about an aspect of the thing you are majoring in. You also don’t want to get technical and start going on and on about… “performing nitric oxide synthase concentration assays in tandem with polymerase chain reactions while attempting transient transfection…dedicated towards modification of human endothelial progenitor stem cells.” I have no idea what any of that means. 

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
 With all due respect to the fine professionals at the Common App, I hate this question. I was thrilled when they tossed it out a couple of years ago. Too many students decided to become overly creative and write pretentious essays like, “My life is like the phases of the moon” or “Why These Essays are Meaningless” or “I can prove I am God.” Unless you wrote an essay that your teacher thought was absolutely brilliant and said something about YOU, this is a topic to avoid. Aside from the chance of being pretentious, you also run the risk of not living up to expectations. If they are giving you this much freedom, the result better be SPECTACULAR.

Whether or not you use my services, I sincerely hope this helps set your teen apart from all the other applicants. Over the years I have learned that there is a secondary benefit to this process. When you and your teen discuss these points, it is inevitable that you will discover things about him…and he will discover things about himself that will make you both proud. That’s a guarantee.

If you want to watch a slightly abridged version of the actual presentation, plug in this web address:
1- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAwd4-evrxQ

2- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJ1OVFcmvOU

Aside from my one-on-one essay consulting, I offer a video course. This is a brief promotion about the course https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmAShBZyGXI

Please explore www.WriteToCollege.com for details about my services and who I am.  There are also links to other great services my colleagues offer…. Everything from financial aid and scholarships to SAT/ACT tutors.

Please feel free to call or email me if you have any questions.



Randy Levin
[email protected]
(917) 450-9495

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