What You’re Doing Wrong in College Application Essays

There is no way to sugarcoat it: College apps are a lot of work. If you are a soon-to-be senior or already in the thick of your final year of high school, you’ve probably started the highly anticipated and often stressful college application grind. At this point, you may already have entered all your personal information, grades, recommendations – but there is still one beastly task that lies ahead: the essay. Though the personal essay is, for many, the most dreaded part of the college app process, there are a few ways to make it slightly less terrifying. Whether you’ve already cranked out a first draft, are stuck halfway through or have yet to crack open your laptop, read on for some red flags to look out for, so you can press submit sans regrets!

1. You’re too generic

Given the sheer number of students applying, chances are you aren’t the only chick who captained the girls’ soccer team junior and senior year and played the cello. Now, it is certainly not to discredit the blood, sweat and tears that you put into perfecting those exhausting passing drills or the hours of painstaking memorization that you spent on sheet music. However, when it comes to your essay, unless you have a wildly unique story to share about your favorite hobby, it is probably safer to find a different topic. A generic essay, no matter how well-written or primped up, will have a hard time catching the attention of an admissions counselor who just read an identical paper.

Before starting your essay, brainstorm a list of characteristics that make you unique. Though your double-jointedness and hatred of chocolate don't exactly sound like topics with much substance, the memories of the time you freaked out your third grade class with your Gumby-like shoulders or got sick on your birthday after eating too much chocolate cake just might help get the cogs rolling in your brain and develop those childhood moments into broader themes about how elementary school shaped you into who you are today (how your disgust with chocolate set you apart in your dessert-loving family).

2. You aren’t considering your audience

There is a time and place for a theatrical and over-exaggerated rehashing of the time you tripped up the stairs and almost died (aka stubbed your pinky toe), but that time is lunch and the place is in the cafeteria with your girl squad. Admissions counselors, on the other hand, likely will not get a kick out of your “hilarious” tale, especially if it offers no sense of who you are as an individual. Think of it this way. Maybe you are an A+ fit for the school of your dreams, but if you spend half of your essay discussing a silly, trivial story, how will the admissions officer know that? In order to prove why that school should be your future home, there is a degree of sincerity that you should take. Now, it is not to say that your essay should be too formal or read like a scholarly article, but remember, presenting the best and most-put-together version of yourself will likely come off a lot more polished than trying to scrape together bits of significance or seriousness from a funny yet, in this context, insignificant moment.

Related: 5 Things That Don't Matter on Your College Applications

3. You incorporate too much drama and “fluff”

There seems to be an unspoken rule that your college essay should be about an incredible, life-altering event like climbing Mt. Everest or saving a little kid’s life, but speaking from experience, most 18-year-olds are just beginning to navigate the whole “adulting” process and have yet to change the world on a grand scale. Lucky for you, admissions officers know this! That being said, do not waste hours and hours racking your brain on how to turn that time you “rescued” a turtle from the road into a monumental moment that made you want to be a veterinarian (unless it is true).

Instead, take a deep breath. Think about what elements of your life really encapsulate you. For starters, consider your values. When you strip away all of the superficial stuff, what is it that really matters to you in this world? You may even opt to write down a list of questions for yourself like, who or what in your family has most influenced you? Perhaps your mom’s work as an artist inspired you to explore pottery (and subsequently despise pottery). Or maybe a trip you took to South America challenged your Spanish-speaking skills and inspired you to live abroad in the future. Whatever comes to mind, jot it down. Your passions, the people who have shaped you and your identity (ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc.) all play a role in the makeup of you. With a little luck, one of those aspects will spark an essay-worthy idea and you can get to writing!

4. You didn’t proofread

No, spelling and grammar check do not count. It can be intimidating to share a piece of work (and one that is likely quite personal) with someone else. What you write in your college essay may even be something that you haven’t shared with anyone before. That said, it is absolutely ESSENTIAL that you ask someone you trust to read through your work before you hit submit. You know yourself best, so when typing a story about yourself it can be easy to leave out key details. Though the image of that gorgeous beach in Florida is crystal clear in your mind, without describing the pristine, white sand and the turquoise waters to your reader, your words will lose flavor, no matter how interesting your story. Without the help of a proofreader, you’ll never know if your essay actually flows logically or if it only makes sense to you.

Try to keep the number of people reading your essay to around two to three (probably your college counselor, a parent and maybe your bestie if you feel comfortable). There is such thing as too much feedback and you don’t want to drag your editing process on for an eternity.

5. You’re fighting the clock

Though everyone raves about junior year being the most challenging of high school, it is arguable that first semester seniors have it the roughest. On top of homework, activities, standardized testing, a social life and staying sane, college apps will be a fun new addition to your rapidly growing plate. With all the chaos that those fall months of your final year of high school will inevitably bring, it's easy to drop the ball on at least one of the many things on your to-do list. Do not. We repeat, do NOT let one of those things be your college essay. Save yourself the stress of fighting a ticking clock days before your app deadline and start working on your essay over the summer. Maybe you don’t even get to the nitty-gritty writing part before the school year begins, but at least get a jump on your brainstorming and have some potential topics selected. Your future self will thank you times a million when you confidently press submit, knowing you could give 100 percent effort with the luxury of time on your side.

6. You’re not sharing your voice

This should be a given, but just to emphasize the obvious: write authentically. Fabricating an essay that poses you as someone you are not will inevitably come back to bite you in the long run. Save yourself any avoidable drama or awkwardness down the road and keep the you showcased on paper consistent with the you in real life.

Also, keep in mind that admissions counselors have been reading these teenage-written essays for years. Chances are, they’ll know something is up if you copy and paste a chunk of text from Google Scholar. Not only is plagiarizing unethical, but when it comes to your college future, it's just plain stupid. There is truly no excuse for cheating and blowing your shot at furthering your education and growing as an individual, so just don’t do it. Not to mention, your college essay is the first substantial impression of yourself that you are giving your prospective school, so why be anything but yourself? If the school is truly a good match, the essay you write will be well-received and appreciated. And if not…in all honesty, it wasn’t the proper fit after all!

Hopefully these nuggets of college-app insight have given you a bit more clarity about what to (and what not to) write about. Truth be told, there is no amount of advice that can make the essay-writing road ahead of you all butterflies and rainbows. At the end of the day, deciding what story you want to share with your potential future home is your choice and yours alone. Though the application journey may be filled with late nights on your laptop and mini-panic attacks, be sure to keep the big picture in mind: a little stress and hard work now is totally worth the reward of achieving your future college dreams.