Sep 20, 2010

10 Surefire Ways to Ruin a College Essay

The best college essay tells a story that builds on but doesn’t duplicate what’s already in your application. It’s in your voice, relaxed and clearly written, and it’s totally free of “mechanical” errors.

Keep in mind that the essay is your opportunity to introduce yourself, suggest what kind of student you will be, and provide evidence of “fit” with the community you seek to join. It probably won’t get you into a college your record doesn’t support, but it could push your application from “maybe” to “admit” if your reader is captivated or amused.

To get this important job done right, make sure you avoid the following 10 surefire ways to ruin a college essay:

1. Dashing it off at the last minute. Colleges post topics early enough for you to take time to thoughtfully consider, draft, and finalize your essay. None of this will happen if you’re up against a deadline and working in panic mode.

2. Not answering the question. Questions are crafted to elicit specific information the admissions office thinks is important to their decision. Yes, you can reuse essays. But be careful to edit or make appropriate adjustments along the way. And don’t be too quick or cute with the cut and paste function.

3. Failure to have a point. An essay should have a central idea or a thesis. It doesn’t have to be overly complex or deep. But whether by statement or inference, the point you’re trying to make should be obvious to the reader.

4. Trying to sound impressive. Nothing turns off a reader faster than a pompous kid using flowery language and vocabulary. Toss out extra modifiers. Those that add “color” are good; those that are there to make the essay sound important are not. And be careful with the thesaurus. Stick with words you know and ordinarily use.

5. Resorting to an overused or well-worn topic. If your essay could have been written by any one of your 10 closest friends, then figure that may happen. You can always put a new spin on or take a fresh approach to even the most ordinary story but avoid submitting the essay anyone could have written.

6. Offending your reader. Certain topics are off limits. Politically insensitive or embarrassing material is unlikely to find a sympathetic audience. Leave adolescent humor and potty jokes in the locker room, and resist the urge to use your essay as a cathartic moment in which you relieve your conscience of a potentially explosive secret.

7. Including irrelevant material.
Over-anxious applicants have a hard time leaving out extraneous detail. Your writing should be concise and to the point. Resist the urge to free-associate and go wandering off topic.

8. Not writing in paragraphs. One long, meandering blob not only looks bad but it also diminishes the impact of your writing. On the other hand, formal essays aren’t like some newspaper articles in which each paragraph is just one sentence. Paragraphs are the building blocks of an essay—use them.

9. Making avoidable errors. Admissions readers can’t help but form opinions based on work that suggests carelessness. Use automated spelling and grammar checks. And while you’re at it, proofread the old fashioned way—with your eyes. No spell checker will catch homonym errors or poor word choice.

10. Not writing your own essay. Essay mills and other professional editing services populate the internet. It’s possible—but totally unacceptable—to take someone else’s words and submit them as your own. Be careful about lifting ideas or giving in to heavy-handed editing. When all is said and done, you should “own” your essay.

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