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5 College Admissions Essay Mistakes To Avoid

Grades, GPA, and transcripts are important components of applying to college, but numbers only tell part of the story. The college admissions essay plays a much more powerful role in telling your personal story to college admissions officers. So while university admissions departments may set initial cut-offs based on numbers, they make their final decision based on your college personal statement essay.

At Wordvice, we know college admissions essays. Every year, we receive tens of millions of words to edit from students applying to college. Therefore, we know what good essays, bad essays, and great essays look like–and what students should do in their essays to get the attention of admissions officers.

Here we will cover how to write a good college personal statement by looking at some common college admission essay mistakes to avoid and discuss ways to improve your college application essays.

What does a good college application essay look like?

Before looking at some essay mistakes to avoid, let’s discuss what a good admissions essay does. Effective college personal statements give broad, comprehensive insights into your personal and academic background, provide college admissions counselors with an overview of your goals, and answer the college prompt directly and clearly. 

One of the best ways to learn how to write a good college application essay is to look at what successful students wrote.  

Check out a few powerful examples of successful personal statements so you can recognize what a great college application essay looks like. Reading examples of college essays can help you to understand exactly what college admissions officers are looking for.

image for examples of successful college personal statements

Check out some examples of successful college personal statements.

Useful Tips on How to Write a College Admissions Essay

Once you take a look at what some successful college essay examples look like, the second step should be looking at some useful tips and checklists. This will help organize your college essay writing process, so look at these tips before you start writing and check them off as you go. 

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Why it’s Important to Avoid Mistakes in Your College Essay

Even if you include all of the above positive tips in your college application essay, you still need to be aware of and avoid common college application essay mistakes. The importance of this cannot be understated. 

Negativity bias is the concept in psychology that people will remember, dwell on, and act upon unpleasant thoughts and emotions as compared to positive or correct ones. Therefore, applicants should focus on the positive and productive elements of their personal narrative in the essay, even if this story includes some negative events or circumstances.

What does this mean for your college application essay?

Your personal statement is not only scanned by AI-powered grammar and spell checker apps to weed out simple mistakes outright, they are also read, interpreted, and graded by real human college admissions officers. These are seasoned professionals who will reject your college essay for any reason they deem fit. 

Randi Heathman, an independent education consultant, gives a clear summary of why application essays are rejected:

Weak essays get skimmed. If a student’s essay isn’t great OR good, the admission officer will probably just skim past the essay and move right on to your transcript and your test scores to evaluate your candidacy for admission. Bad essays don’t get read. Period. A bad essay will prompt an admission officer to assume one of two things: 1) either you don’t care enough about your future at their school to take the time to write a good essay or 2) you aren’t academically up to attending their college or university. Neither of those assumptions will help you get admitted.

Do you see a main theme here? Your college admissions essay needs to not only engage in and answer the prompt, but also not give admissions officers any reasons to discard it. 

For this reason, students must actively avoid the following college admissions essay mistakes.

Common College Essay Mistakes To Avoid

Here is a list and analysis of the types of mistakes to avoid on your college personal statement. 

Broken blue plate on the ground

Avoid fatal mistakes in your college application essay.

Your Application Essay Repeats the Essay Prompt

Many universities have strict word counts that are designed to make the admissions process more efficient but also force you to write concisely. 

For example, Villanova University has two application essays. The free choice essay is limited to 250 words while its “Why Nova?” essay is limited to just 100 words! 

So if you really want to ruin your chances of admission, repeat the essay prompt. Veteran college admissions officers will instantly trash your essay. It shows laziness and is interpreted as you not respecting their time. You need every opportunity to show who you are, your goals, and how you align with your target university. The best students have plenty to write about, and so should you.

Your Application Essay Uses Cliches

One of the biggest mistakes to avoid in your college admissions essay would be including tired cliches that don’t add interesting points or content. Don’t try to come off as profound, exclusive, or postmodern in any way. This will be obvious to the reader, and you probably will also not be the best writer or candidate on paper they have seen. What’s actually important is to demonstrate your self-awareness, your self-confidence, and your priorities and goals. 

Trying desperately to sound special will make you end up sounding like every other applicant, and admissions officers are experts at spotting fakes. You have plenty of resources to work with. Make sure your ideas are your own.

Example of clichés in an essay

When explaining a personal setback or a difficult decision, instead of writing, “This event was a disparate result antithetical to my character,” show some personal ownership and be straightforward. Here is a better way to phrase this sentiment:  “This is a decision I am not proud of, but it helped me learn a valuable lesson and put me in a better place today. Without this formative experience, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who applies myself in every challenging circumstance.”  

Need extra help improving your essay writing? Check out these 14 tricks to make your writing clearer and more engaging:

Check out these 14 tricks to make your writing clearer and more engaging.

Check out these 14 tricks to make your writing clearer and more engaging.

Your Admissions Essay Shares Too Much Personal Information

You have probably read everywhere that your personal statement should be, well, personal. Colleges want to get to know not just your academic background but also your personal worldview and interactions with successful people. 

This doesn’t mean you should discuss deeply personal issues at length or in too great of detail. Even controversial topics such as religion and politics are often welcomed if your perspective is well reasoned and fair. However, you must be able to demonstrate you can respect, recognize, and maintain personal boundaries. That is a key life skill that college admissions committees are looking for. 

Examples of sharing too much personal information

  • Don’t discuss your sexual experiences. Your sexual orientation may be a key part of your overall identity. However, limit this by keeping out details of personal activities. Use common sense and understand that most admissions officers are members of the general public who might not respond favorably to explicit details of your personal life. 
  • Don’t confess to strange, illegal, or immoral behaviors or beliefs. If you have a strange obsession, keep it to yourself. Only include unique aspects about your character or preferences if are key parts of how you view the world or your success as a student.
  • Don’t insult subgroups of people. You never know who your college admissions officer will be. You want to show you know how to interface with the world, and your college application is a big first step to showing your maturity and inclusive views.

Your Admissions Essay is a Sympathy Essay

This essay mistake is very similar to oversharing personal information. These types of essays are usually a long list of all the terrible things that have happened to you with the hope that the admissions committee will take pity because they feel bad for you. 

Newsflash: the “sympathy approach” likely is not going to work. A lot of prospective students have gone through the divorce of their parents, death of a friend or family member, medical issues, disabilities, mental health issues, accidents, etc. 

If you do want to include these life-changing or identity-forming events, they must be used to explain how they shaped you as a person, what you learned, and how you handled adversity. Show how you grew as a person or how your worldview and character was altered to make you into the excellent college candidate you are today.

Examples of “sympathy essays”

  • “Everyone around me kept me from succeeding.” Like the lyrics of an early-2000’s rock song, some application essays foreground their experiences on a canvas of pain and oppression by all the people around them. This is just self-defeating. Even if something happened that changed your plans, upset you, or harmed you in some way, reframe your story to show how you were able to shift your priorities and succeed after you learned what you were unable to do.
  • “Becoming injured my senior year ruined my plans.” If you are an athlete and suffered a career or scholarship-ending injury, that is a big deal. But your potential doesn’t just disappear because of a setback. Whatever events and influences made you who you were before are still more important than a single unfortunate occurrence in your past. 
Stanley character from the Office

You don’t want your admissions officer to make this face after reading your essay.

Your Application Essay Gives You All the Credit

While you may have top SAT scores, a high GPA, and lots of awards, don’t forget this one simple truth: there are always bigger fish in the sea. No matter how good of an applicant you are, there will be someone better based on whatever metric you are proud of. 

So what should you write about in your college application essay to stand out from the many overachievers?

Try humility and perspective. Don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. No person is an island, so in your essay you can give recognition to those who helped you along the way. Try not to belittle or minimize the contribution of your high school teachers or mentors. Admissions counselors, as educational professionals, will be looking to see if you are ready to interact with the next level of academic educators. So including friends, family members, and mentors who helped you grow and develop could be a good topic for your college personal statement.

Examples of “giving yourself all the credit” in an essay

  • “I was valedictorian and did it all by myself.” You should be proud of your academic achievements, as they are important for your college application among other goals. However, give credit to someone who helped you learn. You didn’t teach yourself!
  • “In the end, I found the only person I could rely on was myself.” Some students come from very tough backgrounds, and so it can be tempting for these students to stress this in their essay. But remember that college admissions offices want you to add value to the university community as a college student at their school. Even the smartest students cannot do this if they fail to acknowledge the contributions of others. 

Your Personal Statement Has Not Received Proofreading or Editing

A sure way to get your college essay thrown aside is to have it full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The college admissions process is very competitive, and you need every edge you can get. You should spend a substantial portion of your essay preparation editing and proofreading after writing your personal statement.

Start by reviewing and revising the essay yourself. Read it aloud. Run it through a couple of online spelling and grammar checkers. And start early on each college application–at least two weeks before the application deadline. You should also consider giving your admissions essay to a friend, parent, or teacher to review. This can help you improve your essay in many ways because other people can give quite different perspectives. 

Check out the Benefits of Peer Review vs Self-Editing.

Finally, you should look into using an application essay proofreading and editing service to revise and improve your application essay. Just as peer review is superior to self-editing alone, professional essay editing is superior to peer review. The hard truth is that too many other students (your competition) are going above and beyond in preparing these important essays. Being short on time and expertise makes using an editing and proofreading service a good solution.

How Does Wordvice Improve Your College Application Essay?

Wordvice editors are required to have graduate or postgraduate degrees. This means you are getting guaranteed expertise compared to other services, which typically only require editors to hold a bachelor’s degree. Wordvice is also among the top-rated college admissions essay editing services by Wired.com. We achieved this recognition by following the Wordvice Customer Promise. That means providing value to every student and every personal statement we edit. 

Additional Admissions Essay Steps to Take

We hope you learned a lot from these examples of successful college personal statements. So what’s next?

I want to learn more about the college admissions process

Interested in learning more tips from experts about the college admissions process, personal statements, or letters of recommendation? Check out the Wordvice Admissions Resource blog.

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