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How to Avoid an Admission Essay Disaster

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By: Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.

Gen and Kelly Tanabe can answer your question in Expert Advice.



Believe it or not, 90 percent of college applicants will write identical essays every year. Sure, the words will differ, but the compositions tend to deal with similar topics and themes (e.g., "winning isn't everything," "we should learn to appreciate other cultures," etc.) If the college provides a specific question, many students answer in predictable ways and in nearly identical styles or tones.

Why is being one of the 90 percent a problem? Put yourself in the shoes of the college admissions officer at a large school. If you have to read several thousand essays and the majority of them echo the themes of those you have already read, which applications will stand out when it comes time to narrow the applicant pool? Of course it will be those with unique and original essays. As an applicant, it is imperative that you are among this top 10 percent and avoid the common essay traps that snare the rest.

This guide shows you how to avoid being one of the predictable. Do not be surprised if some of the ideas you have for your essay show up in this guide. But don't feel bad—they are on most of the other applicants' lists as well. Your advantage is that you will be able to recognize and avoid these potential disasters.




DON'T try to be someone else.

The most important thing to remember when writing your essay is to be yourself. This means you should avoid portraying yourself as Mother Teresa when the closest you have ventured to philanthropy was watching 10 minutes of the Muscular Dystrophy telethon. Often applicants are tempted to create an alter-ego of what they think is the perfect student. Because the essay is a creative effort, it is very easy to stretch the truth and exaggerate feelings and opinions. But don't do it!

Admissions officers have read thousands of essays, and if they believe your essay to be less than the truth, you will ruin not only your reputation but also any chance of getting into that college. Besides, we guarantee that there is something about you that has the makings of a stellar essay. If you spend the time developing this in your essay, you will be able to blow the admissions officers off their feet in a way that no pretense or exaggeration could.




DON'T write about common experiences commonly.

This is the most predominant mistake applicants make. To avoid it, resist the temptation to write about an ordinary experience in an ordinary way. Ideally, you will be able to come up with both original topics and original ways to write about them. However, since the essay questions tend to limit what you can write, you need to be most concerned with how you are going to approach your topic. For example, tens of thousands of students will write about the following:

  • a) how being class president, club founder or team captain was their greatest achievement;


  • b) how their mother, father or teacher has been the most influential person in their lives; or


  • c) how they were the key person in winning the "big" game, match or academic decathlon.


It is fine for you to write about an ordinary topic. The key is to write your essay in an extra-ordinary fashion. The easiest way to accomplish this is by asking the "why" question. This forces you to really analyze your topic and uncover the true meanings and reasons behind your thoughts and actions. By doing this, you will have an essay that is unique to you—even if the topic is common.




DON'T flex.

For some strange reason, many applicants have a tendency to write about the great mysteries of the world or momentous philosophical debates. Perhaps these students hope to show admissions officers their intelligence and sophistication. At Harvard we called people who wrote essays that aimed to impress rather than educate "flexors," as in people who flexed their intellectual muscles for all to see. While these essays attempt to be sophisticated, they are usually entirely without substance. Often they simply parrot back the opinions of others, and unless the writer is indeed knowledgeable about the subject, such essays are completely unoriginal.


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