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4 Mistakes to Avoid in Your College Admissions Essay
Sunday, September 28, 2014

by Lauren N., Tutor Tango Expert Tutor and College Entrance Guru

          Admissions essays can be so hard and confusing that some people end up writing what they think "an admissions essay" is supposed to look like: the same boring 650 words that admissions committees have read a thousand times.

            Here are the four mistakes I see most frequently.

Mistake #1: Writing About the Same Service Trip that Everyone Else Took

I can’t tell you how often students and their parents have asked me if a specific service trip will make a good essay topic. Let me be clear: they’re asking this before they go on the trip, to decide whether going on the trip will be worth it. After all, community service trips are expensive. Ten days building houses for Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica will set you back $2,000.00 + plane fare. You could volunteer with your local Habitat group for free, but what kind of essay would that make?

The expensive community service trip is the worst kind of cliché, a cynical attempt to buy a prepackaged Life Experience which can be transformed into a winning essay. Admissions committees know this. They’re asking you to paint a picture; you’re handing them a postcard you got in a gift shop.

Colleges care about service when it’s a major part of a student’s life: a commitment to a cause or organization that demands your time on a regular basis. Service should reflect your passions: If you love math, you can work as a volunteer homework helper through an organization like your local library. Suicide-prevention hotlines like The Samaritans are a good fit for anyone interested in psychology who wants to get a taste of what mental health professionals deal with. No political campaign has ever turned away a student volunteer with an interest in current events.

Any level or type of community service is always worth doing, and Costa Rica is beautiful this time of year. But you don’t have to write about it.

Mistake #2: Writing About Your Dead Grandmother (or grandfather, dog, parrot….)

            I’m sorry for your loss. So are the essay readers. But in every pile of 10 essays, at least seven will be about the applicant’s dead grandmother.

            Applicants think an essay should be about something big! and dramatic! What’s more dramatic than death? But the realization that we are all mortal is a common, not an uncommon, experience. It tells us nothing about who you are.

            The flip side of this is the case of a student whose life has been shaped by a tragic, unusual loss, such as the early death of a parent or a sibling. Of course it’s okay to write about this. But you don’t have to. Don’t let anyone pressure you into writing an essay on a subject you’re not emotionally ready to write about.

Mistake #3: Using a Thesaurus Instead of Your Own Voice

            Verily, what stratagem could be more potent than the calculated inclusion of a plethora of multisyllabic monstrosities? Students who try to “impress” with vocabulary words they don’t normally use almost always use them incorrectly. Even if the words are correct, the essay will sound wrong, i.e., not like you. Write with the words that come most naturally to you, look up any meanings you’re not sure about, and save the vocabulary studying for the SAT.

Mistake #4: Thinking You Have Nothing to Say

            A student approached me for help with an admissions essay. His problem, he explained, was that he’d never overcome hardship. He was just a normal kid from the suburbs who liked science.

            I told him that this kind of essay is meant to reveal your personality – it’s not about overcoming hardship at all – but he insisted that there was nothing special about him. He was a normal guy from a normal family in a normal town. He liked normal guy stuff.

            “Okay,” I said. “You said you like science, so tell me more about that. How, specifically, did you get interested in science?”

            Oh, that was easy: his parents came from the same country as the inventor Nikola Tesla, also an immigrant to New York, and his father was a huge Tesla fan. He’d grown up hearing stories about the famous inventor, and this had led him to develop a general curiosity about the workings of the world. Other kids talked sports with their fathers; he talked science.

            It was a great story: it told me what his interests were, what his personality was like, how he got along with his family, and where he came from. Every detail of the essay which grew from that conversation was unique to him. But he couldn’t see the rich material he had to work with; for him, it was all…normal.

            Sometimes, our best stories are invisible to us. Remember that your normal is someone else’s strange, and move beyond the general outlines of your life to find the specific details that set you apart. What’s a cool thing about you that more people should know about?