Writing A Bad College Essay

Now that senior year is underway, only one thing stands between you and your totally awesome collegiette years: college applications. Sure, they may seem scary (Writing about yourself? Easier said than done.), but at the end of the day, the college essay is the best way to show your top schools what you’re all about, so the key is to be unique. Check out the easiest ways to avoid the seven worst college app clichés. With these tips in mind, you’ll be in the clear and decorating your dream dorm in no time!

1. Starting your essay with a famous quote

Let’s pretend for a second that you really do live by one of Shakespeare’s old adages, or that JFK’s patriotic appeals to the people really did inspire you to change your life (color us impressed!). It might seem like a great idea to share their wise words of wisdom—after all, they’re smart people, right?—but college admissions officers want to hear from you, not from famous people.

“Kids are used to trying to doing that [for] a paper for an English class,” says Michelle Podbelsek, co-owner of College Counseling Associates, an independent college counseling service for students and their parents. “In that case, they’re trying to start with something universal and then get into the topic. But for a college essay, it’s sort of the opposite. You want to get really personal at the beginning.” The first voice that the admissions officer reads should be yours!

If you really do feel a strong connection to a quote and want to incorporate it into your essay, Michelle suggests pulling only a single phrase. “Don’t just give us this dead quote and then start talking about it afterwards, though,” she advises. “Try to put in that same sentence with the quote something about why it’s important to you right away.” Link it to a personal experience, like a strong reaction to first hearing the quote or a loved one who used to repeat it to you. Most importantly, choose a decent quote (if you were considering quoting Miley Cyrus, for instance, we really can’t help you.).

2. Writing about volunteer work... and not being the least bit original about it

We get it—your service trip to South America was the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You made the best friends, had the best time, met the most amazing people and learned so, so much (insert more gushing superlatives here). We believe you! And it’s super impressive that you enjoy helping others. The problem is, so do a ton of other awesome applicants, and they’re writing the exact same essay as you are. How the heck is a college admissions officer supposed to tell you all apart? They’re only human, after all!

Even so, Hillary, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, says that, like most rules, college essay rules are made to be bent. “It’s a known concept that you’re ‘not supposed’ to write about trips, or community service projects, etc.,” she says. “I didn't follow this advice, because I knew what I had to write for myself. [I] ended up writing about my journey to [San Francisco] for the first time, and how I spent $10 on a luggage cart to maneuver my way to the community service summer program in which I was partaking. It was theoretically breaking the ‘rule,’ but I knew it’s what I needed to write, and it worked.”

Why did it work? Likely because Hillary chose a unique detail about her experience—the luggage cart—and wrote insightfully about its significance to her. “It’s understanding how to write deeply about something so they can really put us in that moment for them and we can see [the applicant’s] perspective,” says Podbelsek. “For every one kid that’s done it in the most boring way, other kids will take that exact same situation and they’ll find some sort of nuance that truly connects with them more deeply and put it in the essay, and then it works perfectly.”

She says to avoid focusing on ideas like “‘I went to Guatemala and I helped people and I never realized how great my life was until I did that.’” Instead, dive into a particular poignant moment or conversation. When you think about your topic, ask yourself, “Could anyone else but me write this?” If the answer is yes, head back to the drawing board!

3. Over-exaggerating commitments

If you haven’t done a lot of community service, you aren’t the star athlete and your biggest role in the school play was that of the silent elm tree, you shouldn’t try to exaggerate or pretend you’ve played a bigger part than you have. Insincerity will earn you a one-way ticket to the rejection pile! “It’s [the same] for any writer,” says Podbelsek. “Don’t try to write about something that you don’t know intimately, because it’s not going to come off very natural or just really expressive of you.”

Don’t be afraid to talk about something true, even if there wasn’t a trophy involved. “Most people write all about their accomplishments or something great, etc.,” says Shira, a senior at Franklin & Marshall. “Instead, I wrote about coming in last all the time [on] my high school cross country team and the lessons it taught me. It was a cross between being a bit humorous and showing some growth. One college distinctly remembered me based off of my essay about coming in last and said that they loved it because it was so unique.”

Podbelsek suggests reading over your essay and underlining any vague or general phrases like, “It’s so interesting that...” or “I felt so good about myself.” If you find a lot of them, it might be that your topic isn’t allowing you to write in the way that you’re supposed to be writing. Ask yourself: “Do I really have something meaningful to say about this?”

4. Turning in a gimmicky application supplement

We’ve all heard the urban legends. One girl turned in a flip-flop with travel destinations written on the sole! One guy sung his way off the University of Michigan waitlist by posting an ode to the Wolverines on YouTube! There are a million and one crazy ways that high schoolers have worked their way into a college, but in the eternal words of He’s Just Not That Into You, bear in mind: these are the exception, not the rule.

“Anything bizarre like a shoe or a cake or something... that is just highly discouraged,” says Podbelsek. “They’re just not going to take you seriously. They’re going to think you’re some over-the-top person who’s going to start stalking them.” Trust us, the last person a college admissions officer wants to admit to their school is a proven stalker.

Plus, do they really want a bulky flip-flop lying amongst the papers on their desk? Nope, they do not!

5. Writing the “dead dog” essay

Everyone deals with tragedy in his or her own unique way. Whether it was a beloved pet, an old friend or a grandparent who passed away, it’s natural that a death would have a profound impact on you—especially, Podbelsek notes, if it was your first experience with death. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should make up the cornerstone of your essay.

The key, she says, is to make sure you’re not writing about a typical reaction that most other people would have in that same situation. The “dead dog” essay shouldn’t be about learning the truth about life and death, but about learning more from yourself, or how you applied that lesson to your own choices. For instance, “your grandmother died and that’s what motivated you to do such and such, or it made you question deeply something in your life,” Podbelsek suggests. “Something that you can really get meaty with that’s not just what anybody else could write.” After all, as much as we hate to admit it, the truth is that the admissions officer will read hundreds of stories like it.

6. Writing a super general essay

Word to the wise: if you want to apply to a school, you should probably know a little something about it (location is a good place to start). You’d be shocked how many students miss this basic concept when submitting their supplemental essays, and we can only imagine how many admissions officers have been tempted to write “SMH” in bright red pen across their entire applications.

“Some people, when they do their first draft of a supplement that asks, ‘Why Boston University?’ are just like, ‘It’s so pretty,’” Podbelsek says. “That’s just so cheesy. The colleges don’t want to hear something that they already know about themselves. You’re just not going to impress them whatsoever; you’re not going to show them that you’re somebody who took it seriously.”

Before you write your essays—even if they’re for your safety schools—learn as much as you can about the school. How many students go there? What majors or classes do they offer? Are there any awesome clubs that you’d love to join? If you aren’t a fan of anything they have to offer, you shouldn’t be applying there in the first place!

7. Submitting an essay with errors

What’s the easiest way to tick off a college admissions officer? Not proofreading your paper! Consider typos like payment for postage of a rejection letter—you’ll never let one slip by again!

“Even if [you’re] a brilliant writer, you always should have somebody else read it,” advises Podbelsek. “There might just be a typo. You always want to have another pair of eyes read it—also for perspective. When I work on an essay with a student for a while, we sometimes get so immersed in it and we’re so close to it that maybe we can’t see other holes or problems with it.”

Podbelsek suggests reading your essay out loud to yourself and others—even if you aren’t a limelight-loving girl. A phrase may sound perfect on paper, but when you speak the words out loud, you might find that you’re way off base.

Don’t let college applications drag down the mood of your senior year! The essay is easy once you start looking at the big picture—and using your own perspective. By avoiding these app clichés, you’ll get that much closer to earning yourself a “YES” from your favorite school’s admissions office.

These are some bad college application essay #FAILs waiting to happen.

You know you need to stand out in your college application essay—but it’s important that you stand out in a good way. While you might be convinced that your essay is sure to impress the admission committee for its...uh..unique approach, it may not go over as well as you think. In fact, it might be downright bad.

When it comes to inventive application essay topics (or formats, for that matter), you don't want to go too far. Remember, the purpose of the application essay is to convey who you are, what’s important to you, what you’ll contribute to your community, and your college readiness. The application essay ideas below are simply bad at achieving those goals.

Trust me: you can be genuine and creative without them.

The foreign language

Writing your application essay in a foreign language might seem like a standout way to show your passion for the subject. But even if you’re planning on majoring in that language, it’s still a bad call. Besides, the admission committee has enough to worry about without getting your essay translated for them.

Instead: Write about your trip to the Dominican Republic and how speaking only Spanish made you realize you want to teach the language.

The poem

A poem instead of an essay
Can get a little bit messy
Try as you might
They often sound trite
As well as contrived, I must say

(Okay, that’s not very good. But poetry’s hard. Hence, don't go this route for your application essay.)

Instead: Write about your tradition of writing a poem for your grandmother on her birthday.

The devil’s advocate

Being controversial for the sake of being controversial has never been a good way to win hearts or minds. Your future college is looking for thoughtful, passionate students, not shock jocks.

Instead: Write about your experience on the school’s debate team.

The edgy rebel

Expletives. Violence and gore. Hot-button issues. What you might see as showing your edgy, rebellious side might actually come across as disrespectful to the admission committee. And why would they admit you if they don’t think you would represent their school well?

Instead: Write about how you love words, their cadence and meaning, and how one of your favorites happens to be a swear—without actually using the naughty word.

The overshare

If it’s related to bodily functions, it’s probably not an appropriate essay topic. Also, please, please do not talk about sexy times with your S.O. as part of your college essay. It’s not romantic; it’s awkward.

Instead: Write about how you were the only kid growing up who wasn’t grossed out when someone skinned their knee and how you found the coagulating blood fascinating, you future pathologist, you.

The arts-and-crafts project

Your application essay isn’t an extension of your art portfolio. Don’t submit a papier-mâché sculpture of the person who most influenced you. In fact, don’t send in anything the application doesn’t specifically ask for. It doesn’t help your case for admission, but it does make you look like you can’t follow directions.

Instead: Write about your penchant for knitting, how you use it to focus, and how the click-click of the needles helps you calm down when you’re stressed.

The big picture

Questions of great significance—Why are we here? Where are we going? What does it all mean?!?!—can lead to insightful writings and conversations, but they’re terrible application essay topics because they have little to do with who you are.

Instead: Write about your favorite summer camp memory: lying around the campfire, looking at the stars, and talking about philosophy with your friends.

The sob story

This is a tough one, because a personal (or even societal) tragedy can be hugely influential in your life. Even so, this is another essay topic admission counselors recommend avoiding, since it’s hard to get a sense of who you are as an applicant, however moving your story might be.

Instead: Write about how much you value being the person your friends turn to when they need a shoulder to cry on.

The Friday Night Lights

Have you ever watched a sports-related TV show or movie and thought, “This is really similar to that other sports-related TV show or movie I saw.” Well, it’s a lot like that with sports-related application essays, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Instead: Write about how you used your time on the bus rides to and from away games to sell homemade energy bars.

So, what does work?

Now that you know all these college application essay don’ts, what are the do’s? What should you write about and how? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered:

And if you want to take a new, inventive approach to your application essay, why not try an application video? Lots of schools are accepting them now. More advice here.

Have you seen any other application essays that just didn't work? Are you tempted to use one of these "bad" ideas anyway? Tell us your story! Leave a comment or get in touch.

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