The 5 Cardinal Sins of the College Essay

I’ve written at great length about the college essay in previous blog posts. I’ve discussed the four most common mistakes equestrians make in application essays, listed the five topics you may not write about, and even gone in-depth about each one of the prompts offered by the folks at the Common Application. It’s a topic with a lot of fodder for discussion and one that I love – as my undergraduate degree in English can attest. (I often tell students who are nervous to begin the writing process not to worry because the college application essay is kind of my jam.)

Still, every year when it comes time for my soon-to-be-seniors to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), I find a new way to support their writing process – and new information to share with you in this humble blog. This year is no different and, as I encounter a new crop of nervous students who have but 650 words to share themselves with admission committees and no idea of where to begin (or how to reach the destination once they set out), let me begin by saying that nearly all topics are fair game (the list of topics to avoid still stands, by the way) and that the only way you can truly go wrong is if you commit one of the five cardinal sins of the college application essay.

They are:

  1. Writing what you think the admission committee wants to see instead of what you want to write about. Every spring, national media outlets publish the most stellar essays submitted by seniors who were admitted to highly selective colleges and chaos immediately ensues. One look at the eloquent phrasing, the artful sentence structure, and the average students following in their college-bound footsteps instantly believe that the only path to college admission is to mimic exactly what they see in print. Along the way, they gloss over their own unique – and valuable! – stories, which means they miss the whole point of the essay. Your essay has to tell your story to be successful. It can’t be about anyone else.
  2. Adhering to AP English structure (or the structure of any English writing course) so strictly that the essay falls flat. Just so we’re clear, I believe wholeheartedly in correct essay structure. (That’s the one that goes introduction, thesis statement, support thesis, support thesis, support thesis, re-state thesis, conclusion.) Your college application essay is not a paper for AP Lit, however, and while structure is important, it isn’t as important as telling your story. (See Bullet #1.) You’re allowed to play with the form of the essay itself if it enhances your words. After all, you won’t be graded on the structure, so it’s okay to save the thesis statement for your English teacher.
  3. Writing directly to the prompt – and only to the prompt. My clients aren’t allowed to see the Common Application prompts (or any others) until after they’ve begun to write their essays. It might sound backward (“How do they know what to write without a prompt, Randi?”) but it’s the only way I can help them find a story to tell that demonstrates their character, their experiences, and their goals in a way that’s wholly unencumbered by thoughts glued to “what the prompt tells me to say.” The prompts are designed to be vague enough for students to draw their own lines and conclusions, which means that students who stay too rigidly within the boxed walls of the prompt lose their authentic voices – and along with it, any edge they might have had in the admission process.
  4. Letting others tell you what to write – or worst of all, writing it for you! Parents and teachers, this one’s actually for you; I know you’re heavily invested in supporting your student’s journey to college. You also know them far better than any college admission committee ever will. When it comes to the essay, however, unless they’ve spelled every word wrong and showed a William Faulkner-like tendency to eschew punctuation, the most helpful thing you can do is stand back and let them write. Don’t give them topics, don’t oversee each and every comma’s placement, and most importantly do not make notes OR “suggest” phrases, topics, or take part in the writing process in any way. Admission committees will not only recognize your hand in the mix, but it may mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.
  5. Not thinking the essay is important. College applications themselves are dry, dull forms. They list nothing more than the factual details of your life – where you live, who your parents and siblings are, where you go to school, the classes you’ve taken, and the grades you’ve earned. Even your list of extracurricular activities is just that – a list that might include a few of the awards you’ve earned and how many hours per week you participate. The only opportunity you have to become a three-dimensional person who leaps clear of the lines and boxes is the essay – so don’t waste the opportunity; use it to your advantage.

For most of the seniors I work with each year, the process of writing an application essay is a daunting one. The nerve-wracking process of picking a topic and honing it through repeated revisions so that they can share pieces of themselves with perfect strangers who have the power to determine the course of their futures isn’t to be taken lightly – but it isn’t to be feared either. With the right support to avoid the cardinal sins listed above, each and every one of them will tell their story and reach their goals. (I know this because the essay is kind of my jam.)

(Want to join my summer essay writing bootcamp? Contact me today!)


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