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What not to do in your college application essay: 10 things you should always avoid

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 22, 2021 11:32:57 AM

ApplyTexas 101_Lesson 2

What should you not write in a college essay?

When I read college application essays as a faculty advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers, the great essays were few and far between, but I remember them to this day. They were authentic, well-crafted and told me an interesting story. 

Those successful essays also avoided a number of common pitfalls. Many essays included things that you should not do in your college admissions essay including: 

  1. Never rehash your academic and extracurricular accomplishments 
  2. Never write about a "topic"
  3. Never start with a preamble
  4. Never end with a “happily ever after” conclusion
  5. Never pontificate
  6. Never retreat into your thoughts
  7. Never hold back
  8. Never give TMI
  9. Never show your essay to too many people
  10. Never over-edit your essay

Keep reading to learn even more about the things that you should not write about in your college admissions essay. 

1. Never rehash your academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

Your school work and out-of-school work already show up in your transcript, lists of awards, and activities. Essays provide another dimension to your application. Who will you be as a classmate? As a roommate? As the leader of a campus activity?

2. Never write about a “topic.”

Students often come to our courses with a “topic” they think they should write about, as if they are writing an analytical essay in English class. Instead, you should explore specific moments that reveal your character in action.  

3. Never start with a preamble.

“This is an essay about my commitment to the environment.” Boring! You have one chance to get the reader’s attention, so draw them in with action right from the beginning. Set the scene, or jump right into dialogue, so they see it’s not just you in the story.

Learn from successful student essays with notes about how they worked and why! 

4. Never end with a “happily ever after” conclusion.

“That was the day I learned how important it is to be kind to everyone.” You just stabbed me in the heart with stupor. Your reader is smart. If you have shown your learning, you don’t need to tell them what you learned.

5. Never pontificate.

Do not ever tell other people what they should think. Don’t plead your case. Don’t be right or make someone else wrong. It’s great to be engaged in activist work, but show yourself doing the work rather than using your essay as a platform to make your case.

6. Never retreat into your thoughts.

The worst essays are the ones where students are all caught in their own thoughts. The worst example: all the big, world-changing things you think about during yoga class. Write about what you did the next day instead.

7. Never hold back.

College essays should reveal the real you, the complicated you, the person who makes mistakes, not the goody-two-shoes you think you are supposed to be. Colleges admit real people, not perfect people.

8. Never give TMI.

But be careful: your essay is the first thing colleges know about you. No stories are off limits, but tell them in a way that draws people into your experience, not a way that shocks or scares them away.

9. Never show your essay to too many people.

Share prudently. Students often show their essays to teachers, counselors, parents, and friends. Each person has a different idea about what you “should” write, and before you know it, you’ve lost the heart of the essay.

10. Never over-edit your essay.

After showing their essay to everyone, students edit it again and again to make each reader happy -- and before you know it, their story has been ground down and their voice has vanished. Don't cut out your unique voice. Don't let yourself sound like everyone else.

Go to College Admission Essays Made Easy.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Carol Barash, PhD, is founder + CEO of Story2, a community of over a quarter-million storytellers across 4 continents. Carol innovates at the intersection of education, technology + community. A graduate of Yale, UVA, Princeton, Goldman Sachs 10KSB + Techstars, Carol created the Moments Method® and built Story2 to empower people to share bold, authentic stories in safe, intersectional communities.

Topics:college admissionscollege essayscommon app