The Top 5 Mistakes on College Essays — and How to Fix Them

Because this moment will be here before you know it
As a professional writer, I’m often asked to help seniors with their college application essays. As kids begin the application process in earnest, they start panicking: “I’m not sure my GPA/ACT/SAT scores are good enough to guarantee admission into my dream college and I need my essays to PICK UP SOME SLACK.” Parents are equally anxious, but more in the strain of “if you use poor grammar on a college essay it will humiliate you, me, your teachers, and everyone we have ever known, ever.”

I have great news for all you seniors and parents of seniors! I have read many, many, MANY essays over the years, and generally speaking grammar isn’t usually a big problem. I also have bad news: generally speaking, grammar isn’t usually a big problem. I say that’s bad news because grammar mistakes are easy to spot and easy to fix. The most common mistakes I see aren’t always as straightforward, but they will make an otherwise winning essay nearly unreadable … not exactly the shining endorsement piece you want to send off to college admissions, eh?

I’ve boiled down the most common mistakes I see on essays into my top 5 favorite hits — take a look and be sure if I edit your essay I won’t find any of the following:

It takes far too long to get to the point. Admissions officers are busy. Very busy. They are plowing through piles and piles of essays, so don’t make them dig for the point of yours … because they won’t. Once you land on a decent idea for an essay ask yourself “what’s my point?” Once you’re crystal clear about the point you’re trying to convey, write this in nice, big bold letters at the top of your draft for reference — then make sure everything else you say ties back to The Point. Just doing this one thing solves SO many problems. Trust me, it works … I use it on every piece I write. Once you have your Point, some iteration of it should be in the first few sentences — and certainly no further down than the first sentence of your second paragraph.

Making the reader do your legwork. Whether it’s The Point or a supporting point, tell your reader why it matters. Don’t throw something like “the ‘tiny house’ trend is a horrible idea” against the wall and think it will stick — you must tell the reader WHY it’s a horrible idea. For example:

“I spent last summer living with my entire family in an RV smaller than most suburban master bathrooms, and I promise the small house trend won’t last. Why? Because living in uncomfortably close quarters lacking privacy is a recipe for disaster for any family. Or it would be if you had enough space to cook and eat a meal, which you definitely do not.”

See that? The writer makes an assertion: “…the small house trend won’t last” then backs it up with a sensible answer.

The lead sucks. If you aren’t engaging your reader right out of the gate, you’re done before you start. A great lead creates an emotional connection with the reader and makes them want to keep reading. It’s the most important part of your essay, so keep plugging away until it’s just right.

The flow is off. You’re telling a story, and stories don’t necessarily happen in chronological order. In other words, just because an event happened first on the calendar doesn’t mean it happens first in an essay. Make sure your paragraphs connect with each other and that they are ordered in a way that brings the reader along smoothly — one paragraph builds on the next, which builds on the next, until you pull the entire story together in your conclusion.

It’s a cookie cutter essay. Could someone change out your details with theirs and have pretty much the same essay? Then you have a cookie cutter on your hands. The point of your essay is to guarantee you stand out in a sea of thousands. Don’t rely on standbys like sports, mission trips or tanking a class. These admissions counselors are trying to get to know you, to take a peek into your story to see if you’re a good fit for their school. Get creative. Tell them something they didn’t read two essays ago. Deglaze their eyes.

Avoiding these top college essay mistakes ensures you’ll have a leg up when admissions readers are plowing through their too-big stack of essays. Now … get busy!

If you, or someone you love, needs help editing, proofing or, for that matter, starting a college essay, shoot me a note at amymacpr {at} comcast {dot} net and I’ll be happy to gently and lovingly bully them through the process.


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Button-fly Jeans and Beer are a Terrible Combo (and other things I learned in college)

There's a delightful tradition at my daughters' high school called "Silver Envelopes," where family, friends, former teachers and the like are asked to write a letter to a graduating senior, which are then gathered up and delivered to each soon-to-be-alum the day before they graduate (which hats off to whomever devised that timing, because talk about maximum emotional impact!!)  My daughter received letters from aunts, uncles, cousins, friends at U. of Miami and Georgia Tech, all the way to letters from my sorority sisters telling her to have fun at college but to know they'd be watching (in a loving yet lightly threatening tone). Anywho, I was asked to write a letter for one of my favorite kids (whom I've known for years but is not my blood relative), and —lacking any better ideas — I decided to offer up some information I wish someone had passed along to me at her age. Perhaps some other kid somewhere might find it useful, too:
  • It’s okay to want everything to be perfect. It’s also okay when things aren’t.
  • To that end, get comfortable with the phrase “good enough.” Saying that about projects of moderate importance allows you to perfect the ones that really, really count. And honestly, it’s the only way to get everything done and not lose your mind. This remains true for the rest of your life.
  • Walk everywhere on campus.
  • Having lots of lead time on a project can be a good thing, but you may find you do your best work under tight deadlines. Play to your strengths.
  • Never wear button-fly jeans or bodysuits that snap at the crotch out drinking. No one has the dexterity to handle those fashion choices after a cocktail.
  • Listen more. Really listen. Lean in, make eye contact, ask questions, and soak in people’s stories. It’s such a treat.
  • If you find yourself withering from a challenge, ask yourself “what am I so afraid of, and why?” then “what’s the very worst that can happen?” If that scenario ends with everyone still alive, try it. Never let being afraid you aren’t capable of a challenge stop you from moving forward in life. You’re more than capable.
  • You’re a leader. Lead.
  • You’re a problem solver, which is a great strength – but not all problems are yours to solve. It’s okay to push back and let others figure things out for themselves.
  • Routines and schedules are great, but don’t let sticking to them keep you from enjoying non-scheduled opportunities like road trips and impromptu gatherings.
  • A case of bronchitis was never cured in a bar. Stay home and rest.
  • College is the last time you and your friends will be in the exact same place at the same time (both personally and geographically). Appreciate the fact you all live within five square miles of each other, are in the academic trenches together, and there are (please God) zero small children in the mix. Top-secret military maneuvers will come together with more ease than trying to coordinate schedules with your friends from college after you’ve graduated.
  • “Input noted” is a perfectly fine response to unsolicited advice and to anyone who says you can’t do something. Unless it’s a cop. In that case, keep your hands where they can be seen and do what you’re told.
  • In the words of the great Kenny Rogers, know when to walk away, and know when to run. The instant someone doesn’t appreciate how amazing you are, be militant about getting rid of them. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
  • If anyone fails to recognize what a smart, accomplished, kind, gorgeous, hard-working sweetheart of a young lady you are, please send them to me so I can set them straight.
  • Always remember: no matter what, you got this.  


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