Your partners in educational excellence since 1994

You are here

College Bound

College Essays: What Not to Write

The new Common Application this year changes things a bit in terms of the essay requirement. With no option to develop their own topics, students must choose among five new prompts, which in shorthand terms are: 1) The Significant Background Story, 2) Learning from Failure, 3) Challenging a Belief, 4) A Place of Contentment, and 5) A Transition to Adulthood. The good news is that these prompts allow for plenty of creativity and individuality. The bad news is that there is also ample room for a college essay to derail.

Having read thousands of essays in my former role as an admissions officer, I can point out some surprisingly common blunders to avoid:

  1. The Mountaintop Epiphany: It was a grueling physical and emotional challenge, but eventually the applicant made it to the top of whatever mountain she was climbing and had a life-changing epiphany. No college is looking for a student to say, “Aha! I’ve figured out the secret to life.” Thus any self-realizations articulated in an essay should reveal a nuanced understanding of the student’s own ability to learn and grow.
  2. The Insightful Impoverished: Community service can be a profound experience. However, a popular conclusion to this type of essay goes like this: “As the plane took off, I smiled at the country I was leaving. Even though I was the one who came to help, they were the ones who gave me a gift, by showing that it’s possible to be happy even when you have nothing.” Unfortunately, this does not reflect well on the writer, who may be perceived as naive and a bit entitled.
  3. The Meta-Essay and the Anti-Essay Manifesto: The “writing-my-college-essay-is-a-transition-to-adulthood-in-itself” essay has already been done. A lot. So has the “I’m-challenging-the-basic-tenet-that-college-essays-are-important” essay. Neither of these result in a positive first impression.
  4. The Navel Gazer: What is life? How do we become the people we are? When you ask rhetorical questions, do you actually saying anything? Save the philosophical discussions until freshman year. Challenging a belief or reflecting on any of the other prompts should be specifically about the applicant’s life and personality.
  5. The Redundant Recitation: Many students think the most important thing for a college to know about them is that they work hard. If a student has good grades, however, the admissions office already assumes he is diligent. And if a student doesn’t have good grades, then he’s highlighting that he doesn’t succeed despite working hard. Don’t go there.

In any topic, students should remember that college admissions officers aren’t hoping to discover the next Shakespeare. They genuinely want to find out what makes an applicant tick. Essays should offer a snapshot of an individual’s willingness to grow, including the why’s and how’s that make a topic personally meaningful. Keep this in mind, and you’ll steer clear of classic college-essay mistakes.

Deena Maerowitz specializes in college and graduate school advising. She can be reached at