One of my ongoing projects is reviewing college essays. Sometimes people contact me through my website for edits. Other times, I review applications (for admissions) for McDermott scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Unfortunately, the more essays I read, the more disappointed I become in seeing the same errors repeated over and over again.
Here are 3 common structural essay mistakes that I have seen while reading students’ college essays:
1. Explaining your intelligence
As an answer to the question “Why should we accept you?,” students often say:
Because I am smart.
Okay– nobody ever writes it exactly that way (I hope). Clearly, this is bragging and provides no evidence of actual intelligence. But this is the way it is normally said:
In 2015, I was student council president. Then, later in the year, I joined the Academic Super League. After that, I was awarded a prize for my volunteering. Then, I did other incredible things.
Boring… am I right?
Listing your accomplishments in a college essay is boring… and bragging. A resume is for listing accomplishments, but an essay is for telling a story so that we learn about you as a person.
2. Banking on your diversity
Students often explain that they should be accepted:
Because I am from India, and I will contribute to the diversity of your school.
Being an international student does not give you an advantage over other students. The U.S. accepts over 74,000 international students per year. So don’t waste your word count bragging about your nationality.
Even U.S. students often say:
I will contribute to the diversity of your school.
Of course, colleges do want to promote diversity. But your passport alone won’t do that. Neither will the fact that your parents were immigrants. Or the fact that you are lesbian.
Instead, it is best to talk about how you will bring diversity. Maybe you will teach Hindi to fellow students, for example, or create an LGBTQ pride day on campus.
3. Talking too much about yourself
I am this. I am that. I have this. I did that.
Okay, so we know this essay is about you, but– just mix it up. Find another way to start all of your sentences besides with the word “I.”
The high school dance club was created by me.
Note that not starting a sentence with the word “I” is not a request that you re-word it in the passive tense. The active tense (“I started the high school dance club”) is nearly always a better choice than the passive tense anyways.
So don’t just re-arrange your sentences to avoid starting with “I” –re-structure your essay to tell a story about more than just yourself.
By fixing these three structural essay mistakes, you will find yourself with a much, much better product. And, of course, a much better chance of being admitted to the school of your choice.