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College Essay: The 8 Common Mistakes Students Make

College Essay:  The 8 Common Mistakes Students Make

Writing your college essay can be frustrating.

Of the dozens of essays that you’ve written in your lifetime, this is just one more. Only this essay is unlike any of your previous ones because for a change, the topic is you. 

It’s about the aspects of your personality that you’d like to share with college admissions officers, people you’ve never met before, and may never meet in-person. 

It’s a little daunting but only in the beginning. Once you plan it out properly and get into the flow of it, it really isn’t so bad.

In another post I’ll cover exactly what you should do to approach your college essay, but in this case, we’re going to take a look at what not to do. Mistakes I’ve seen students make over and over again in my 10+ years as a college counselor.

But first, if you’d like to take a look at the essay prompts, you’ll find them right here.

Alright, let’s get into the most common mistakes students make on their college essays. 

MISTAKE #1: Making vague or general statements.

If you state that your grandmother is loving, caring, and kind, then provide an example of when you saw those qualities in action. SHOW the reader. Provide examples/scenarios of the values you’ve learned in play.

Ex. “As my nana listened attentively to my 8-year-old sister tell the same story for the tenth time, I realized that she really loved us. No matter which one of us she was talking to, she gave us her full attention, and we genuinely felt that we were important to her. In addition to listening to us, she takes the time to check in on us during the week and brings over our favorite foods when she visits. It was from her that I learned to slow down and pay attention to what the people I care for are interested in. What they enjoy doing. Now I ________.


Note: Limit your description to about 3-5 sentences max. Otherwise, you risk going off topic and making it about your grandma instead of about you. See Mistake #6 to learn why that’s a bad move.  

MISTAKE #2: Talking about serious mental or physical health concerns. 

The college essay is really meant to introduce you to the admissions team. So far, all they know are the various bits of data: SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and even your activities. While a reader can glean some information about your personality from all those aspects, it really doesn’t provide a full picture of you as an individual.

So, what you don’t want to do is start with a pity-me approach. It’s makes things a little awkward for the reader, and that is not how you want them feeling about you.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.

“But, Priyanka, I had a concussion 3 years ago and that had me out of school for over a month and it impacted my GPA!”

Or “It’s my junior year and I was just diagnosed with ADHD! What about the hit that my GPA took for the last two years before anyone ever realized that I needed meds?”

All valid concerns. In fact, these pieces of information SHOULD BE MENTIONED in the ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of the application.

You have an extra 650 words to explain any extenuating circumstances, including health concerns and relevant family problems. Anything that you feel will provide a wholesome picture of your high school years goes in the Additional Information section. You can also use this space to write another essay or expand upon your extracurricular activities.

Note: When talking about injuries/mental health/personal/family circumstances, use a matter-of-fact tone. Clearly describe the before, during, and after…and if it’s a work-in-progress, state where the current situation stands.

MISTAKE #3: Using Clichés. 

Clichés come in all shapes and sizes, from cultural clichés to word usage clichés, i.e. overusing the word “passion/passionate”.

To expand a little more upon this topic:

With cultural clichés: If you happen to have certain stereotypes associated with your culture (i.e. Indian people are good at math & science), then unless you have a legitimate story to tell about your experience, AVOID mentioning it

It’s already listed in your “Activities” section, so use this space to tell the reader something about you that ISN’T already a part of your application

…because otherwise, how are you any different from the other Indian applicants? How should the admissions officer differentiate between you and someone else?

The same premise holds if you’re a recruited athlete or applying in a program that requires a portfolio of some sort. In either case, you have already presented your work or best performance (in arts or sports), so why not tell the reader something else about you?

Ex. If you’re a recruited soccer player, great, but the admissions committee already knew that. How? Because a coach has been coming to watch you play & has already asked you for your GPA/testing info which he/she could pass on the admissions committee. 

So, if that’s the case, what’s the point of telling the admissions committee that you really love your sport? They already know! Share a different side to you. Maybe you paint to relax, or cook, or love puzzles/word games. You definitely have other aspects to you, it’s inevitable. By simply existing you have various interests, so think about those.   

Bottom line: Don’t just mention stuff for the sake of filling the word count. Instead, think about what you have already listed in the “Activities” and “Honors” categories, then either expand upon one with a meaningful story, or introduce a new aspect to you. Even when you mention the new aspects to you, you can link them to your current activities, but limit that mention to 3-5 sentences.

MISTAKE #4: Listing out the activities in your résumé in paragraph form.

I’ve had students try to cram in a majority of their activities into their essay. It’s harder to make an essay flow smoothly/tell a story, plus the admissions officers have read that already, so why? Just why?


If you really want to expand upon your activities, like we’ve said before, do so in the “Additional Information” section.

As for your essay? Answer the prompt you picked. Think of all the stories and experiences you’ve had, some meaningful, some not so much, and then figure out how you want to pull one or two of them together. Your essay is a story, not a list!

MISTAKE #5: Discussing Sensitive/Divisive topics.

I think in general, when you’re trying to apply somewhere, it’s probably a good idea to just stay away from topics that could potentially anger or irritate your reader.

Crazy, I know.

If you do decide to approach a sensitive issue – i.e. LGBTQ rights because is an important part of you & your high school journey, then make sure you are completely aware of how the university you’re applying to feels about the issue.

Check out their social media to see if they have any posts on the topic. 

MISTAKE #6: Solely talking about the person you admire.

It’s natural to want to write about the traits that your idols embody, but most students don’t know when the story of the other person stops and when their own story begins. As a result, you end up with an essay that’s 50-75% about another person…. a person who is not the one applying to college….you see how that might be a problem.

I’m going to stick to the same policy I’ve mentioned before, keep it to 3-5 sentences about the other person, then transition it to you. What did you learn from this person? How do you plan to implement it?

MISTAKE #7: Being braggy.

The title says it all: be humble and give credit where it’s due. If it was a group effort, say that you collaborated with others to make XYZ happen. It shows the admissions committee that you’re a team player.

Yes, the essay is about you, but you don’t exist in a vacuum, you interact with others every day.



MISTAKE #8: Making up stuff. 

This is more of an ethical concern than anything else. I’ve had students who’ve tried to claim that a student organization they led or were a part of or co-founded did more/accomplished more than it actually did. Friends of students have even gone as far as to make up entire “life-changing” trips. 

Why? Just why?

Just by the fact that you’ve been alive for 17-18 years, you have stories to tell. It’s inevitable. So, take your time and think about it. 

Of course, after hearing me talk on and on about what NOT to do, you’re probably curious as to what you’re actually supposed to do, right?

Here, take a look at these from Johns Hopkins.

These essays come with feedback from the admissions committee, so you’ll get an idea of how each essay was interpreted. 

Good luck and talk soon,