College Essay Mistakes and Examples (cont.)




Here’s our snippet with the clichés highlighted. Let’s see if you’ve identified the same we did:

If there’s ever been a tried and true person in my life, it’s been James. He would always find a way to cheer me up when the chips were down, and never missed the boat when it came to supporting me in any of my high school events. Whether cheering me on at track and field or helping me overcome my fear of algebra, I knew I could always count on him. By the same token, everyone I know respects and admires James for the person he is.  As luck would have it, he’s my oldest brother, and I couldn’t imagine someone better in my life to emulate.

Though the first use of the cliché – tried and true – would not have been totally offending on its own (but not necessarily great writing either), it becomes annoying once all the other clichés follow. Here’s a better way:

If there’s ever been an influential person in my life, it’s been James. He would always find a way to cheer me up when I needed it most, and never missed the opportunity to support me through high school. Whether cheering me on at the track field or helping me overcome my fear of algebra, I knew I could always count on him. Even though everyone respects and admires James for the person he is, I remain his greatest admirer. After all, he’s not only one of the most influential people in my life, he’s also my oldest brother. I couldn’t imagine someone better to emulate.  

arrow-red Exercise 6 Overuse of adjectives and adverbs

Excessive use of ornamental language will hurt your college essay. When you find yourself using adjectives and adverbs in practically every sentence, it’s time for a rewrite. You’ll need to tone it down or your essay will sound too melodramatic, like this one for instance: Attending the Seattle Philharmonic’s opening night symphony was one of the most marvelously wonderful experiences of my life. The way their superstar pianist nimbly and dexterously moved his hands through the keyboard, while the cellist reciprocally accompanied every note in a harmoniously exquisite fashion, was breathtaking. It left me desperately wanting it to never end.  When I paint a picture in my mind of what this writer is like, I can’t help but think of a puppy dog running all over vying for my attention. The writer tried hard to impress, but sadly failed. The point this student is trying to make is that she/he attended Seattle Philharmonic’s opening night symphony, the musicians were wonderful and the experience left a lasting impression. But it’s difficult to see the message through all the theatrics and overuse of embellishing language. Let’s revise it:

Attending the Seattle Philharmonic’s opening night symphony was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. Watching their superstar pianist perform while the cellist exquisitely accompanied was breathtaking. It’s an adventure I will never forget.

Remember, a little ornamental language is OK. But not too much.  

arrow-red Exercise 7Using the passive voice

The passive voice is often necessary, but you need to be mindful of how and when you use it. If you overdo it, you risk your essay becoming wordy and stuffy. Let’s analyze this passage: As the finished line was approached by the leading runners, the roar of the crowd could be heard. If the line wasn’t crossed by me first, our chance for regional’s would be lost. It’s clearly a defining moment in the race, but it doesn’t feel like it with so much passive voice. It made it lose its dramatic edge. Clearly, in this snippet much could be improved. Or shall we say let’s improve this snippet.

As I approached the finish line with the leading runners, I could hear the roar of the crowd. I had to cross the line first or our chance for regionals was lost.

The active voice put the drama back into the race.  

arrow-red Exercise 8Lack of focus

A common mistake students make in their admission essay is to fail to address a specific question, such as “Why did you choose this college?”  If that’s the question you were posed, you can bet they want to hear specifics. For instance, take a look at this snippet taken from a personal statement addressing the question of why the student wants to attend Occidental College:

I believe Occidental College is an excellent match for me. College should be more than just an entryway to our future careers, but rather a learning ground preparing students in various facets of life, so they are ready for the range of challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.  Though I have not yet decided on a major, my inclination is in the liberal arts, where I have excelled in subjects such as English, History, and Political Science, all areas in which Occidental excels.  I am an intellectually curious person by nature who loves to read fiction and nonfiction alike.  My dream is to influence and positively contribute to the world around me, and I’m convinced Occidental College will provide me that with the broad-based education that will help me reach my dream.

You be the judge, did this student adequately answer the question? The answer is no. To prove it, replace Occidental College with Amherst College, or CCSU, or St. John’s University, or any other school that offers a liberal arts program. It would make no difference; they would all be interchangeable. Why? Because the student simply failed to point the unique attributes that attracted her to Occidental, and unfortunately this is what the college wanted to hear. If you’re faced with a similar question, remember that all it takes is a little bit of online research on your school of choice. Learn some of what the school offers and decide which particular features are right for you. Let’s move on. Are you ready to get started on your opening paragraph? It is by far one of the most critical parts of the college admission essay.

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