How to Write a College Admission Essay, Part 2: Avoid Common Mistakes


The University of California (UC) system, a popular school system among applying seniors, lists on its website common mistakes that students should avoid when writing their college admission essays. Since this list of common mistakes provides crucial information for not only the UC system’s application but also for other universities’ applications, I will spend this blog describing in further detail why students should avoid these mistakes.

1) Talking about one campus

UC does not want students talking about individual branches, such as Berkeley or Los Angeles, because students are not applying to individual schools. While this is more specific to the UC application, students should remember to make each essay specific to each school whenever necessary. That means you should proofread to ensure you don’t say the wrong school’s name in the essay. While it may not seem like it is important to check for this, it can be rather embarrassing and negatively influence the admissions decision.

2) Inappropriate use of humor

Humor has the potential to give your admissions essay a unique voice. However, humor can be tricky to use because people find different things funny. What you and your friends laugh about may not be the same as what a college admissions officer does. Unless the jokes you use in your essay are cheesy and heartwarming, then you may want to avoid humor altogether. For example, jokes about race, gender, sexual orientation, political views, or religion can be offensive. Even if you don’t intend for something to be mean, sometimes jokes just don’t land in quite the way you anticipate.

3) Creative writing (poems, clichés)

Creative writing is a beautiful art form, and many students wish to express themselves in their college admission essays using creative writing, especially poems. Students believe that a creative piece will set them apart from their peers because of unique formatting and turns of phrases. The problem with substituting poems for admission essays is that poems are not meant to be entirely forthright. Creative writing leaves ideas open to interpretation and focuses on building images. Admission essays are almost entirely opposite in their approach: they require specific information and clearly defined responses. Usually essays capture a student’s personality and thought processes much better than poems do, which, unfortunately, are often poorly written and provide little helpful information. That’s not to say I haven’t seen great poem responses, but usually they are reserved for extra or optional essays, not the main ones.

4) Quotations: We want to know your thoughts & words, not someone else’s

Another common inclusion in admissions essays is a quotation, often at the beginning or end of the essay, that provides “sophistication” to the writing. Quotations are not entirely bad, but they often are thrown into the admission essay without much explanation or analysis. To really improve your response, you should simply avoid using quotations unless they are part of a dialogue or scene within your essay’s narrative. As UC recommends, you should focus on providing your words and ideas because the admissions committee wants to understand more about you, not, say, William Shakespeare or Albert Einstein.

5) Generalities: Stick to facts and personal examples

This can be a pretty common error if you don’t treat your essay seriously. How do you avoid this simple mistake? Don’t plan on writing your college admission essays the night before they are due. You need to plan them, draft and re-draft them, and proofread them. Your essays should use crystal clear examples of things you have done and explanations about why you like your desired major or career. Show and tell.

6) Repetition: Give us new info. we can’t find in other sections of the application

Try to write about aspects of your life that cannot be gleaned from your resume or academic profile. For example, a student applying to electrical engineering programs wrote an essay about his time working at a hair salon in Egypt. Nowhere in his application did he place this information, so it was entirely unique. Not only that, this experience at the hair salon is seemingly quite unrelated to electrical engineering, revealing the depth of his personality and also his ability to see how this experience does actually relate to his future career. The interesting connection and unique experience make for a great essay.

7) Asking philosophical questions: Get to the point and tell us what you mean

Just like you should avoid using quotations, you should also avoid open-ended questions that add no real substance to your essay. Students like sounding smart so they will include high-level vocab and ideas that seem important, but often times these questions and high-level words cloud the message of the response. Look at any professional writing online, such as in newspapers or magazines: the authors do not use an overabundance of big words and complicated sentence structures. The writing is clear and simple. That’s what you should strive for.

8) Acronyms: Spell it out for us!

Pretend that whoever reads your essay does not know what any of the acronyms mean, right? Not necessarily. There are some acronyms that are pretty common, such as AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate). However, once you go beyond the common ones, people might be confused on what exactly you’re talking about. In order to avoid confusion, just write out the acronym once and then place the acronym in parentheticals, signalling that it will reappear in the essay in this manner. For example, “I took many Advanced Placement (AP) classes. These AP classes taught me many things.”

Need some help avoiding these common essay mistakes or would like some feedback on your college admission essays? Check out Berkeley2 Academy’s essay services. We’ll make sure your essay captures your unique personality.

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