4 College Application Essay Red Flags You'll Want to Avoid

College essays give you an opportunity to make your application stand out, but do your essays make you stand out in a negative way? 

They might if they include these "red flags": 

1. Generic “Why Us?” essays

If a university asks why you want to attend their school and you write an essay that can be used for multiple schools, you did not do your job. This question implies that you should either visit the school or research it (website, videos, talk to former students, etc). Your response should be planned and thoughtfully consider how you’ll fit on their campus.

Admissions officers have stated that they sometimes receive essays that have another school’s name in it. “I’d love to go to Brown University because I think Harvard’s library is awe-inspiring., and I'm an avid reader. Face-palm.

Instead, look for specific details about the school AND why you like them. Instead of flattering the school, really envision yourself there. Perhaps you want to join the Mahjong club because you played with your grandma every Sunday, or maybe you’re excited to join the crew team because you want to challenge yourself to wake up early.

Here's my article on how to tackle the "Why Us?" essay. 

2. Overtly trying to impress

I always laugh when someone sends me the satirical college essay by Hugh Gallagher who thought it was ridiculous that a college would request an essay on the accomplishments of someone barely 17. He initially wrote it for a writing competition but later said he sent it to colleges as a writing sample.

He starts with, 

“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row."

The essay continues to include more outlandish accomplishments (read full essay here) and concludes with,

“I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.”

This brilliantly captures a predicament for college applicants: how can I impress admissions teams and make myself stand out and also still be a teenager?

The simple answer is to stop trying to impress them so much. Most of the college essay prompts request a personal narrative, a personal story. Most admissions teams are not expecting you to have cured cancer and have scaled Mount Everest (although you could probably have done both and still not get into Stanford; I kid, I kid). They are looking for an authentic, well-told story from your life that tells them something likeable about you. It’s your self-awareness and storytelling that really captures their attention. It’s the student who shows he’s trying to be a better friend rather than the student who writes about how he never leaves the library who is more likeable. Admissions counselors are not only looking for students who will perform well at their school, they’re looking for students who will make someone a nice roommate or who will contribute to the school culture in some way.

Let the rest of your application help you shine as an academic; use the essays to show aspects of your personality that the admissions team can get elsewhere on your application. Own who you are; be excited about who you are, and watch admissions teams feel the same way.

3.  Your parents wrote your essay (or played a major role)

“Can admissions teams really tell if my mom wrote my essay?”

“Yes.”

If you want to immediately send a message to admissions teams that you lack integrity, then have an adult write your essay for you.

Parents often think that admissions teams want you to impress them like the section above discusses. It’s readily apparent to anyone who’s reading your essay that an adult wrote it: it typically includes different syntax and diction than a 17-year-old would use.

Also, it’s quite easy to fall into the “too many cooks in the kitchen” trap. Only allow one or two people to give you an honest opinion of your essay to guide you. If you ask 5 people to edit it, the voice and style will be inconsistent, and it will sound like 5 people wrote it.  

So, what do you do if your parents are trying to hijack your essay?

First, recognize that they are a) trying to help and b) want you to succeed; at the same time, recognize that a) it lacks integrity and b) it will cause disagreements.

It’s better to do it on your own, ask an English teacher or guidance counselor for help, or get coaching from a professional.

I made a video on how to handle this situation.

4. You’re a complainer

I remember my guidance counselor told me that my college essay could be about why my grades dipped in my junior year. I wrote about how getting my learner’s permit coincided with my mom’s undiagnosed illness that prevented her from driving. I had missed a lot of school to take her to doctor’s appointments, and I had a hard time keeping up with chemistry and math. My focus was on being grateful to be able to help my mom and how I learned to juggle my home and school responsibilities.

Although you do have the opportunity to “explain,” make sure your essay’s purpose isn’t to “complain.”

Some students have written essays about switching schools and cite “bad teachers” or “not a good school” as their reason. It shows that you look for what’s wrong instead of what’s right; problems instead of solutions. A better focus would be on how felt the new school was a better fit for you and how the environment (and your appreciation for it) helped you to thrive.

One student spent half his essay discussing how bad his family member is at planning ahead and how it got them in a dangerous predicament. It came across as a 650-word complaint, and the reader learned nothing about the writer except that he finds his family member annoying. By switching his tone from complaining to appreciating the humor of the situation, the whole essay shifted in a positive direction.

When you read through your essay, look for any times in which you put others down (even inadvertently), and revise it.

Red flags stem from a lack of awareness of what admissions teams are truly looking for; quite simply, they want you to be yourself. Be authentic, lean toward positive interpretations, write the essay yourself, and really, don't try so hard, and you'll avoid these red flags. 

Happy Writing!

This blog was written by Jaclyn Corley, Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook

The College Essay Captain helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.