The college application essay is a solitary creature.
Of all the things you’ve written throughout high school, and of all the things you’re going to write throughout your adult life, the college essay stands alone. There’s nothing quite like it.
And yet it’s one of the most important things you’ll ever write. It’s the one thing that can humanize you in the eyes of college admissions officers—the people who decide whether you actually get to attend the schools to which you are applying. The essay is not the most important part of your application—your transcript is—but the essay can be a critical factor in the process, and a poorly written college essay is, at best, a wasted opportunity.
So your essay has to be good. Luckily, there are plenty of books out there that will show you how to write a great college essay. There are even examples of “perfect” college essays that got so-and-so accepted to Harvard and Yale. With all these resources available, writing a great college essay should be a snap.
But it’s not, and there are a few good reasons why.
First, writing is inherently difficult. Even for the best writers, putting thoughts down on paper in a cogent, coherent way takes a lot of energy, patience and time.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, the college essay requires a completely different sort of writing than most high school students are used to. There is a very specific purpose to the college essay, and the audience is highly specialized.
Imagine that audience for a moment. Picture yourself as a college admissions officer: reading, day in and day out, thousands of variations on a few different themes. After a few months, it’s difficult to maintain focus. After a few years, the essays all start to blend together. And at some point you begin to notice that many of the those essays contain the same fatal flaws, year after year. Applicants fall into the same traps—and you’re reading what feels like the same essay—over and over again.
For admissions officers, this is the very definition of drudgery. For the astute applicant, however, it’s something else entirely: an opportunity.
Because if you know what those traps are, you can avoid them and—with some creativity and diligence—write an essay that feels compelling and unique to admissions officers. With that in mind, and without further ado, here are the five fatal flaws you should remember as you formulate and write your college application essay—the five traps that you’ll need to sidestep if you want your essay to stand out.