The challenge of penning the perfect college essay is one that plagues students across the globe. Like an intricate work of art, a great essay requires finesse, creativity, and, above all, authenticity. Yet, for many, the training and guidelines provided in their education system serve as obstacles rather than aids. The constant push to impress rather than express has led to a plentitude of common tropes, unoriginal themes, and essays that lack the unique voice of the writer. As a result, the vast majority of papers fail to stand out in the fiercely competitive admissions process. But the real conundrum isn’t just in recognizing that there’s something wrong with an essay; it’s understanding how to fix it. A recent Reddit post by a seasoned reviewer and consultant offers a window into why so many students struggle with their essays, where the pitfalls of clichéd topics and the lack of personal expression are only a few of those that each of us must be so familiar with.
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- Most initial attempts at writing an expressive essay are mediocre at best. Training in academic writing might even work against students, undermining their authentic voice and personality.
- Many students are prone to writing about overused topics or trying to impress rather than express.
- Essays often fail due to a lack of evidence to support claims or the use of generic statements.
- Wasteful or unrelated introductions and clichéd or repetitive conclusions can weaken an otherwise strong essay.
The Widespread Struggle and Identifying the Problem
The essay dilemma is not an isolated issue but rather a widespread concern. The anxiety around writing a compelling and personal college admission essay resonates with countless students. The author of the post highlights the core of the problem:
“Essays are art, not science or math. Most students feel the same way when they are suddenly asked to write expressively about themselves for the first time. Your English class probably failed you miserably.”
Indeed, traditional English classes often fail to prepare students for this type of expressive writing, forcing them to stay within the boundaries of “standards.” It makes so many students fall into the same traps over and over again when they’re trying to be overly impressive, pitying, or unique, often leading to insincere or artificial essays that lack everything but predictability.
“Don’t try to spin a sob story – they aren’t going to admit you out of pity. Don’t try to blow them away with how smart you are – they already see your grades and test scores. Don’t try too hard to be unique – you’ll just look weird.”
It’s not just a matter of mere dissatisfaction; the bad essay problem has measurable implications. As the college admissions process becomes more competitive, particularly in top-tier colleges with single-digit admit rates, the essay’s role becomes even more significant. With an estimated one to five truly outstanding essays out of every hundred, the stakes are high. Research by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that in 2019, 23% of colleges attributed “considerable importance” to the essay in admission decisions.
|Grades in All Courses||220||74.5||15.0||5.5||5.0|
|Grades in College Prep Courses||220||73.2||16.8||5.9||4.1|
|Strength of Curriculum||219||62.1||21.9||8.7||7.3|
|Admission Test Scores (SAT, ACT)||221||45.7||37.1||12.2||5.0|
|Essay or Writing Sample||220||23.2||33.2||24.1||19.5|
|Student’s Demonstrated Interest||218||16.1||23.9||28.0||32.1|
|Subject Test Scores (AP, IB)||219||5.5||18.3||35.2||41.1|
|State Graduation Exam Scores||218||2.3||8.7||18.8||70.2|
|SAT II Scores||216||1.9||5.6||14.8||77.8|
The problem is compounded by the fact that students are often trained in a way that undermines their authentic voice. The issue doesn’t just lie in the inability to write well; it stems from the complex challenge of introspection, understanding oneself, and articulating that understanding compellingly and genuinely.
This discussion illuminates the more significant issue: What should students look at to start thinking outside the box and boost their chances to stand out among thousands of similar faceless papers?
Identifying Common Mistakes in College Essays
Drawing from their rich background as a reviewer and academic consultant, the post’s author asserts that they have long recognized the recurring issues often found in student essays. They offer advice to the Reddit community on how to prevent or address these problems.
Many students fall into the trap of choosing common or overused topics for their essays. These may include writing about sports, video games, or life-changing trips. However, these subjects are often difficult to execute well and end up lacking originality or insight. The key to success is personalizing the essay, zooming in on a specific experience or relationship, and writing about common topics in uncommon ways.
“Don’t write about the sport you played, the championship you won/lost, or the injury you sustained and how that taught you the value of teamwork and perseverance. Make it more meaningful by writing about a common topic in an uncommon way. Go back to your list of personal qualities you want to showcase, identify a core value that does not easily relate to your common topic, then find a way to make it fit.”
Lack of Personal Expression
The lack of personal expression in admissions essays is a problem that occurs in several ways. Many students write what they think the admissions committee wants to hear, leading to insincere and impersonal statements. Overly formal language can rob the essay of personality, making it sound robotic and detached. Failing to share personal insights and reflections results in a superficial recounting of events without revealing character or values, while hiding behind accomplishments without context can make the essay feel like a mere list of accolades. Some essays even drift from the prompt, disconnecting the narrative from the question asked.
To overcome these issues, students must focus on authenticity, using a conversational tone that reflects their genuine voice. By going beyond mere narration to share personal insights and reflections and by explaining the importance of their achievements, students should create a compelling narrative that answers the prompt and reveals their unique character.
“Trim the sections of your essay that don’t say much about you. Add more in the sections where you’re really diving into your core values, personal strengths, motivations, etc. Make a list of what you want the reviewer to know about you. Then, brainstorm some examples, anecdotes, relationships, conversations, etc. that will showcase these things.”
This multifaceted approach to personal expression allows students to connect with their true selves and articulate their experiences in a way that stands out in the competitive college admissions process.
In their desire to impress, students often make claims or grand statements about themselves, their beliefs, or their experiences without providing evidence or context to support these assertions. This lack of substantiation can lead to a hollow or insincere essay. Moreover, the failure to approach their subject with subtlety and nuance can result in an overblown or melodramatic tone that undermines the authenticity of the narrative. Rather than engaging the reader with a thoughtful exploration of ideas, these essays often resort to clichés and platitudes that feel forced and inauthentic. To address this problem, students must learn to ground their claims in specific examples, experiences, or reflections that provide concrete evidence for their statements.
“You can’t just say “I’m a creative problem solver” any more than a random redditor can just say “I know a lot about admissions essays.” No one will believe you unless you show that or support it with an example, anecdote, etc. Look for statements you’ve made that are more “telling” than “showing”. Sometimes these can indicate that you aren’t being convincing.”
By approaching their subject with more subtlety and nuance, weaving in personal insights and observations rather than relying on broad generalizations, they can create a richer and more engaging narrative. This careful crafting of claims, supported by evidence and delivered with subtlety, can transform an otherwise lackluster essay into a persuasive and authentic reflection of the student’s character and values, significantly enhancing its impact on the admissions process.
Ineffective Introductions and Conclusions
These elements of admission essays serve as significant stumbling blocks for many students. The introduction and conclusion of a paper are vital components that frame the entire narrative, and when executed poorly, they can overshadow the content in between. Ineffective introductions often fall into the trap of being overly general, vague, or clichéd, failing to grab the reader’s attention or provide a clear roadmap for what’s to follow. They might lack a hook that draws the reader in or provide a thesis statement that is too broad or lacking in focus. On the other hand, weak conclusions may abruptly end the essay without summarizing the main points or leave the reader hanging without a sense of closure or resolution. Such shortcomings in the introductory and concluding sections can leave an impression of disjointedness or lack of cohesion, detracting from the overall impact of the essay. To overcome this challenge, students must carefully craft engaging and insightful introductions that clearly outline the purpose and direction of the article. A unique anecdote, question, or statement can help hook the reader, while a well-articulated thesis can guide them through the paper.
“Some of the most common essay advice I give is to just scrap the entire introduction. The reason for this is that the good stuff so often starts right after. If this is you, go ahead and scrap your introduction. If you have a reference or something in there that is needed later, find a way to work it into your new and improved intro.”
Likewise, conclusions should not be an afterthought but should tie together the essay’s main points, reflect on what has been learned, and leave the reader with something to ponder. By investing time in creating powerful introductions and conclusions, students can frame their essays to enhance their overall narrative, leaving a lasting impression on admissions officers.
Crafting a standout college admission essay can be challenging, but understanding common pitfalls and ways to avoid them makes the task more manageable. By focusing on unique subjects, genuine personal expression, solid evidence, and well-crafted introductions and conclusions, students can create compelling essays that resonate with admissions officers. With careful attention to these key areas, the daunting task of writing the perfect essay becomes an achievable goal, opening the doors to academic success.
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