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Weak College Essays

02 Sep The 3 types of essays: Good, Bad, Risky

Posted at 08:32h in Essay Writing by Lee Bierer

If they made a movie about nailing the perfect admissions essay, the title might be: “The Good, The Bad and The Risky.”

The Risky

Let’s start with “The Risky.” One of the favorite stories being passed around by admissions officers these days is a young man’s response to an open-ended essay prompt: “Ask yourself a question, and then answer it.” So here’s what one bold young man chose to write:

Question: Do you play the tuba?   Answer: No.   That was it, his entire essay. You’ve got to admit that was a gutsy move. He was accepted at that college and several other colleges. Students can’t afford to take that kind of risk unless that’s really part of who they are. There are colleges that actively seek students like that young man: He stepped outside the box and to some, and he hit a home run. For others undoubtedly, he miscalculated, because he may be perceived as being cocky and overconfident. In this case, he had strong credentials and very likely would have been accepted anyway, but I am certain that his pseudo-essay was joyously passed around the admissions office. That was an “easy-read!”

The Bad

Common admissions wisdom has advocated that students should avoid the 3 D’s — Death, Divorce and Drugs. The Death Essay is unfortunately more common than we all would like. Don’t think I’m heartless, but it’s very difficult for high school students to say much more than this special person had a tremendous influence and now that they’re gone they will miss them. These essays can be tremendously powerful, but they need to share the “whys” of the loss.

If there is a “typical” divorce essay that colleges receive, it starts with “I was happy until my parents split — now I am unhappy.” Students can take this topic and make it work for them if they talk about how they feel, how it has changed their lives and hopefully what they may have gained through this difficult experience.

Drugs: Some students want to share inappropriate details of their lives. Don’t do it. Even if it’s in the past, drug use sends up a red flag.

Parke Muth, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, has likened college essays to fast food. “Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays.” They don’t do an effective job of setting the student apart from the sea of applicants.

The Good

  • Choose your topic wisely, but even if you choose a topic that other people choose, spend sufficient time brainstorming how to own your piece of the topic.
  • Don’t try to write what you think colleges want to read. They’ve already read that in the first 50 essays they read today. Find and preserve your own voice.
  • Focus on the details when you tell a story. The rule of great writing: “Show, Don’t Tell” still holds true.
  • Read your essay out loud to several people and ask them if they believe it sounds like you. It will also help you find and fix the clunky parts that need help


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com

How a Weak College Application Essay can Hurt Your Chance of Admission

Unfortunately, many people wait until the last minute to complete their college applications essays. After months or even years of working to achieve excellent test scores, strong grades, and relevant work/volunteering experiences, fatigue can get the best of people. However, a weak college application essay can severely hurt your chance of admission. College application essays that are not well-written signal to the admissions committee that you are not fully prepared for their program. They are also disrespectful. Admissions officers review hundreds and sometimes thousands of essays over the course of an application season, and a weak college application essay is simply a waste of time that could be spent on a sincere applicant.

For this reason, it is all the more important to ensure that your college application essay contains good content, has smooth transitions, conveys the right tone, and is polished for grammar, punctuation, and word choice. This is actually easier than you might think. Admissions officers want a ‘clean’ essay that conveys your message in a positive tone and is easy to follow. While a strong college application essay can be the deciding factor for an applicant whose grades and test scores are on the borderline or even below a program’s minimum requirements, a weak college application essay from an applicant can arouse the admissions officers’ suspicions: Why is this otherwise stellar applicant unable to submit a good essay?

Using College Application Essays to Weed-Out Less Desirable Applicants is Completely Fair

Every year, programs receive an ocean of applications. Particularly among top programs, only a minority of applicants will receive acceptance letters. Just as admissions officers use college application essays to find the best applicants, they also use them to eliminate applicants from the group of people to be further reviewed by the entire committee. The college application essay is not a frivolous part of the application process. Admissions officers take them seriously, and so should you.

Submitting a weak college application essay sends the message: this doesn’t mean much to me. With so many applicants who are sincere and excited about the chance to attend their program, there is no need to bother with one who does not display enthusiasm and have enough respect to polish their college application essay. Admissions officers would genuinely rather have an entire cohort of dedicated students with minimal test scores and resumes than ones with the highest test scores and extensive resumes who are apathetic about being at their school.

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