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Make the essay memorable and avoid cringe-worthy essay mistakes

Top 3 essay blunders

Many high school seniors find themselves paralyzed with fear; afraid to put their fingers to the keyboard. They’ve convinced themselves that the quality of their college essay will determine the rest of their lives. For starters, let’s all take a deep breath and recognize that that’s not true.

But, of course there’s a but, the essay is important and can often be a tipping factor as college admissions officers review applications.

What makes an essay memorable? I asked Greg Zaiser, Vice President of Admissions and Financial Planning at Elon University for his thoughts.

“The best essays are the ones where I learn something new about the applicant or I learn about their true passion. I like when we get to hear a story that has nothing to do with their resume and more to do with their home life.

The most memorable essay I’ve ever read was one written by an applicant who described her brother’s special needs. Instead of taking a path I expected, she revealed that he embarrassed her and that she found herself trying to keep her friends from meeting him. Even today, as I write it, I get chills. It was raw, real, completely uncomfortable and incredibly authentic. Risky? Perhaps. But it stood out because she was “real”.

Another essay that I recall be stylistically memorable was the student who used the dents on his truck as a metaphor for this life challenges. It personalized the experience in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise worked.”

What are some of the most common blunders students make?

#1 – Using clichés. Cliches are phrases and expressions that are so overused that they’ve become annoying. The problem is that they often “feel right” because they concisely communicate a writer’s message. Cliches are a lazy-person’s friend; they signal to an admissions officer that the student didn’t care sufficiently to make the phrase original. Some of the biggest college essay cliché offenders are:

  • Expanding my horizons

  • The big picture

  • Less is more

  • All walks of life

  • There was a glimmer of hope in his eye.

  • Never a dull moment

  • The writing was on the wall

  • Thinking outside the box

  • At the end of the day

  • When live gives you lemons

  • I learned that the only thing to fear is fear itself

When editing your essay, question any comparison or image you’ve used. Cliches can sneak in when we try to be descriptive. Ask yourself if the phrase is one that you’ve heard frequently on television or in casual conversation? Forgo the familiar and be creative–but beware, if you use the thesaurus make sure the word you choose makes sense.

Bottom line, clichés, avoid them like the plague!

# 2 – Plagiarizing.There are so many books and internet resources with “successful essays” that it often too tempting for lazy students to simply copy and paste someone else’s work. Plagiarizing is the easiest way to guarantee a rejection. Colleges are aware of this unfortunate trend and many now use software to weed out the offenders.

# 3- Vague language. The worst essays to read are the ones that are generic and vague.

My mantra to my students is to “err on the side of specificity.” When students don’t know what to say to they often write in platitudes that sound meaningless. This is particularly true when students are responding to the “Why this college?” essay. Colleges are looking applicants who can articulate specifically why a college represents a good fit for them. So, when students choose to talk about attending football games or being part of greek life on campus, they really aren’t doing anything to set themselves apart from other applicants and that kind of essay will hurt.

By Lee Shulman Bierer

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