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Admission Essays: Don’t Shoot Yourself In the Foot

Copyright © Shaun R. Fawcett

I got seriously involved in the college admission essay-writing business shortly after I published my eBook on recommendation letters, Instant Recommendation Letter Kit, a few years ago.

People who bought that book for help with their recommendation letters soon started asking me if I would review their admission essays and/or personal statements for them. In some cases, I was asked to write their essays and/or statements from scratch.

To do that properly, I was obliged to conduct a lot of research into the entire subject of admission essays. So, I did a fairly extensive literature search of what was available on the subject, both online (Internet) and offline (books).

One thing that really struck me in my research was how many people seem to go out of their way to sabotage their own college admission efforts.

Time, and time again, I read about the first-hand experiences of Admission Committee members who received essays and/or personal statements with two or three strikes against them from the outset due to some glaring oversight, omission, or risky strategy.

In fact, it’s been hard to believe at times, some of the things I’ve seen on draft essays that have been submitted to me. Fortunately I’ve been able to fix most of those before they went any further. Unfortunately for some people though, these problems don’t get fixed, and end up being submitted to an Admissions Committee.

Here’s a list of the seven most common mistakes that reviewers encounter when reading admission essay personal statements:

Eliminate Spelling and Grammar Errors
Sounds like the obvious one to avoid doesn’t it? In fact, this is the most commonly cited error. It is not a small consideration. Admission Committee members generally see these kinds of sloppy errors as a reflection of the candidate’s personality and an indication of how they will likely perform in their studies. It also makes the reviewer question the seriousness of the candidate, since they can’t even take the time and trouble to get such an important document correct.

Don't Forget To Change the Name
This one is surprisingly common. It’s amazing how many Admission Committee essay reviewers have mentioned this error. It usually refers to a situation in which a candidate writes a “generic” essay and then submits it to a number of different programs. This is not a bad thing in itself. But then, for whatever reason, they forget to change the name of the institution or program! So, the last sentence may read, “It is for these reasons that I believe that the Yale Business Program is the one for me”. The only problem being that this was the application to Columbia! Admission reviewers generally take this as an insult, and it doesn’t do anything to help the candidate.

Make Sure You're Original Enough
Your essay or personal statement must be specific enough so that the admissions committee can gain a good understanding as to who YOU are as a person, and exactly why YOU want to attend that specific institution and that particular program. Some candidates fill their essays with generalities and platitudes that could apply to just about any person and/or program. This doesn’t help the Committee, and thus won’t help the candidate. You’ve got to tell your own unique story in your own unique voice.

But, Don't Be Too Original
There are cases in which people tend to go too far overboard in announcing their own uniqueness. People have written poems, told stories, and submitted videos when there was no such requirement. This is highly risky and is likely to alienate many reviewers rather than endear them to you. Generally speaking, an extreme approach like this will be seen as “grandstanding” or trying to get attention just for the sake of it. Remember, that hundreds (or thousands) of other applicants are operating within the same stated guidelines as you are. The challenge is to make you stand out as different, but within those guidelines.

Avoid Talking “Through Your Hat”
Some people have a tendency to make sweeping or grandiose statements that they can’t really back-up. Such statements as “I’m going to find a cure for cancer” or “I intend to eliminate poverty from developing countries” are seen as naïve and somewhat trite at the university program level. They’re nice sentiments, but they don’t show a realistic understanding by the candidate of the career path and educational program they have chosen. Make genuine statements that show a good understanding of you in relation to the world around you.

Answer the Question
Admission reviewers often report that many candidates don’t address the specific question posed on the application form. When this occurs, one of three situations is possible: 1.) the candidate has made a conscious decision to ignore the question asked for some reason, 2.) the candidate has not read and/or understood the question, or 3.) the candidate has submitted a “generic” multi-program essay and has not taken the time to adjust it to address the particular question at hand. Even when applying to multiple programs, make an effort to adjust your essay or statement when necessary to deal with the specific requirements of different programs.

Respect the Guidelines
This refers to situations when an application form states a specific requirement for the number of words or characters for your essay or statement. Some people seem to completely ignore these. Don’t. They were put there for a reason. When one doesn’t follow these very specific guidelines, they are either choosing to ignore them for some reason, or their “generic” multi-program essay is just being plugged in and they won’t take the time to adjust it for the specific program. Ignoring such guidelines can make admission reviewers wonder if the applicant’s inability to follow instructions extends to other areas that might have implications on their studies.

So then, why do so many people “shoot themselves in the foot” by committing such easily avoidable errors? Beats me.

I’m not sure what the problem is. Perhaps it’s because many people assume that they can leave the drafting of the admission essay or personal statement to the very last minute, and things then slip through the cracks during the last minute rush. Or, perhaps some people think that the essay isn’t really all that important, and probably won’t get read.

Both of these assumptions are serious mistakes.

In fact, the admissions essay personal statement is probably the single most important part of the application to a university or college program.

And yes, these essays do get read. At least once, for a poor essay that will not go any further in the review process. Multiple times, for a good essay that continues through to the end of the evaluation process.

All of the foregoing “don’ts” are very avoidable mistakes. So, why commit one of these errors when there’s no need to? After all, isn’t the college and university admission process competitive enough already?

So don’t make it extra difficult for yourself (or the Admissions Committee). Read the application very carefully and do exactly what it says when writing your admission essay or personal statement. You won’t go wrong if you follow all of the instructions.

About the Author: Shaun Fawcett is Webmaster of two of the most visited writing-help Web sites on the Net. He is the author of numerous “how-to” books on everyday practical writing help. He also writes about how to create and publish books and ebooks. His main “writing tools” site is:

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