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 couple of 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 the number of people that 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 (7) common mistakes that
reviewers frequently encounter when reading admission
essay personal statements:
1. Eliminate Spelling and Grammar Errors
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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
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. You won’t go
wrong if you follow all of the instructions.
For an entire eBook on the subject of writing college admission essays and personal statements, check out the following:
© 2005 by Shaun Fawcett