How Arrogance Can Kill Your College Application Essay

Writing your Common Application essay and the Coalition Application essay can be tricky. You have to brag but remain modest. For many applicants, this can be hard balance to achieve. How do you show off and at the same time remain humble?

Mastering the art of boasting modestly isn’t easy. Sometimes students don’t even realize that they’re boasting when they write their essays and their supplemental essay responses. But arrogance sometimes infiltrates the applications of the most modest and unassuming applicants.

Arrogance is the enemy of likeability


In fact, in a recent Harvard admissions case, arrogance nearly cost one highly qualified applicant her admission.

Sometimes arrogance results from poor phrasing on the writer’s part. Sometimes an applicant sets herself above others without realizing it. Sometimes applicants cast themselves as a know-it-alls without in any way intending to.

For example, a bright and unassuming student with whom I worked answered University of Maryland’s supplemental essay prompt “If I could travel anywhere, I would go to…”  with these words: “South Africa to educate the people.” This student didn’t mean to be patronizing.  Instead, she wanted to convey her commitment to using her computer science skills to help people in underprivileged areas learn vital communication skills. It just didn’t come out that way.

Another affable and hard-working applicant wanted to write about being a figure skating judge in her common application essay. However, in the first draft of her essay she wrote, “I studied harder than everyone else… I knew the rules better than everyone else…” While this may be true, her essay draft made her sound conceited, condescending, and certainly unlikeable.

In the first draft of another applicant’s essay, a well-read and friendly applicant, fascinated by etymology, wrote his first draft in such a patronizing way that the reader could only feel belittled and insulted by his erudition. The applicant had no intention of talking down to the reader; instead, what he wanted to do in his essay was to convey how his rare interest had led to fascinating discoveries and enriched his life as a learner. But in his first draft, he just sounded like a know-it-all.

To avoid arrogance, applicants sometimes need to realign their thinking about the content of their essays. For instance, in the final version of the judge’s essay, she wrote about the challenges of being a responsible and ethical judge. In the final version of the etymologist’s essay, he showed how his appreciation for the history of words has deepened his learning and his understanding of the world. The final draft of the computer scientist’s essay conveyed her humility in the face of the world’s challenges and her dedication to using computer science to benefit those in need.

Showing yourself off is essential in college application essays. But remember that your chief objective when writing your essays and supplemental essays is to present yourself as likeable, someone for whom college admissions officers can root without any hesitation.

If you want an arrogance reality check, call me!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.