The Four Worst College Application Essay Mistakes

Applying to college is stressful. And without a doubt, writing the application essay is the most stressful part of applying to college.

I suppose I didn’t need to write that.

Don’t let common mistakes hurt your admissions chances

Most of the students with whom I work tell me they’d rather retake the SAT or add on an extra AP course in senior year than write their college application essays. After all, there’s no road map, no GPS that is sure to guide you to essay success.

While there’s no failsafe plan for writing the college application essay, there are four common mistakes applicants often make that can be easily avoided, once you’re aware of them.


Mistake #1: Writing About a Cliched Topic

Don’t write about a cliched or overused topic. Admissions officers tell me there are many topics they consider hackneyed, but the two most shopworn essay topics are “the week I worked in an orphanage/urban center/other setting with underprivileged people” essay and the “grandpa/grandma” essay that reveals “nice” aspects of that person (note that I have used the word “nice” for emphasis as in don’t use it), but nothing about the personality or aptitudes of the writer. Another utterly hackneyed topic: the athletic injury along with the expected recitation of how the writer learned to accept not being the star of the team. As a former admissions official, I can tell you that just considering reading that essay makes my teeth hurt.


Mistake #2: Writing a List of Accomplishments

Don’t write a list essay. This type of essay, also known by some admissions officers as a “combo meal essay,” is one in which a student attempts to write about too many topics instead of writing about one topic in detail. The list or combo-meal essay tends to reiterate accomplishments and therefore lacks a unified “theme.” List essays also make for very unsatisfying reading; worse, they risk being categorized as “incoherent.” And that’s not a word that you want attached to your application.



Mistake #3: Writing in an Impersonal Way

Don’t write an impersonal essay. Most students are not comfortable with personal writing, but in this essay, you have to be personal, or at least appear to be very personal. What does that mean? You have to show the admissions officers reading your essay that you know yourself in some way and that you can communicate that knowledge in a coherent and interesting way. In other words, you need to give the admissions officers a sense that the you they are reading about is the authentic you, not the you you think they want to read about. How do you know if you’ve done this effectively enough to click “submit?” After you’ve drafted your essay, ask yourself: “Could any other student have written this story?” If the answer is yes, you’ve got work to do.


Mistake #4: Writing a Five-Paragraph Essay

Do not, I mean absolutely do not write anything that reads like a five-paragraph essay. Your essay has to be written in the form of a story, and that means that it has to include evocative details of setting and character, suspense and drama, perhaps (or perhaps not) a moment of resolution. As with a good story, the very best college application essay story will have an emotional impact on the reader and will therefore be remembered as in some way compelling, even outstanding. And that’s just the effect you want to leave with college admissions officers.

Want help writing an outstanding college application essay? 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.