The Top Three Things College Admissions Officers HATE to See in College Application Essays

College admissions officers are generally personable, generous, empathetic, even at times forgiving. But there are three things they absolutely positively will not forgive in college application essays (aka Common App essay/Coalition App essay) and they are: 

1. Arrogance

College admissions officers evaluate your application materials in the hope of finding the best and the brightest. But they also review your application to evaluate whether or not they want to live with you.

That’s right. If that strikes you as odd, think of it this way: If you were considering inviting someone to share your home with you, wouldn’t you want to know as much as possible about the character of your prospective housemate before extending the invitation?

We all would. And college admissions officers are no different.

It’s that simple. If you represent yourself as arrogant, entitled, mean, selfish, or egotistical, no one’s going to want to share space with you.

Confidence, on the other hand, is an attractive quality and one you should represent in your essays.

How Do I Know if I’m Being Confident or Arrogant?

A confidence person is a self-assured person. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities. Confident people don’t have to demean others to show off their worth. Think of Michelle Obama. Michelle is a confident person; she’s not an arrogant person.

In contrast, arrogant people represent their worth in relation to others, others they put down and demean. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines arrogance as “exaggerating …one’s own worth or importance” or “showing an offensive attitude of superiority.”  We all know people like that and we all do our best to shun their company.

Still not sure? Test yourself. These were the first three sentences of a recent college applicant’s Common Application essay submitted to Vassar College: “Most people think I’m smarter than them. Including my teachers. That’s because I am.”

 Arrogant or confident?

Now consider this: “When I was appointed leader of the theatre club I was honored.”

Arrogant or confident?

Four Ways to Avoid Arrogance:

  • When describing your skills and qualifications, don’t phrase them in relation to others. That will show lack of empathy. If you make your peers’ work sound less important than yours, you will sound inflated and egotistical.

Example: Because I was the smartest, I was chosen to lead the team.

Revised version: Based on my skills and qualifications, I was chosen by my peers to lead the team.

Example: All my life, I’ve been surrounded by unmotivated students.

Revised version:  I sought opportunities to be with people who shared my interests and concerns.

  • Don’t boast about test scores and grades. That information shouldn’t be in your essay anyway.
  • Do not in any  way suggest that college should be lucky to have you. Rather, write how you know that the colleges you are applying to are perfect for you because of what they offer.
  • Review your social media presence and scrub if necessary. The image you present in your application should be in accord with the image presented on social media. If you look self-important, conceited, bumptious, immodest, stuck-up, condescending, vain, or patronizing, you probably are, or so college admissions officers will think.

2. Essays About Someone Else

At a recent information session at Boston College, an admissions officer cautioned potential applicants about what he called “my hero” essays. As he said bluntly, “Parents and grandparents are often the subject of these essays. But they are not applying to college; you are.”

The college application essay provides you with an opportunity to showcase your skills, your interests, your personality. It is the primary vehicle through which admissions officers get a sense of who you are as a person, not just as a set of pretty numbers. As such, you not only make a mistake but you also waste an opportunity when you devote your essay to someone else. 

In addition, “my hero” essays tend to be sentimental and there’s nothing like saccharine, overblown hype about someone else to set an admissions officer’s teeth on edge. Even if your justifiably proud of your writing abilities, before you decide to write about someone you love, keep in mind that even the most skilled writers and poets have trouble finding adequate words to express the deep admiration and love that can occur between children and parents or grandparents without being sentimental.

However, if despite this caution, you do choose to write about someone whom you admire and respect, make sure that the focus of the essay is on you and the choices you’ve made based on your respect and admiration for the person you admire. 

3. Essays that Repeat Information Already Provided in Your Application

College admissions officers read up to five, sometimes even six applications an hour. While they are generally likeable people, you don’t want to test their patience. And you will test their patience if you write as if you didn’t care about what you were doing or how your words are going to be read. They also won’t like it if your essay is littered with grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. 

College admissions officers expect you to take your application seriously. They expect you to write thoughtfully. They expect a certain writerly decorum. If you write carelessly, you seem like you don’t really want to go to college. 

The college application essay (aka Common App essay/Coalition App essay) provides you with an opportunity to show off why you are not just qualified for admission, but ideally suited for admission. If you take yourself seriously, the reader will too.

Ready to get started on your college application essay? Call me. I’m always ready to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive 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.

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