As we all are aware, there is no such thing as a slam-dunk, perfect application essay. Although there is a glut of books that claim to contain the secret for the fabled perfect essay, there is no silver bullet. With this in mind, it seems far more helpful to point out things not to do, rather than trying to prescribe.
1.) “My parents met at this university and I’ve wanted to attend ever since I was born”
Sure, colleges want you to want them and many value alumni affiliation. However, they are also looking for independent thinkers. If your parent’s alma mater is your biggest factor in picking a school, many universities may view your essay skeptically. Work this detail in later if it is a natural addition to your writing. Plus, many applications include a section detailing you relationships to alumni—why waste valuable space on something you’ve already mentioned?
2.) “Ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country”
JFK is definitely a revered figure in American History, but do you really think you’re the first to ever put this quote in a paper? Try to avoid starting off with overused quotes from history’s best and brightest. The essay should begin with your thoughts—not those of other people.
3.) “The death of my family’s cat made me realize how short life is and made me who I am today.”
Certainly, the death of a beloved pet or relative can have a huge impact on our lives. These events can be transformative, but they are endings. College is a chance to start fresh—it’s a beginning. Although it may feel like college is the culmination of your entire education, it really is not. Make sure admissions committees can see that you know this. Frame your education as a starting point.
4.) “The day I tutored elementary school children changed my life completely”
Some volunteer experiences prove to be excellent topics for college essays, but openings like these are rather heavy-handed. Including specific details and emotions about your service project can be an excellent choice for an essay. Just try to avoid painting yourself as some sort of saint—and definitely avoid exaggerating your volunteerism.
5.) “At this university, I plan to major in medicine because I want to become a doctor.”
We definitely need more health-care professionals, but aim to be more specific with your vision for your college plans and professional future. A great number of students find new and exciting careers after coming to college. Don’t limit yourself to the classic (and sometimes clichéd) academic trajectories.
6.) “A college degree will help me get a good job after I graduate.”
College graduates often do earn more than the rest of the population, but many colleges consider themselves to be places for educating young adults. They are not just job training centers.
7.) “I will be a great asset to your university, since I have gotten straight-As throughout high school and I am president of my student council.”
As with mentioning alumni affiliation, most colleges already have this information. The application essay is an opportunity to surprise the admissions office and reveal something they do not already know about you. It is your chance to show who you are outside of school. This is the part of you they are often most interested in learning about. You are more than a transcript.
Perhaps the best “advice” for admissions essays is this—keep it realistic and genuine. Don’t exaggerate your past and make impossible promises.