Five ways to NOT start your college application essays

College Admissions

NOT TO START COLLEGE ESSAYS resized 600When it comes to applying to college, perhaps one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the whole process is writing those darn essays. No one likes to talk about themselves, and people like talking about themselves even less when what they say could possibly cost them acceptance into their dream school. 

However, writing those pesky things is something everyone must do--there's no two ways about it. In an effort to make putting pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keyboard) easier--and because we know that writing that first sentence is the hardest thing of all--I bring you the five worst ways in which you could start your college application essays (and a plea that you please, please avoid using them):

#1 : "Webster's Dictonary defines "determination" as..."

Oh, the dreaded dictionary definition start! Nothing makes an admissions officer (or anyone reading your materials, for that matter) sigh more heavily than reading an essay that starts off with a dictionary definition. 

Why is this so terrible? Well, for starters, it loudly proclaims, "I had no idea how to start! I had something else start for me!" Secondly, can you think of something drier and more boring to read than the dictionary? If you're starting off with the most boring thing you can think of, you're not exactly putting your best foot forward.

How can you fix it? Instead of starting off with a definition, start with a small snippet of a story that shows the word you're trying to definte. For example, instead of defining "determination," start by writing about the time you won first place in a long-distance race even though you felt like giving up many times during it.

#2 : "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." ~Confucius

Ack! NO! The quote has reared its ugly head!

Why is this so terrible? Just like with the dictionary definition, you're once again proclaiming to your readers that you didn't know how to start, so you thought a deep quote might be the way to go (and hopefully command their attention). The problem here is, you're using someone else's words rather than your own. Last we checked, Confucius isn't the one applying to college. You are. 

How can you fix it? Again, just like with the dictionary definition, start with a story that embodies the quote. Then, you'll be showing the qualities that you sought with the quote, and you'll be telling colleges something about yourself, too. It's a win-win!

#3 : "I've always known, from the time I was old enough to play Operation, that I wanted to be a doctor." 

In theory, there's nothing really wrong with this kind of opener. Having a student who has a clear idea of what they want to do in life is great. However...

Why is this so terrible? Mostly, because you run the risk of sounding very naive. Sure, you may be certain you want to be a doctor now, but what happens after you arrive arrive at college, take a philosophy class freshman year, and have your mind absolutely blown by existential theory? What if you join the crew team, fall in love with the sport, and decide right then and there that your goal is be an Olympic rower? Pinning all your hopes on what your five-year-old self always knew can make your readers smile and shake their head fondly in an "awww" sort of way. And I'm betting that's not what you're looking to convey.

How can you fix it? If you truly want to discuss your passions and what you believe is your academic future right now, root your tales in your current endeavors. Want to eventually be a public defender? Talk about your current work volunteering at Legal Aid. Want to be a painter? Talk about any art shows you've been in or helped coordinate. Keep it current, and you'll look more like a budding professional and less like a kid playing dress-up.

#4 : "They always made fun of me, but I knew that one day I would grow up to be much better than them. Going to your college is the first step."

Whoa there, tiger. Easy on the threatening vengefulness.

Why is this so terrible? The anger/revenge essay, while certainly emotional and commanding, can also be downright scary. There's nothing wrong with being a social misfit (some of the greatest minds throughout time have been just that), and there's certainly a lot wrong with being bullied or made fun of for being who you are. However, the place to air your grievances and plot your eventual gloating over those who have wronged you is not a college essay. 

How can you fix it? Instead of talking about how others have wronged you or how your differences have made it hard for you to fit in, focus on talking about the differences themselves--why you're passionate about them, what makes them special (and therefore make you special), and how you plan on using them to pursue your own goals. Remember, the person applying to school is you, not anyone else. Don't waste time talking about others--particularly not others who have put you down.

#5 : "I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about my arrest for underage drinking." 

EEP! STOP! No-no-no-no-no!

Why is this so terrible? College essays, for the most part, are not where you want to talk about your negatives. Colleges will have a place in their application where you can explain any negatives, and they'll specifically ask you to do so. However, don't use the space given for creative essays to talk about negatives in your profile--creative essays are where you shine, where you talk about positive things, where you put your best foot forward. They're the place where you show them how different you are from the negatives, and how the negatives don't define you.

How can you fix it? Instead of focusing on your negatives and trying desperately to explain them away, focus on your positives and how unique they make you. Focus on things that empassion you, focus on things you love and that have changed your life for the better. Leave the negatives for another part of the application.