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3 Themes to Avoid on College Admission Essays

As a college academic advisor, I dreaded reading about 75% of the admission essays that came across my desk. Okay, make that 80%. Why? Most were bland, indistinct, even downright awful. Generally the bad essays fell into a few broad categories for theme/tone. Lucky you, I am going to share those now in the hopes that I’ll keep you from making the same mistake and perhaps even save an admission officer from having to slog through another bad essay.

Here were the worst of the worst:
The Academician
Essay prompt: Tell us about yourself

A brief geographic autobiography: I was born in India, moved to Minnesota at age 5, moved to central New Jersey at age 6, moved to south New Jersey at age 7, moved to Tampa, Florida at age 10, moved to Miami at age 11, and moved back to Tampa at age 12, where I have been living since. Clearly, I have moved frequently, each time, changing schools, friends, and environments.
That much change bears heavily on a young child, and significantly affected the person I have come to be. As a young child (ages 5-9), I kept to myself and shied away from most activities and new experiences; as I grew older, I realized I would get nothing in the way of friendship, enjoyment, fun, or an enjoyable life by living in awkward solitude, and I began to adapt my personality. I kept my love of reading, my appreciation for healthy solitude, and the values I gained from being mild mannered and well tempered, but I cast aside my social awkwardness; I opened up my personality to include a more diverse range of characters, and opened up my outlook to include a broader range of experiences and ideologies.

Oh, my word! How many essays like this can one admission officer stomach? Sadly, I read hundreds. Too many students think they must sound professorial when it comes to the college application essay. More than anything, officers want to get to know you through your essay. There is no room for stuffiness. You will end up sounding like every other applicant. Don’t sit at your desk, trying to write what you think admissions officers want to hear. Write about yourself in your own natural voice.

The “I Am, Therefore I Am…”
Prompt: Write about a significant experience in your life, and how it shaped you as a person.

My eighth grade summer my soccer team and I took a trip to Brasil and Paraguay. It WAS one of the most memorable times in my life. BEING as young as I WAS, I WAS mainly concerned about how my team would fair against the famed South American soccer players. On the bus ride down to Miami, where our flight to Asuncion WAS to take off from, this topic WAS hotly debated. Half the team agreed that we would get destroyed by the South Americans, that they would BE dribbling the ball through our legs at will. However, the other half, me included, could not accept that. I said there WAS no way they could BE that good. It WAS more likely that we would BE doing that to them.

(I added the emphasis on the “to be” verbs.) Relying on the passive verb “to be” in its various forms creates writing which is dull and needlessly wordy. It can actually work against your efforts to remain under that pesky word limit. I call “to be” a weedy verb because try though you might, it is difficult to avoid. Not that you can’t ever use it, however most students rely too heavily on “I am,” “I was,” and “I will be…”

The Snarky Snark
All throughout Middle School I had been a girl of few words, that’s how people saw me. Breaking out of my shell seemed impossible, especially since my private middle school was overflowing with a particularly uncommon breed of overly spoiled pre-teens, all of whom got their confidence from putting others down.

Don’t speak negatively of others or yourself in your essay. Some students try at humor, but end up sounding sarcastic and snotty. Your essay doesn’t have to be “rah, rah, rah,” if you’re talking about difficult or painful circumstances. It is fine to talk about a negative experience, emphasizing how you changed and grew as a result. Do this humbly and not at the expense of others.

To summarize, put down the Thesaurus, don’t overuse “to be” verbs, and write humbly. Aim for warm, personal, and natural.
Heather Tomasello