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7 Disastrous College Application Essay Themes And How To Fix Them

"But nothing major has ever happened to me!" It's the cry I hear most from students struggling with their essay. You don't have to suffer from some orphan disease (or be an actual orphan) to write a great essay. What do you need? An unusual spin on a common topic, organization and specific details. Then to make your story great, add a pinch of vulnerability, a handful of values, and give it a twist. If you can show how a situation changed you, you're golden. Still stuck? Then start by avoiding these common pitfalls listed below and always show instead of tell.

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HBO Silicon Valley

"I, a successful seventeen-year-old entrepreneur, represent a changing world. It is time for my generation, led by people like me, to eject the people in suits and take over the business of the Internet."

If you've accomplished a lot, show, don't tell, us your awesomeness in a way that makes us care. Humility is key, avoid even a whiff of narcissism.


"I learned so much about Thai culture, it felt surreal that I was able to change my perspective in only one spring break vacation."

Volunteer experiences and mission trips and how it changed your life—yawn. Nothing new here. If you were deeply affected by an out of country experience, consider showing us what concrete things you did (fundraised? became active in a charitable organization?) upon returning home.


USA Network Mr. Robot / Via

"Later that year, our school installed shiny new Macs and since I knew basic hacking commands, I created an admin under my classmate's name; teachers who discovered it were so impressed with his (my) knowledge, they let him off the hook completely."

Trouble with the law/cheating/hacking topics belong underground, unless you want to show how you've progressed to now sport a new-found ethical code. Depicting that transformation can be tricky.


20th Centurty Fox/Idiocracy

"I am proud to say I do not identify just as American, but as a proud (insert country name here)-American, thanks to the values my (insert country name here) parents instilled; today, as a senior in the top of my class, who excels in all sports and in all extracurricular activities, I owe my success and persistence to my heritage."

This is a commonly used theme (ahem, cliché) plus, it sets the reader's teeth on edge because it leans toward ethnocentrism. Find a specific example of how your culture/identity has shaped you and use vivid details.


Disney/Hannah Montana

"The experience of applying to college nearly destroyed me—it damaged my confidence, overwhelming my feeble mind, shattering my self-esteem, and rendering me psychologically unstable until I fell into a screaming abyss of intransigent negativity."

It can be difficult to write about emotionally fraught topics. You're going for a connection with your reader but dramarama should be avoided. Also, intransigent is not a word even college admissions folks use at their breakfast table. One thing we can't overstate? Don't abuse the thesaurus!


Paramount Pictures/Clueless

"Failure is a part of life and it is my job to fix my own mistakes and try to prevent future errors; my mistakes have changed the way I think and how I will approach important matters from now on."

Pandering combined with happily-ever-after always sounds like your Dad made you write an apology note to Aunt June. Consider a specific instance of failure and show (don't tell) how it changed you.


HBO/Silicon Valley

"What I have learned from my experience as an entrepreneur/president of club/leader of my sports team/pianist/ is applicable to countless opportunities in the past, present, future and at every intersection of time and space henceforth."

Generalize much? Generic is as boring as a Christmas card brag letter and as easily forgotten. Use one experience to reveal your character and mix heart or humor into the details.

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