The Bottom Line on College Application Essays

Let's recap. If your 12th grader hasn't started his college application essay...NOW IS THE TIME. Read all the mistakes to avoid!!!! Don't start the process in November!!!!!!

Everything in one shot....all the mistakes...all the things to think about. The time is NOW. Don't wait until November!!!!!!!

It is important to first understand the purpose of the college application essay. A student’s transcripts as well as his academic and extra-curricular achievements do not give any unique insight into the student as a person.

Yes….they will illustrate hard work, intelligence, drive, aptitude, etc. However, these are the same attributes reflected in 28,000 other applications for the same institution.  (I know that grandpa says, “No one is as perfect as my granddaughter…she’s going to be a brilliant surgeon, winner of American Idol and Ms. Universe I tell you.”) But in this arena….the obvious is commonplace.

“Yale received 28,870 applications for Fall 2012, a 5.8 percent increase over 2011…
Yale expected to admit approximately 2,100 students…the same total as last year…Yale’s rate of admission for this fall is expected to drop slightly below last year’s 7.7 percent.


Simply put, essays help the admissions office evaluate your teen’s potential to fit into their school’s community and culture as a person. (Not as a student….not as club president….not as the driving force for raising money for a dance-a-thon or relay-for-life team and not as a swimmer who placed first in his county). Once again…the 28,000 other students….many of whom were driven to get 2400 on their SAT were also club presidents and competitors who gave their time to charity work….if not a kidney.

Just remember, you aren’t the only parent with a bumper sticker that reads, “My child is an Honor Student."

 Writing about academic accomplishments.

1. Deja Vu: These are on the student’s transcripts. The admissions officer already knows your teen achieved high marks in twelve AP classes.

2.Birds of a feather flock together: Remember your son’s best friend when they were in the 6th grade? They drifted apart in high school once your son started getting straight A’s and his friend ended up on "America’s Most Wanted." They aren’t applying to the same schools. On the other hand, everyone who is has similar or identical academic accomplishments as your son. 

3. Blind date: Seldom does a blind date work out. My parents met on a blind date. After years of therapy, I’m still angry at the person who set them up! Academic accomplishments don’t tell the school anything about your teen as a PERSON….as an INDIVIDUAL.

Trying too hard to appear intellectual

1. I can curse in twenty languages: A thesaurus is not necessarily your friend. Using words like, “plethora” or “myriad” only serve to drive an admissions officer to early retirement. Your teen need not swallow a thesaurus to “sound” intelligent.

2. That Pythagoras was no square: Your teen doesn’t need to discuss her love of Shakespeare or Milton if she thinks this slight fib sounds better than discussing the merits of the Twilight series. On the other hand, if she’s reading Fifty Shades of Grey you have bigger issues to worry about than what college she gets into.

3. Eszopiclone, Ramelteon, Triazolam, Zaleplon, Zolpidem: There are enough sleeping pills on the market so the admissions officer doesn’t need an essay to put him to sleep. I am not suggesting that the essay rival that of a SNL monologue, but it can’t be boring either. Your teen can write about something as dry as my mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving turkey, but it needs to sound interesting in story, sub-text, personality, connotation, sentence length, syntax, and unique in perspective. 

Taking a generic approach.

1. Check the basement for Pods or avoid clichés like the plague.

This is the same issue discussed in the first mistake listed above.  

i)        “I volunteer with special needs kids.”

ii)       “I am captain of our Mathlete team.”

iii)     “I play soccer and am on the fencing team.”

iv)     “I’m hardworking, ambitious, and driven.”

v)      “I am intellectually curious.”

vi)     “I get along well with my peers. They often look to me for leadership.”

vii)   “My grandfather’s death made me want to be a doctor.”

Not understanding the true point of the essay.

1. I can touch my nose with my tongue: What makes your teen unique and not like every other student who is applying?

2. When I was five, I was abducted by aliens:  What life experiences imply that your teen will fit in academically and socially?

3. Read between the lines: What do you really mean by that?: There is a sub-text to every essay. A girl is the youngest in her family and relies on her older sisters for help until they leave for college. Now the only child home, she is forced for the first time in her life to be independent and solve problems without her sisters’ help. This tells the admissions officer that she can be self-sufficient and has clearly matured.

The point here is to demonstrate the human qualities developed and honed through life experience.

  • Is this student independent yet a team player?
  • Is this student an extrovert? (Shy is okay, reclusive is probably a red flag…a misanthrope is destined to have a show on Fox News).
  • Does this student seem to have a sense of humor?
  • Will this student handle failure or rejection well or will he be up on the clock tower with an automatic weapon?
  • Will this student add to the community? (He loves to bake cookies….she loves playing touch football…he is really into Angry Birds….she turns mathematical equations into Rap lyrics).
  • What kind of character does he seem to have?
  • What are her personal beliefs? (Other than the clichés of hard work, diligence, etc).

 Not reading the school’s website.  

1. I want to go to (Name of School Here): “I want to go to NYU because it is in New York City and I want that city experience.”  There are more than TWENTY colleges in New York City….so why specifically NYU? What does NYU offer that all the other institutions don’t offer?

2.Professor Smith’s maiden name was Quackenbush: Read through the school’s website and discover that 80% of the faculty are Nobel Prize Winners, that there are 250 clubs and the school provides internships in Papua New Guinea.

*Don’t cut and paste. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t regurgitate the website’s stats. Merely show the admissions officer that you KNOW the school and what makes the school UNIQUE.

Forgetting that you are unique.  

Your wonderful son or daughter is unique…is special…is one-of-a-kind….but not in the way you usually think about it in terms of the essay. It’s not about schoolwork…it’s not about sports or volunteering with terminally ill dolphins. It’s about your teen as a citizen, a sibling, a son, a social animal, a human being.

Clarifying Points

  • Your teen doesn’t need to be abducted by aliens to be unique.
  • The death of a grandparent driving your daughter to go into medicine in and of itself is cliché but her UNIQUE perspective of WHY may not be.
  • Academic accomplishments can be discussed ONLY if, once again, the perspective is unique and speaks of your son’s character.

One more for good measure…Chapter One: He was born in a log cabin

If your teen chooses to write about the most influential person... Remember....the influential person isn't applying to college. Your teen is. It's not a biography. Less about the person and more about HOW your teen was influenced.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Experience has demonstrated that MOST of the time students (and parents) don’t realize what is unique or at least, what is the unique spin on a common topic because they are trying too hard to come up with a brilliant essay instead of seeing that there is a wonderfully thoughtful and revealing essay right in front of them.

Whether or not you use my services, I sincerely hope this helps set your teen apart from all the other applicants. Over the years I have learned that there is a secondary benefit to this process. When you and your teen discuss these points, it is inevitable that you will discover things about him…and he will discover things about himself that will make you both proud. That’s a guarantee.


Randy Levin has a MA in English and a MFA in Creative Writing. He is a published writer and was a high school English teacher in high achieving north shore Long Island school districts for close to ten years. He works with students on their college application essays through his company: Persuasive Writing Services. The vast majority of his clients are accepted to the Ivy League or other prestigious colleges.



(917) 450-9495

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