Knowing what turns off admissions committees in an essay is as important as knowing what they find desirable.
There is really no excuse for careless errors, and having even one in your application can affect the way you are perceived. You have more than enough time to proofread and have others look over your essay. If an error slips through, your readers may assume that you are careless, disorganized, or not serious enough about your application.
Remember that spell check does not catch all possible errors, and even grammar check is far from perfect. In addition to typographical errors such as repeated words, you have to read the essay carefully to catch mistakes in meaning that might come in the form of a grammatically correct sentence.
Let these humorous but unfortunate examples be a lesson to read your essay carefully for unintended meanings and meaningless sentences:
It was like getting admitted to an Ivory League school.
Berkeley has a reputation of breeding nationalists and communists.
I’d like to attend a college where I can expose myself to many diverse people.
I was totally free except for the rules.
In a word, the experience taught me the importance of dedication, friendship, and goals.
I have an extensive knowledge of the value of intelligence.
I envy people with a lot of time in their hands.
The most egregious generalizations are the ones that have been used so many times that they have become clichés. For example, “I learned the value of hard work.” That statement doesn’t tell us anything insightful or interesting about the writer’s character, because it has been said so many times as to become meaningless.
Generalities come in the same form as clichés, except with different content. They are always superficial and usually unoriginal, but haven’t quite reached the level of predictability that would make them qualify as clichés. Consider this before-and-after set to learn how to evaluate this factor in your writing:
Before: In the first project I managed, I learned many valuable lessons about the importance of teamwork.
After: In the first project I managed, I made an effort to incorporate all my colleagues as equal members of a team, soliciting their feedback and deferring to their expertise as needed.
Terms like “valuable lessons” and “teamwork” are vague and do not really convey anything meaningful about the applicant’s experience. In contrast, the revised version explains the team dynamic in more detail, showing specifically how the applicant exercised teamwork principles. The passage should go on to include even more detail, perhaps by naming a particular colleague and discussing the applicant’s interaction with that person.
Sounding contrived is a problem related to overly general writing. Applicants often have preconceived notions about what they should be discussing, and they try to force those points onto the experiences they relate. The best way to counteract this tendency is to start with your experiences and let the insights flow from there. Think about your most meaningful experiences and describe them honestly. Often you will find that you don’t need to impose conclusions because the personal qualities you’re trying to demonstrate will be inherent in the details. If you decide that clarification is necessary, the transition should still be natural.
Summarizing Your Resume
Perhaps the most common personal statement blunder is to write an expository resume of your background and experience. This is not to say that the schools are not interested in your accomplishments. However, other portions of your application will provide this information, and the reader does not want to read your life story in narrative form. Strive for depth, not breadth. An effective personal statement will focus on one or two specific themes, incidents, or points. Trying to cram too much into your essay will end up in nothing meaningful being conveyed.
“A straight autobiography should be avoided, although interesting and pertinent autobiographical facts should be included. But the statement should be more future-oriented than past-oriented. I don’t really want the story of a student’s life but rather plans for and a vision of the future.”—Graduate English Department, UCLA
Don’t get on a soapbox and preach to the reader; while expressing your values and opinions is fine, avoid coming across as fanatical or extreme. Avoid mentioning subjects that are potentially controversial; it is impossible for you to know the biases of members of various admissions committees. Religion and politics normally don’t belong in these statements, although there may be exceptions (an applicant who has held an important office on campus or in the community would likely want to include this fact). Personal political views usually are not appropriate for personal statements. Any views that might be interpreted as strange or highly unconventional should also be omitted because you want to avoid the possibility of offending any of the individuals in whose hands the fate of your graduate school application rests.
Don’t use a gimmicky style or format. Your “clever” or “original” idea for style probably isn’t, and it may not be appreciated.
“Avoid cuteness; we’ve had people who have done career statements in the form of a miniplay, for example. You want to sound like a professional.”—The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Sometimes the same writer who relies too heavily on generalizations will also provide too many irrelevant details. That’s why most essays submitted to EssayEdge are returned with significantly reduced word counts and, conversely, suggestions for additions. The problem is that writers often don’t consider what is actually necessary to include, or they repeat points freely.
Example of Irrelevant Detail: “After a meeting with my adviser, I returned home to think over the matter more carefully. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that my interests in physical properties and mental life would best be explored in a double major of biology and psychology.”
In this example, we learn nothing about the applicant from the mention of his meeting with an adviser. What’s relevant are his interests and the decision he made based on them. The details about how he arrived at the decision are not illustrative of his character in any way and are therefore superfluous.
Example of Redundancy: “The class taught me a great deal about the value of literature. I learned that literature can both instruct and inspire, and this understanding has changed the way I read every text.”
The first sentence is unnecessary because the second sentence makes the same point with more specificity.
In addition to superfluous content, you also have to watch out for wordy writing. Wordiness not only takes up valuable space, but it also can confuse the important ideas you’re trying to convey. Short sentences are more forceful because they are direct and to the point.
Before: “My recognition of the fact that the project was finally over was a deeply satisfying moment that will forever linger in my memory.”
After: “Completing the project at last gave me an enduring sense of fulfillment.”
Certain phrases such as “the fact that” are usually unnecessary. Notice how the revised version focuses on active verbs rather than forms of “to be”, adverbs, and adjectives.
Using longer, fancier words does not make you sound more intelligent, since anyone can consult a thesaurus. Simpler language is almost always preferable, as it demonstrates your ability to think and express yourself clearly.
Before: “Although I did a plethora of activities in college, my assiduous efforts enabled me to succeed.”
After: “Although I juggled many activities in college, I succeeded through persistent work.”