Common Flaws

There is no excuse for careless errors, and having even one on your application can affect the way you are perceived by admissions officers. 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 the spell check feature of your word processing program does not catch all possible errors. In addition to eliminating typographical errors such as repeated words, you have to read the essay carefully to catch mistakes in meaning that might even 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:

Answering The Question

You can follow our advice, but if you fail to answer the essay question, you will not be admitted to any institution.

A Boring Introduction

Remember that admissions officers will probably spend no more than a few minutes on your essay. In the first two sentences, you must capture their interest. The first lead below does not engage the reader. A boring introduction will cause the reader to skim the essay, and the essay will not be memorable. In contrast, the second introduction's use of detail makes the experience personal and draws the reader into the story. By also leaving out key details, the second lead creates intrigue, forcing the reader to find out: Who is this child? How and when did his parents die? How will the author help?

Before: I volunteer as a Big Brother to a little boy. He lost his parents in a car accident a few months ago. From this experience, I hoped to help him cope with his loss and open up his personality by spending time with him after school on certain days.

After: While the other children played outside, eleven-year old Danny's sad eyes focused on the white wall in front of him. He sat alone in silence—a silence that had imprisoned him since his mother and father died in a tragic accident.


Use the allotted space wisely and do not exceed word limits. Make sure you omit irrelevant details, clichés, and undeveloped ideas. Do not distract the reader with repetition or extra words. The second passage does not need the cliché "hit me like a ton of bricks," because it expresses the same thought through forceful, concise writing.

Successful application essays do not rely on generalizations or irrelevant details. That is why many essays submitted to EssayEdge are returned with reduced word counts and, conversely, suggestions for additions. The problem is that writers often do not consider what is 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 is 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 experience taught me a great deal about sensitivity. I learned to be more sensitive to the needs of others in the context of a volunteering experience.

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 also often confuses the important ideas you are 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.

Phrases like "the fact that" are usually unnecessary. Notice how the revised version focuses on active verbs rather than forms of "to be," adverbs, and adjectives.

Passive-Voice Verbs

Passive-voice expressions are verb phrases in which the subject receives the action expressed in the verb. The passive voice employs a form of "to be," such as "was" or "were." Overuse of the passive voice makes prose seem flat and uninteresting.

Before: The lessons that prepared me for college were taught to me by my mother.

After: My mother taught me lessons that will prepare me for college.

Big Words

Put your thesaurus away when writing your application essay. Using longer, fancier words does not make you sound more intelligent. 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 high school, my assiduous efforts enabled me to succeed.

After: Although I juggled many activities in high school, I succeeded through persistent work.

EssayEdge Extra: Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers

"Good writers generally make numerous revisions to their drafts. Don't begin the process one evening and expect to produce an essay that you are going to be completely comfortable with that same night. A good essay takes time to write. In addition, good writing is concise writing. Try to restrict your essay answers to the space provided by the school or within the word limitations recommended."—Admissions Officer, Grinnell College

"In writing your essay, be yourself. If you are not normally a comedian, don't try to be a comedian in your essay. Tell us who you are, and represent yourself well. Don't leave the essay until the last minute. It is an important part of the process and probably the most difficult portion of the application."—Admissions Officer, New York University

"Applicants do not need to walk on water to be admitted to Penn. We may see potential for a 'Renaissance candidate,' but applicants cannot be all things to all people, nor should they try to be."—Admissions Officer, University of Pennsylvania

"Students try too often to contort their lives to fit what they think we on the admission committees want to see. Many students think there is some perfect picture that they must match in order for us to be interested in them. High school students often ask me questions such as: 'If I were to volunteer for the homeless, what would you think about that? Would that help me get in?' However, the question is not what we would think of it, but rather what the student believes is important."—Admissions Officer, University of Southern California

Next: Assess Yourself