It’s application season! Whether you’ve been working on your college essay drafts all summer or just finished slaying your first draft, you want to double-check your personal statement or personal insight questions (PIQs) response. In this article, Insight Counselor Zach summarizes the top 10 most common college essay mistakes that you definitely want to avoid!
Things I hear during application season:
“I read a bunch of college essays on ____ site to help me understand what I should be writing.”
“My friend/parent/older sibling told me I should do _____ – is that OK?
And on it goes.
Why is writing for college applications so very difficult? Why does it stir up so much doubt? Because of fear. Fear of looking silly. Fear of writing the wrong thing. Fear of being REJECTED.
When it comes to college essays, you often feel that the stakes could not be higher.
What should you do? Reframe the task. College admissions officers want to hear what you have to say. They are not out to play “gotcha” – they actually want to get to know you. That’s what your college essays are all about. How can you help them to see the real you? Let’s dive into that first draft!
How important is your college essay? Check out our post on Why The College Essay Matters
Insight #1: Channel Your Creativity!
Great writing starts with great…pre-writing. Yes, brainstorming! A simple pen with paper will do. So will sticky notes, or, if you like being able to move, erase, etc. your ideas, I highly recommend using a mind-mapping software (Coggle and Miro are examples). Check your environment – is being at home too distracting? Hit the library or literally take a hike (and bring your notebook with you).
Insight #2: Let Your Inner Editor Wait Its Turn
If you are worried about your writing, while you are writing it, this means your editor and writer selves are battling for control. Who is the captain? The editor or the writer? If the answer is “both” that means the boat goes nowhere (“boat” in this metaphor being your draft). When you notice your inner editor interfering, questioning, or otherwise stopping the writing process, try thanking it for showing up and asking it to wait a while until it is time to work. When will that be? AFTER the first draft.
Writer’s block? Read more about Overcoming Writers Block
Insight #3: You are Feeling the Pain of Learning How to Write About…You
Quick, grab any adult you know and show them some of these college essay questions. Would they love to answer these? Of course not. They are difficult! So part of this process is learning that the discomfort of learning how to write about yourself doesn’t mean you are “good” or “bad” at it – it just means you are learning.
Insight #4: Everyone Can Do A GREAT Job
No matter how you feel about your writing skills, it is highly unlikely that you have written anything like this before. Do you think that my students who have written novels and scripts, or have worked on their school newspapers sailed through the applications process without a care in the world? Nope! If you write well, your fears may be even more pronounced than someone who feels less confident about their writing. Why? Because you know that you can always do a better job.
What if you struggle in English classes? That is also OK. I have worked with students who aren’t native English speakers, and they are still able to express themselves well in their college applications. How??? The fact that the process of writing your college essays is difficult. Keep in mind that your first draft does not predict the later quality of your work. At Insight, we work with students through one draft after the next, and every iteration pushes their college essays toward greatness. Don’t feel discouraged if your first few drafts aren’t perfect. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and making consistent progress – that is what matters!
Insight #5: You Are The Expert of Your Life
Lastly, something to remember is that you have had 11 years of people telling you to listen and follow their lead. It can be shocking to realize that colleges want to hear from you. It is a completely different dynamic. My goodness – now someone wants to hear what I have to say? It takes some acclimatization. However strange it may sound, you are actually an expert – on your own life. You are 100% qualified to discuss it.
Want more college essay tips? Check out 5 Tips for Your College Essays
I hope these college essay insights help you as you move through your drafts this summer/fall. Happy Writing!
Need help with your college essays? We are here for you! Schedule a 1-hour personalized college planning session with an Insight Counselor today to learn how we can help you write your college essays!
This article is written by Insight Senior College Admissions Counselor Meilin Obinata.
Meilin Obinata is a Senior College Counselor who enjoys learning from her students. She believes education is a creative endeavor and creates a space that allows students to explore new ideas. As a Bay Area native who grew up in Santa Cruz, she is familiar with the local schools. Read her full bio here.
It’s no secret that your college essays can influence your college admissions chances. You probably have been planning (and possibly stressing over) what to write and how to tell your story. Insight Senior College Admissions Counselor Jenny Bloom is here to share five tips to help you get started on your college essays!
(More of an audio-learner? Check out Jenny’s video here)
1. Start early.
Unlike most of the essays you’ve written in school, college essays, especially your personal statement on the Common Application, require you to introspect. You don’t want to provide a laundry list of extracurricular activities, but you shouldn’t also write about how you worked really hard and finally became captain of the team. Thousands of other students share that. To craft a college essay that helps you stand out takes time. It takes time to find your unique story. It takes time to find your own voice and express your characters. It definitely takes time to revise and rewrite. A solid college essay or personal statement is something you build up, and you can’t do that in a week or two before the application is due.
2. Build a routine.
Once school starts, you will need to balance your classes, activities, and social time. You may find it challenging to focus on your college applications. It’s really important that you build a routine and include the college admissions tasks in your routine. Designate 30-60 minutes per day to write or edit your college essays. Sometimes it can be just doodling ideas or answering a short question about yourself. Schedule it as part of your day until it becomes a habit.
3. Use “I” Statements.
Your college essays are all about you. It’s your time to shine. You want to tell colleges what you have been through or other great qualities about you. Thus, it’s important to say “I did this” or “I learned this” to put yourself in the spotlight.
4. Show us. Don’t tell us.
It’s easy to start listing your qualities or your activities, but you want to show “why this is important to you.” Rather than saying “I care about my community,” you want to dig deep and figure out why do you want college admissions officers to know about your volunteering experience, what did you learn from it, and how is this lesson meaningful to you.
5. Rewrite and revise.
No one writes the perfect first draft. That’s why they are call drafts. Review your essays and ask yourself: “does this show who I am?” or “is this what I want colleges to know?” Be critical. Read it out loud. Ask someone you trust to read it and provide you with feedback.
Writing college essays is not easy, but you will learn a lot about yourself during this process. Invest in the time. Seek help if you need to. As always, we are here to guide you every step of the way. If you would like a 1-hour personalized college planning session, please reach out to us via email (email@example.com) or give us a call (408)252-5050.
Read more: Why The College Essay Matters
This article is based on our interview with Insight Senior Counselor Jenny Bloom.
Jenny has worked with a variety of students since 2012 to help them take the right steps to achieve their academic goals. Part of her philosophy is to guide students to consider how they will build and hone their skills and talents to make a difference in the world around them. Contact Insight Education today to schedule an initial consultation with Jenny. Read her full bio here.
An Interview with Santa Clara University’s Claire Kreeft, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions
I conducted an interview via email with Ms. Claire Kreeft, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admission at Santa Clara University (SCU). Ms. Kreeft provides invaluable insights into the admissions process at SCU.
Please note that this interview was conducted shortly before SCU announced that it will be going test-optional for the next two years (meaning SAT or ACT scores will not be required to apply to SCU for the next two years), so please keep that in mind when you are digesting Ms. Kreeft’s responses.
Insight counselor Jason: What are the most important factors in a student’s application? Why?
Ms. Kreeft: At Santa Clara University we have a holistic application review process. What we mean by that is that we consider all parts of the application to paint a larger picture for each student. We do not have a minimum GPA or test scores (although those are still important factors in the application), so we balance those hard data points with the student’s story they share with us through the personal statement, involvement, and supplemental questions.
The different parts of the application are indicators of different things and are thus all-important. GPA, test scores, and transcript help us determine if the student is academically ready for SCU. The personal statement, extracurriculars, and service work help us determine if a student would be a good fit for our campus and if we can support what that student wants to do.
That being said, if a student is well below the average in both GPA and test scores, it is tough to make a case for a positive admission decision.
Jason: What sets accepted applicants apart from the rest of the pack?
Ms. Kreeft: A student that can articulate what they want to do, how they have practiced this so far, and why they want to continue it on my campus stands out. What makes an applicant memorable is when they can show us how they have maximized their opportunities so far and how they plan to take advantage of what we offer at SCU, it is not one magic factor like the right number of APs. At one high school taking 10 APs before you graduate may be rare, whereas at another high school it may be the norm.
What we want to see is how a student pursues their interests and passions.
If you want to be an engineer, what projects or clubs have you invested yourself in to further explore this? If you want to partake in undergraduate research, have you looked into what ongoing projects we have and if professors on our campus are engaged in your topics of interest?
Jason: What is the best advice you could give to prospective applicants?
Ms. Kreeft: The best advice I can give to prospective applicants is to think about your non-negotiables.
What will you need on a college campus to feel comfortable and successful? Size and location are two of the most impactful features of a college campus that the individual student cannot change, so think carefully about the type of environment you want when crafting your list of schools to apply to.
When you have that list, be sure to communicate to those colleges why they are on your list. Don’t just regurgitate the school’s mission statement, be intentional and specific. I can tell pretty quickly when reading a student’s application if they are truly considering SCU or if we were just another college to apply to.
Jason: Other than grades and standardized test scores, what is the most important part of the application? Why?
Ms. Kreeft: In holistic admissions, this is a difficult question to answer (and one that doesn’t really have one answer), because the whole point is that the elements of the application complement each other to give depth to a student.
One factor that is often overlooked, but is very important, is rigor (or strength of schedule). When we see your high school transcript we see what your choices were for classes. Especially in a college landscape with increasing test-optional application routes, a student still needs to demonstrate the strength of their academic career. Rigor becomes especially important for students seeking admission to our more specialized programs in Business and Engineering.
Just taking a standard college prep course load will not be enough. Also, a student is more than just the things they study and the tests they took. Use the story part of your application (essay, involvement, supplements) to give life to your file.
Jason: How much does an applicant’s choice of major factor into whether they are accepted or not? Are there certain majors that affect admissions decisions more than others, and if so, which majors?
Ms. Kreeft: At Santa Clara University, it is actually the choice of school that matters more than the choice of major when it comes to selectivity. When you apply to SCU, you will choose to apply to the College of Arts and Sciences (about 55% of the undergraduate population), the Leavey School of Business (about 30% of the undergraduate population), or the School of Engineering (about 15% of the undergraduate population).
While it is the same application process for each of the three schools, the way we read the applications is a bit different. With our more specialized (and smaller) programs of Business and Engineering, we take a closer look at a student’s academic history in certain areas.
For Business that would be in math, specifically looking for calculus. For Engineering that would be math and science, specifically looking for calculus and physics. The one major that has the greatest impact on an application, and is our most selective, is Computer Science in the School of Engineering. Students admitted to this major tend to have our highest average GPAs/test scores as well as having demonstrated a prior interest in and commitment to this field.
Jason: What advice can you offer regarding application essays?
Ms. Kreeft: The biggest piece of advice I offer students regarding application essays is to centralize your experiences in your own voice.
No matter what the prompt says, an admission office is trying to learn more about who you are and how you will be in their community.
I have read some beautiful essays about how influential a student’s grandmother has been in their life, and then by the end of the essay I want to admit the grandmother and I have learned very little about the student. My first big tip is this: after you write your essay, highlight every sentence that has to do with you (the student) making a decision, reacting to experience, learning a lesson, etc. If this isn’t at least 50% of your essay you need to rewrite it.
My second tip is this: have a few people close to you read over and give you feedback on your essay.
Sometimes we think we know how we sound, but having a fresh set of eyes review your work can make sure you communicate the message and story that you intend to.
Another important thing to consider, use the additional information section to give more context! This is an optional section in the common application that is essentially bonus free words. There is no prompt; it is not an additional essay. It is simply space for a student to give us more context. If you have something you need to explain, like a poor grade in a class or a personal situation that has impacted your high school career, this is the place to tell us about it. Save your personal statement for the story of who you are and what you care about.
This interview article was conducted and written by Insight Counselor Jason Katz.
Jason has helped hundreds of students gain admission to their best-fit universities. In addition, he wrote more than 170 college admissions/college life columns for the Palo Alto Daily News and the San Jose Mercury News.