Common Essay Mistakes
A lot of applicants plan to spend their summer working on essays. These are an important component of every student’s complete application package and the more thought and time that goes into writing them, the better. Students who start early are able to try out different stories, refine the telling of those stories so that in the end they represent an applicants authentic voice as much as possible. Rushing through the process of essay writing and submission results in incomplete expression and a superficial view of who the applicant really is. As all admissions representatives repeatedly emphasize, the essays are the only part of the application where they really get to know the applicant as a person, beyond the numbers, scores and resume. Understanding what matters to each applicant, how they spend their free time, where they have faced their biggest challenge or success, helps to differentiate one applicant among many.
There are some common mistakes on essays that are understandable, but easily avoided. First off is the use of famous quotations. One application reader for a top university said that she always knew when the applicant was from India, because of the essay would begin with a famous quotation. Whether from Mahatma Gandhi, Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, or Buddha, these quotes do nothing but tell the reader that a.) The writer has the computer skills to Google famous quotes and b.) The writer is too lazy to express his/her inspiration or guiding principles in their own words. The temptation to use quotes is completely understandable – they help us think, they give our existing thoughts direction and ultimately inspire us, but they are not our own words, so have no place in our essays. If you are using a quote to get your creative juices flowing, delete it before your final draft. Your words must stand on their own and express your thoughts and ideas in a way that represents you, not a famous personality.
The other common mistake is to take every opportunity to brag about achievements and/or reiterate disadvantage. If an essay is asking about achievements or setbacks, then it is ok. But in an essay about your future goals, there is really no need to repeat your past accomplishments, which are driving that goal. Nor to discuss obstacles you’ve overcome in order to pursue that goal. Talking about experience is fine but bragging doesn’t demonstrate anything. Instead show the reader what you have done in the past, be specific about the skills and attitude that have helped you succeed. Talk about learning processes from which you have gained. Don’t use success itself as a justification for your ultimate goals and aspirations.
Using a really common, tired topic for your essay is also a mistake. Both undergraduate and MBA applicants have a limited set of experiences that tend to repeat themselves and are difficult to make interesting time and time again. For example overcoming shyness or fear of public speaking are very common. If this is your story, you need to make it really stand out, there needs to be some part of the story that’s unexpected to make it fresh to someone who has seen the topic innumerable times before. You were really shy, but then you had to give a speech at school and you realized public speaking isn’t actually scary. That is not so interesting, but you were shy and you never spoke up or were an outgoing student until there was a fire at your school and you spontaneously jumped up to take charge of escorting all the youngest children to safety. From then on you knew how much emergency preparedness matters to you and you became the school representative for working with authorities on plans to ensure your school was safe and prepared. So this kind of story is not just about overcoming shyness, it’s about a lot of other things and it shows you going in a particular direction. Not just ‘no-longer-shy’ end of story.
To summarize, essays are important. So give them ample time and attention so that they showcase the real, unique person you are.