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College Entrance Essays and Mistakes to Avoid

What is a College Entrance Essay?

Some colleges require students to

write an entrance essay, or application essay, as part of their admissions process. The purpose of this “Why Choose Us?” essay is to help colleges and universities understand your motivation for applying to their institutions. They want to figure out if you’re a good fit for them and if they’re a good fit for you.

When analyzing your essay, the admissions director will look for clues in your writing that will inform them of who you are, how you think, and what you can contribute to the school. Some colleges may ask a few questions to get a sense of what kind of student you are and how well you have identified your goals for higher learning.

  1. For instance, take a look at the 2013 application essay questions for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—MIT:
    We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.
  2. Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why?
  3. What attribute of your personality are you most proud of, and how has it impacted your life so far? This could be your creativity, effective leadership, sense of humor, integrity, or anything else you’d like to tell us about.
  4. Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?
  5. Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?

Each answer, in this case, should be 100 to 250 words in length. Restricted word count limits can be difficult to manage and applicants often make recurring mistakes during this stage of the admissions process. Let’s look at five common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Choosing Any Old Topic

A good essay answer should reveal the best examples of your personal experiences while illustrating the qualities you possess. For example, if a student wanted to show his sense of empathy and caring for others, their best example might one that highlights their volunteer experience at a nursing home and how it has marked him, rather than choosing to focus on an occasion when they loaned $50 to a buddy.

Give yourself the time you need to dig through your memories. Don’t tell the admissions director who you are, show them by relaying the most relevant and poignant examples of your best qualities in action.

Mistake #2: Not Answering the Question

A beautifully crafted response that misses the point is just as ineffective as a poorly constructed response that addresses the question. To keep track of the points that must be included in your response, create a brief outline of your essay. Having a bullet list to refer to while crafting your reply can be beneficial, even for the shortest of answers.

Mistake #3: Not Being Personable

Your essay is your voice. If it sounds too generic, the narrative can come across as insincere and forgettable. Think about the stereotypical answers to popular beauty pageant questions. Most of the contestants want to “end world hunger,” and “promote world peace.” That might have been a moving response the first time a contestant came up with it, but the response loses its charm and conviction every time another person repeats it.

Try to use engaging turns of phrase and paint a strong picture. Why say, “I live in small town,” when you can say, “I live in a town so small, it is filled with family and friends whom I consider to be family.” They’re both one-liners, but the latter reveals so much more; the town is small, but the people in it share strong bonds through family ties and long-lasting friendships.

Mistake #4: The Essay is Too Long

If the goal of the essay is for the admissions director to get to know you, then writing more about yourself should be better, right?

Wrong.

If the application states that your answer should be no more than 200 words, but you write 500, the first thing you’ve demonstrated to the admissions director is an inability to follow directions. Furthermore, the admissions department receives so many applications and essays to read; they will shorten the stack by, first, eliminating all of the applicants who did not follow instructions.

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”—Henry David Thoreau

Writing short essays often takes more time than writing longer ones. Your sentences and word choices need to accomplish a lot within the confines of a limited word count. There is no time to elaborate on an ambiguous use of words or dive into long descriptions of special moments in your life. Give yourself lots of time to write, rewrite, and polish your essay until you’ve “trimmed the fat” off of it. Also, a thesaurus is a great tool for finding the perfect word to convey your point.

Mistake #5: Appearing Egocentric

Learning usually starts with the self, but should not end there. Numerous studies reveal a strong correlation between empathy and academic performance. Empathy is one’s ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of other individuals. The more we are emotionally connected to our surroundings, and the people in them, the more likely we are to learn from them.

By contrast, egocentrism refers to the inability to detach ourselves from our own perspectives. This can be a red flag for the admissions department because it is unclear to them if you will be open to the challenges of higher education or if you will be ready to empathize with your future professors and fellow classmates.

When appropriate, your essay should contain examples of how have been enlightened by others. Show that you are connected to the world around you and that you can draw lessons from your surroundings in a significant way.

The Key to Writing Well

Writing well isn’t easy. It takes practice, critique, and guidance. If you’re feeling unsure about your essay—and even if you’re confident—it is always good to get feedback from a credible source. Look to your English teacher, a trusted parent or friend with the credentials to critique your work or a tutor who specializes in college application essays. Get the help you need, and before long you will have a winning essay on your hands.

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