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How to Avoid an Admission Essay Disaster

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By: Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.

Gen and Kelly Tanabe can answer your question in Expert Advice.




DON'T write a humorous essay if you are not funny.

Very few people can write truly humorous essays although thousands will try. Even if it may seem funny to you, all it takes is for one admissions officer to be offended and you can kiss that letter of acceptance good-bye. Unless you are a truly gifted humor writer—the test being that people other than you have said so—then stay away from the humorous essay.

If you do write a humorous essay, be very certain that it is not of the silly variety. Admissions officers don't want to feel that you are not taking the application seriously. Ask friends, teachers or a parent to read your essay and give you an honest opinion. If they don't find your word plays to be witty, then try another approach.




DON'T resort to gimmicks.

Believe it or not, there have been applicants that have written their essays in fluorescent highlighter or nail polish or who have sent cookies baked in the shape of the university's seal along with the essay. Others have enclosed audio "mood" music that admissions officers were supposed to play to create the right "ambiance" while they were reading the essays.

These tricks, while entertaining, are no substitute for actual substance. While printing your essay in any other color than black is simply a bad idea from the point of readability, sending videos, audio tapes, computer programs and other multimedia is usually a poor idea as well since they are often less impressive to admissions officers than applicants may think.




DON'T choose dumb topics.

A few words should be said about plain old dumb topics. As a rule, don't write about them. Period. What are these topics that are off limits no matter how interesting, humorous or scintillating their related tales may be? Many of these are obvious, but you would be surprised at how many students simply lose their sense of judgment when writing their essays. Here are just a few examples:

  • Crimes, misdemeanors and school violations

  • Drunkenness or getting high

  • Your mental imbalances or insecurities

  • Description of why X University is perfect


Only write about a topic such as one of these if you can "undumb" it by addressing it in an intelligent way. But unless you can do this well (and have your work checked by several editors) it is much safer simply to stay away from these subjects.




Final Thoughts ...

By following these steps you will be sure that your essay does not get caught in the 90 percent trap that dooms many students. It's certainly not easy to write a winning essay and you'll have to spend a lot of time brainstorming topics, analyzing yourself and, of course, writing. But the reward for all this work will be a composition that is in the top 10 percent of all the essays submitted to the admissions officers. And that is important because it will give you the best chance of getting accepted.




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