7 College Essay Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

teen with green lanyard standing at front entrance of university

College essays are stressful enough. And that blinking mouse cursor on a blank document screen never makes things easier! 

In fact, this “stuck” feeling might even propel teens full throttle down a highway of mistakes as they push the gas to go somewhere, anywhere, even if in the wrong direction. 

However, as tempting as it might be, saying too much or the wrong thing might sometimes be worse than saying too little and simply sticking to the facts. A great college essay is a valuable component of a well-rounded application, and it’s deserving of careful consideration and planning. 

Not only is the essay a perfect opportunity for teens to showcase their writing skills, the essay also offers a window into a teen's perspectives, personalities, and life experiences. This key part of a college application is high school students’ opportunity to introduce themselves to their dream schools and give the admissions committee an idea of how they’ll contribute to the next freshmen class. 

Sound important? That’s because it is! 

College Essay Mistakes to Avoid

With that in mind, here are seven college essay mistakes and how to avoid them. With this advice, teens can be one step closer to opening that acceptance letter!

Don’t lie. 

This should go without saying, but we wanted to put it number one just as a reminder. Actually, let’s not even phrase it that way. Instead, have your teen start by thinking about their accomplishments, important experiences, interests, and other great authentic subjects for an essay. It's probably all stuff that makes them worthy of applying to the college in question, right? So, what point is there in lying if the truth is powerful enough without extreme embellishment?

Here’s another incentive to be truthful: teens (almost) always have choices in terms of their essay topic. So, encourage them to explore essay prompts and choose carefully from the Common App options.

When they zone in on an intriguing topic, encourage them to keep in mind that their focus should be on an important, real part of their lives and how that subject makes them a great admissions candidate. 

Again, all that to say, there isn’t a need to lie, and your teen more than likely has plenty to offer that stems from the truth. 

In fact, also think about what lying might lead to? They might get into a college or university they’re qualified for because they resort to lying on their college essay: this could backfire big time. Reinforce the value of academic honesty now; otherwise teens might think it’s OK to unethically make their through additional academic problems, etc. It’s a slippery slope!

Don’t focus on grand future plans.

One thing a college essay might do to a student is make them feel like they need to have life figured out at this very second, and thus should pen a grandiose plan to change the world in some fashion. 

Where, in reality, many students at this point probably don’t have that clear of a picture of where they want to go and who they want to be. And that’s OK! In fact, colleges are well aware of this. That’s why an essay focused on what teens have accomplished or experienced is much more powerful than a magnum opus about hypothetical future plans. 

Colleges want to know who’s stepping on campus, not who might be an amazing future alum. Don’t get us wrong: it’s completely fine for teens to mention their dreams, but the main essay focus should be on what they’ve done thus far to make those dreams a possibility. 

Don’t forget who’s reading the essay. 

One other trap students might fall into is looking at the college essay writing process as just another step in a laundry list of steps. The misconception here is that as long as they can write something in order to check the box and get it out the door, they are primed for the next step. 

This myth couldn’t be further from the truth!

Take a minute to remind your teen that someone important will be reading their essay, and they’ll be doing so with very specific goals in mind. This person will be reading and analyzing each essay carefully, so now is the time to write with intention. 

Point being, now is not the time to be too casual, vague, overly-detailed, or potentially alienating in subject matter. Teens should write about what’s important to them with their audience in mind. Their audience is one or more people who they both need to impress and excite so that they genuinely want to know more about who they are as students, athletes, advocates, and individuals! Write accordingly. 

Don’t forget it’s a competition. 

College admissions committees will be reading a lot of essays, probably thousands of them every year. Have your student put themselves in the college’s shoes and think about reading 100 straight stories of cookie cutter “star students” as these essay writers have written themselves to be. No detail, no uniqueness—just 100 students all painting themselves to be amazing, but without highlighting anything particularly personal, insightful, or meaningful. 

That would certainly have most us reaching for the snooze button. 

Have your student aim to stand out, to be the essay that readers stop and absolutely have to read again because they felt something from it. When this happens, students can expect to shine as that one great student who caught attention and has something to say, and not just another great student. This might be the deciding factor to tip the scales in their favor!

Sure, it can be tempting to pick an essay subject that seems “easy." In fact, something might spring to your student’s mind right away and they could be reluctant to try out multiple ideas. Instead, have your teen try out a few different essay focuses and select the one that is most powerful and potentially unique.

Don’t be too heavy and verbose.

A thesaurus is not a teens' ticket to their college of choice. And yes, an experienced admissions counselor can spot superficially fancy language a mile away. 

If your student’s essay is stuffed full of words that no 18-year-old would probably ever actually use in a sentence, the essay probably won’t help their application. The same goes for run-on sentences, long-winded explanations of simple ideas, and other clutter that will have readers lose interest fast. 

So, try to have them keep their writing light and readable and not so stuffy and formal. The goal is to grab and keep attention with ideas that are easy to understand. Students can add the “wow” factor in clearly describing what the subject means to them, not by adding six syllable words every chance they get. 

Don’t leave essays to the last minute. 

Just don’t do it. Procrastination is only going to lead to stress, careless mistakes, and a lackluster final product. Even if your teen is a stellar writer, a first draft is hardly ever a masterpiece. (Here are some procrastination tips for students.)

So, while the thought of “Meh, I’m only writing about myself, so I’ll have no problem knocking this out in an hour or two” is an easy trap to fall into, encourage your college-bound teen to treat this with care. That means intentional brainstorming, multiple drafts, and careful editing for typos and grammar mistakes. That way, their essay will be a powerful asset, not a detractor from their application as a whole. 

Don’t confuse the essay for the application. 

Once your teen enters the working world, they'll undoubtedly be peppered with guidance like “your cover letter shouldn’t simply be a rehash of your resume,” which is absolutely true. And the same can be said regarding the college essay and application relationship. 

Each application component should be its own part of a complete picture. So rather than repeat information the admissions committee can easily find on their transcripts, the essay should present or expand on something unique. 

Believe it or not, having to complete an application and write essays isn’t just a fun exercise that admissions teams like to put students through. No, instead the two are in place because they should serve different purposes. The essay should showcase an obstacle teens have overcome, a growth example, life lesson, or personal experience that sets them apart in a compelling manner. 

Ready, set, write!

With these words of wisdom, your teen will be set up for success on their college essay! For more expert tips on the wide world of university admissions, check out:

A photo of Ryan

Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!