The Ivy Coach Daily

September 23, 2023

Top 3 Mistakes Students Make on The Common Application Essay

A student in a red uniform kicks towards the goal in a soccer game.
College applicants should avoid writing about sports in their admissions essays at all cost.

Previously Published on April 28, 2011:

At Ivy Coach, we call it a PostMortem. It’s when students who were not our clients come to us in mid-December after they were either deferred or denied in the Early Decision/Early Action round, and they want to understand what went wrong. And while they likely made many mistakes in the admissions process, today, we will focus on the most common mistakes they made in their Common Application Personal Statements.

Choosing the Wrong Topic for Personal Statements

There have been few constants over the last 30 years in which Ivy Coach has been helping students navigate the churning waters of elite college admissions. But one constant is that college applicants overwhelmingly choose the wrong topics to write about in their Common Application Personal Statements. Generally, they tend to write an essay on one of the following six topics. All such topics are third-rail topics that should be avoided, like the plague.

Sports Essays

Unless a student is being recruited by a college’s coach for a sport, the college admissions committee doesn’t care about the student’s athletic prowess. Some parents, in particular, think that write about sports demonstrates leadership, commitment, or perseverance. Wrong. Admissions officers don’t see it that way. They instead see a cliché essay on getting up after tripping during a track race or realizing the importance of teamwork after being demoted to the bench. They’ve read it thousands of times before.

Community Service Essays

So many students think they need to boast about the great work they’ve done for the disadvantaged in their Personal Statements. Maybe they worked at a homeless shelter making beds for the unhoused. Perhaps they volunteered at a hospital, dispersing magazines to patients. Admissions officers have read this thousands of times before, and it will come across precisely how you likely fear it will come across — that you’re trying to convince them that you’re a good person. These sorts of activities were compelling in the 1970s. But they haven’t been compelling for over half a century.

Music Essays

We get it. You’re the first chair violinist and love the camaraderie of playing in the pit. But admissions officers have read thousands of such music essays; frankly, those on the admissions committee are not adept at figuring out a great musician from a good one. So, with few exceptions, because music is rarely a hook at elite universities, students should avoid writing the cliché stream of consciousness essay that focuses on what they’re thinking about while playing a classical piano piece.

Grandparent Essays

It’s so lovely that many students — especially Indian American students (yes, we said it!) — love their grandparents. It seems that many of these students love their grandparents even more than their parents. But admissions officers at our nation’s highly selective universities don’t want to read tributes to grandparents. They want to learn about the students applying for admission. So applicants should share their tributes with their grandparents, if they’re living, but avoid sharing this writing in their Personal Statements.

Travel Essays

When students write about their trip through Europe in their Personal Statements (or any other faraway land), it immediately renders them less likable to admissions officers. In 2023, admissions officers, you see, typically make high five-figure salaries. So they can’t necessarily afford to travel to faraway lands. Thus flaunting wealth is inadvisable. Besides, who wants to read a boring travelogue anyway? And, no, it doesn’t matter if you were building an orphanage in Gabon. Admissions officers would so much prefer to see that you acted locally. Act locally, think globally.

Illness Essays

Woe-is-me essays should be avoided as it will come across as though a student is trying to manipulatively tug on the heartstrings of admissions officers. Suppose a student had a significant illness during a year of high school that impacted their grades. In that case, they can briefly write about this experience in The Common Application’s Additional Information section — but not in the Personal Statement. And, yes, this advice generally applies to illnesses faced by friends and family as well.

Bragging in Personal Statements

So many students — and especially their parents — think it necessary to brag in Personal Statements. They believe a Personal Statement should be filled with everything a student has done so admissions officers at our nation’s elite universities will be persuaded to admit them.

But bragging has the exact opposite impact in the highly selective college admissions process. It will render applicants less likable. It will come across as selling: “I did this, I did that, admit me, admit me.” Bragging is a surefire way to inspire an admissions officer to recommend denying a student admission.

Using Formulaic Writing in Personal Statements

Beginning just about every sentence with “I.” Including SAT words like plethora and copious (we know, you’re so smart now that you’ve learned all these new words!). Including cliché life lessons at the end. Using ChatGPT to outline or write the Personal Statement. After settling on a topic for the Personal Statement, these are just a few things to avoid when putting fingers to keyboards.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with College Admission Essays

If you’re interested in optimizing your case for admission to elite universities by submitting compelling essays that never fall down the trap doors outlined above, fill out Ivy Coach’s free consultation form, and we’ll be in touch to outline our college counseling services.

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