What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

3 College Essay Examples that Need Improvement

What’s Covered:


If you’re preparing to apply to college, you already know how important your essay is as a part of your complete application. The college application essay demonstrates your strengths, and allows you the opportunity to explain to admissions committees why you are the perfect fit for a school. 


With the increasing popularity of test-optional and test-blind admissions, essays are becoming even more important. The last thing you want is to make simple mistakes that detract from your story. In this post, we’ll are three essay examples that didn’t quite make the mark and explain where they fell short and how they could be improved to make sure you don’t fall into the same traps.


Common College Essay Mistakes


Picking the Wrong Topic 


Admissions counselors are looking for topics that stand out. They seek originality when reviewing college applications, so it’s best to avoid any topics that could be considered cliche or overdone, like a sports injury or personal tragedy. Focus on what makes you stand out as a student, and as a person. Think about what makes you different from your peers, and center your topic around this. 


Writing About Too Much


Avoid repeating what you’ve said in other areas of your application. Write about one area of your life that’s interesting. The college essay isn’t a place for a chronological narrative of your life. You’ll want to focus on one moment, one anecdote that you can build on. The moment can be small, such as a bird you saw on a ledge when you woke up one morning. It can be as simple as a conversation with a friend in a car, or that time you went skydiving. In your college essay, think about how you will use a moment or metaphor as a vehicle for your story. 


Writing Too Formally


Write in your natural voice. Avoid academic jargon and use active voice rather than passive voice. You want to produce an essay that reads as natural as possible, so the meaning of your writing is clear to the admissions committee. Forget about impressing anyone with your top-tier vocabulary. Write how you speak, without any grammatical or spelling errors.


Not Showing Personality


The essay is an opportunity to show the admissions committee what makes you stand out. It’s a reflection of who you are. In the process of trying to build a complete application, don’t treat the essay as a formula to complete. This is your time to shine. Have fun with it, and show your readers what makes you unique. 


Telling Instead of Showing


Rather than giving a summary of your accomplishments, you’ll want to show the reader who you are by building a narrative. This means using sensory details to help your reader experience the story. When you move into telling moments, this pulls your reader away from the narrative. 


For example, if you want to describe a storm, instead of saying that you heard thunder and saw lightning in the sky (telling), say that there was a rumble in the ground and the sky lit up with a fluorescent haze (showing). 


So, now that you know what to avoid when it comes to writing your college essay, what should you do to strengthen your essay? 


How to Strengthen Your College Essay


1. Strong Topic 


Choosing a good topic is essential to a strong college essay. The topic you choose should allow you to answer the essay prompt, while also showcasing who you are.


Keep in mind that your topic should not be a list of your best qualities. Instead, think about an experience or series of experiences that can be expanded upon to provide insight into your character. Pick a memorable experience or exciting revelations, and then use literary devices, like metaphors, to create connections to your personality, identity, and values. The most seemingly simple topics, like walking your dog or participating in a summer program, can be exciting and insightful as long as you share your personality and reflections throughout your essay.


2. Personal Quotient 


Essays are the place to add your personal flair to your application. A great college essay should answer these questions:


  • “Who Am I?”
  • “Why Am I Here?”
  • “What is Unique About Me?”
  • “What Matters to Me?”


Essays are one of the only places on your application where admissions officers can actually hear your voice. While the rest of your application allows the admissions committee to understand you as a student through a collection of scores, grades, and activities, your essays can reveal who you are as a person. Make sure you write in your natural voice so that admissions officers can put a personality to the rest of your application data.


3. Quality Writing and Storytelling 


It’s important to show your writing skills in an essay, and keep your audience engaged. Don’t forget, the essay is different from other parts of your application: it’s a story. That means you need dialogue, action, sensory details, and a strong hook. 


Think about your favorite writers and how they tell a story in a captivating way. Rather than blatantly stating a character’s thoughts or feelings, authors often show these plot points using sensory descriptions or exciting action. You should do the same in your essays! This will allow admissions officers to feel more invested in your story and your application.


College Essay Examples and How They Could Be Improved 


Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 


Essay Example #1


Prompt: You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics: 


Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities.


It was a raw day of what seemed as autumn but suggested winter. The red in every thermometer started to fall alongside the first few snowflakes. The green of the streets started to hide as the frost took control of the landscape. The colors of nature were an odd sight, as though it could not decide what dress it should wear. A cutting, ominous wind blew across the land.


That raw day was my first encounter with real personal crisis. My mind was blank. My head burned intensely. I couldn’t decide if this was a nightmare or a real tragedy. My mom had urged me to do a video call. I didn’t imagine she was the herald of dismal news: my parents were going to split up. Bitterness and sorrow accompanied every tear that my mother shed. She ended the call and l burst into tears. The unexpected news rammed my heart and injured it severely.


My parent’s separation created turmoil inside of me. I wasn’t the first kid whose parents separated, but I felt distant and powerless. I was living abroad for a year. I was thousands of miles from my beloved family. After this event, the chasm between me and my family seemed gargantuan. I lived in a land where I could barely speak the language. The language barrier didn’t allow me to explain how I felt and tears weren’t enough to describe what I was suffering. Even though I was surrounded by my host family and new friends, I felt alone without the ability to communicate. I stopped attending chess school. I rejected offers from my basketball teammates to train. I declined my music teacher’s offer to learn to play a new instrument. I was slowly succumbing to the pain caused by a problem that I couldn’t solve.


My emotional imbalance forced me to ponder about my decisions. Ron wouldn’t have rejected an opportunity to try his new chess tactics. Ron wouldn’t have rejected an opportunity to better his basketball personal high score. Ron wouldn’t have rejected an opportunity to challenge his musical abilities by learning a new instrument. I was ceasing to be myself. I realized I stopped doing what I loved, and instead lamented about the unchanging state of my parent’s ruined marriage. I realized I was throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime by staying home crying for something I couldn’t repair. I suddenly opened my eyes to my reality. I was living in Russia. I was living in the land of ballet, the land of scientific discovery, the land of music. I made the resolute decision to take advantage of the place I lived in, and fight through my pain whilst doing it. I kept myself busy with activities, as to not leave time for my mind to wander. I spent my afternoons in chess practices, basketball training, and music rehearsals. I started to play in chess tournaments, basketball matches and even had my first musical recital. I had filled my heart with joy from nourishing activities and had forgotten my internal grief.


Social, emotional, physical or even religious crises may bring personal instability into one’s life. The fact that I lived far away from my loved ones brought a more severe emotional instability. Nonetheless, this instability gave me the opportunity to mature and grow both emotionally and intellectually. Commitment to my daily activities not only helped me grow as a musician, as a chess player, as a basketball player, and as a person, but it also helped me encounter myself after being lost in grief. By finding a safe haven in my activities, I discovered a way to soothe the pain I felt. Through this state of entropy, I discovered that “times of personal crisis and inner turmoil” is just a euphemism for “opportunities and chances to thrive”. 


Why This Essay Isn’t Strong


Although this essay has a nice story at its core, there are multiple weak points that ultimately overwhelm the essay and confuse the reader.


Creative language: While this student was hoping to convey a sophisticated writing style, the inundation of metaphors, lofty diction, and irrelevant imagery severely distracts from the story and gives the impression this student used a thesaurus for every other word. The entire introductory paragraph has nothing to do with the essay except to demonstrate this student can describe the weather. Phrases like “herald of dismal news” and “rammed my heart and injured it severely” feel overly dramatic and out of place in a 17 year old’s conversational vocabulary. Yes, you want to put your best foot forward in your writing, but it has to be your words and not a thesaurus.


Grammar: Something as simple as grammar can make or break your essay. Unfortunately, this student had multiple grammar mistakes that are hard to ignore. “It was a raw day of what seemed as autumn but suggested winter,” “I didn’t imagine she was the herald of dismal news,” and “My emotional imbalance forced me to ponder about my decisions,” are just a few examples.


Too much repetition: Repetition can be a great tool in writing to create flow or emphasize certain points, but in this essay the combination of repeating sentence structure and ideas makes the essay feel unvaried and a bit monotonous. This student starts sentence after sentence with “I” and repeats the phrases “I lived” and “I realized.” On top of that, the pattern of chess, basketball, and music is repeated—in that same order—four times throughout the essay. It’s okay to focus on these three interests, but bringing them up in the same order multiple times makes the essay predictable.


Assuming the reader knows too much: You don’t want your college essay to spell everything out for the reader, but at the same time you don’t want each new piece of information to come out of left field and shock them. This student casually brings up that they were abroad in the third paragraph without any explanation as to why. They also refer to themselves in the third person (“Ron wouldn’t…“), but at first glance it might not be evident that they are talking about themselves and the reader might wonder who Ron is.


How It Could Be Improved


So, how could this essay address each of the pain points addressed above?


Trust in your voice: Rather than feeling the need to inject creative language and sophisticated diction into every sentence, rely on your natural writing style to truly convey to admissions officers who you are. A good practice is to write your first draft completely in your own voice and then when your editing you can change a few words or phrases, but make sure the majority of your writing sounds more like a conversation you would have with a friend or teacher rather than a formal essay.


Proofread. Proofread. Proofread: The best way to catch grammar mistakes is to read over your essay multiple times. With each reread you will catch a sentence that sounds clunky or a typo that doesn’t belong. However, you shouldn’t be the only one proofreading your essay. Give it to a friend, parent, or teacher so a fresh pair of eyes can help you perfect your grammar. Or, you can get an expert at CollegeVine to look over your essay!


Vary sentence structure: To combat the over-repetitiveness in this essay this student needs to employ more creative sentences that play with the subject and predicate. These sentences, “I stopped attending chess school. I rejected offers from my basketball teammates to train. I declined my music teacher’s offer to learn to play a new instrument” could become: “From ditching chess practice to skipping training sessions to abandoning my potential to learn the oboe, everything became meaningless.”


Clear organization: The reader can easily get confused when new details are randomly introduced because of this essay’s lack of organization, so mapping out a clear flow of the story from beginning to middle to end would be beneficial. This essay should have begun with a depiction of this student’s life abroad in Russia, joyfully participating in the activities they abandon later. Then it would present the conflict of the divorce and the emotional turmoil the student experienced. Finally, they would demonstrate how their mindset shifted and what they learned. Presenting information in an organized, chronological way would greatly increase the reader’s ability to follow along.


Essay Example #2


Prompt: At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)


“Big Boy is back!” a child exclaimed excitedly, brandishing a marker and running towards me.


Having just walked into the room of the local nursery program at my church where I often volunteered, I couldn’t help but be amused. No matter how many times I told the kids my real name, I would always be known as “Big Boy.”


“Hey Sam! What are we doing today?” I asked enthusiastically, eyeing the chaotically moving marker that was inches away from my face. 


“We’re coloring angels, let me show you!” he responded. Looking at his multi-colored hands, I could only imagine the masterpieces he and the other kids had created.


When I tell people I’m interested in pursuing engineering, the last place they expect me to be spending my Sunday mornings is at a church hanging out with a bunch of little kids. Yet, that’s exactly where I’ll be. After they get over their disbelief, they often ask why, of all places, I would want to spend my time at such a chaotic place. The answer is simple: kids are fun! They do the most adorable things, and they surprise you in the best ways. But beyond that, I do it because I feel I can make a difference. I’ve watched many of these kids grow up since I started in 7th grade, and they always tell me that I’m their role model. If I can have such an impact on the life of a child, then why shouldn’t I continue?


Why This Essay Isn’t Strong


At first glance you might think this essay is good—it has a surprising hook, it engages the reader with dialogue, and it includes the student’s playful voice. The big issue with this essay is it barely addresses the prompt and and the conversation with the kid has very little to do with the reflection the student provides at the end.


The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate your role within a given community. We want to see what your role is, what it entails, how the community has been affected, and hopefully how you have been affected or changed because of your involvement. We know that this student’s role is volunteering at a church nursery program, but that’s about it. 


While the final paragraph mentions “I do it because I feel I can make a difference“, the rest of the essay doesn’t address this at all. The student refers to themself as “their role model” and yet the dialogue that encompasses half the essay doesn’t show us how this student is a role model nor how they’ve watched kids grow up and witnessed their impact. 


What Could Be Improved


This essay could easily be improved by tweaking the conversation with the little kid. Rather than making it about the student’s nickname and coloring, they could have discussed a conversation they had about teaching kids to work through a disagreement or how they inspired a group to start a hobby this student loves themself. The actual topic could vary but the important idea is conveying that this student is a role model and is making a difference in the lives of these children. 


It could also be nice to include details about older kids that they started working with a few years ago so the reader can actually see the impact of this student in the community. For example, maybe they use to kick a soccer ball around with a kid when they were in the program and now that kid is eight and they joined a local soccer team because they want to play varsity in high school like the student. An anecdote like that demonstrates a tangible impact this student had and makes it very easy to see how they are a role model.


Essay Example #3


Prompt: How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (For students applying to the coordinated dual-degree and specialized programs, please answer these questions in regard to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.) (350-400 words)


My second grade accomplishment of being designated “Star of the Week” came with the  requirement of filling out a poster about myself. Besides telling the world my favorite snack, I had to write down my favorite subject and why—a box I ended up cramming, in the smallest handwriting possible, full of every single subject we’d explored at age seven. 


I have always been drawn to areas that allow me to combine my interdisciplinary passions. When I had the chance to promote school events as part of my school’s Leadership program, I realized that Marketing is one such subject. So I started seeking more venues to learn about the field. 


One of these opportunities came in the form of Wharton’s own Leadership in the Business World program. The RTAs-residential teaching assistants-helped me focus on the arena of  marketing as I conducted research on target markets and branding strategies to apply to our team’s startup. By the end of the program, I’d gotten a taste of the resources Penn has to offer to its undergraduate business students. 


At Wharton, I look forward to a varied curriculum that will enable me to pursue an interdisciplinary education which is strong in business and also offers a well-rounded General Education. Classes like “Creativity” and “Strategic Brand Management” will challenge me to learn and apply the diversity of technical and interpersonal skills required in the professional  world. 


I also look forward to the chances outside the classroom where I will be able to pursue my  interest in Marketing. I can join the MUSE organization (maybe under the Creative agency),  where upperclassmen and working professionals will mentor me in my education and career. I can look for opportunities to do research with professors like Dr. Kahn about brand loyalty or  visual design. At the Wharton School, the resources-faculty, curriculum, network-are abundant and diverse, making it the perfect place for me to pursue my interest in Marketing.


Why This Essay Isn’t Strong


This essay makes a good effort, but ultimately feels flat and generic. To begin with, the story at the beginning was a nice attempt to establish pathos with a callback to their student’s childhood, but it doesn’t serve the essay at all. The whole essay is about pursuing marketing, therefore an anecdote about them discovering marketing would have been a much stronger opening. Instead of casually mentioning the “chance to promote school events as part of my school’s Leadership program“, they could have shown the reader what that program looked like and why it piqued their interest.


In the body of the essay, there are many places where the author falls short in making connections between their own interests and UPenn’s unique resources. Highlighting Penn’s “interdisciplinary education which is strong in business” is by no means a unique school-specific offering, and the classes this student chose are pretty generic business classes. This student tells us what they will get out of these classes, but not why they want to take them. What prior experiences drew them to a class about creativity?


The student also mentions a club they want to join and a professor who’s research interests them, but again these aren’t Penn specific and there is a lack of personal connection. Why is learning about brand loyalty and visual design so important to this student? The reader gets no insight to the deeper emotional connection this student has to marketing. This essay is a prime example of how name dropping school resources isn’t enough.


How It Could Be Improved


The biggest change this essay could make would be to elaborate on their personal connection and fascination with marketing and UPenn. What would that look like?


To start, they would place us in the action at their school’s leadership program: describing the project they were working on, the creative ideas running through their head, and the adrenaline coursing through their body as they watched their marketing campaign get launched. 


The paragraph about Wharton’s Business program would be reworked to put the emphasis on the student’s startup and the process they went through to develop a marketing strategy, rather than what the program provided generally to all students.


When they discuss classes, clubs, and professors at Penn, the student would go into detail about why they are choosing this specific opportunity over anything else. How does it relate to their previous experiences? What skills are they hoping to develop and why? How will their future be impacted by participating in this particular opportunity? Each resource at Penn they mention has to drive home two points: the student will benefit from this opportunity and they could only have this at UPenn.


Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free


Writing college essays is hard; you need to show your personality, engage the reader, and answer the prompt fully. It’s important to get a second set of eyes on your essay so you can avoid these common college essay mistakes. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 


If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Short Bio
Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.