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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. 


To strengthen your essay, make sure you don’t make any common essay mistakes. In this post, we’ll cover some of these mistakes and show you how you can improve your own essays.


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 1


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”. 


Breaking Down This Harvard Essay Example


This essay provides a strong hook and sensory details, such as “the red in every thermometer started to fall alongside the first few snowflakes”. The opening is rich in details, however, the essay moves into a more telling register after this. In paragraph three, the writer states “I wasn’t the first kid whose parents separated, but I felt distant and powerless.” These emotions are too abstract for the reader to grasp. Instead, the writer could continue to use descriptive language, as they do in the introduction. 


The writer describes a shift in their emotional well being in paragraph five, and offers many examples, such as exploring Russian culture, getting involved with chess, basketball, and music rehearsals. However, this feels too crammed into the essay. The writer could greatly improve the focus of the essay by discussing one important activity, rather than providing a list. 


Additionally, the lesson in the concluding paragraph feels vague. Rather than describing how “crises may bring personal instability into one’s life”, the writer could describe a more specific impact. Otherwise, it comes across as vague and cliche. Overall, the piece is fairly well-written, but the lesson feels too broad to fulfill this prompt.


Essay 2


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?

Breaking Down This MIT Essay Example


This piece is mostly well-written, and includes dialogue to drive the storytelling aspect. However, it feels that there is nothing specific about the writer’s impact in their community service work. The positive relationship between the young student and the writer is clear in the dialogue when he says “We’re coloring angels, let me show you!” 


However, the writer needs to build on this interaction to improve this essay. The writer could continue the anecdote and discuss how they helped the child. This piece lacks substance behind the writer’s actual contributions, which is important in community service essays.


In the concluding paragraph, the writer states “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.” Rather than stating that they are making a difference, the author should say specifically what they have done. Additionally, they could cite specific examples of how they have acted as a role model for the children. 


Essay 3


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.

Breaking Down This UPenn Essay Example


The essay begins with an anecdote, but it isn’t that related to their specific interest in marketing. Instead, the writer could’ve begun by expanding upon their experience promoting school events as part of their school’s leadership program.


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. 


In paragraph two, this piece makes a strong claim: “I have always been drawn to areas that allow me to combine my interdisciplinary passions.” However, the author follows with many examples that are much too broad. For example, the author says “I look forward to a varied curriculum that will enable me to pursue an interdisciplinary education”. There are many schools that offer this type of curriculum, so this example is not specific enough for an essay meant to answer how you will explore your interests at UPenn


At the end of the third paragraph, the author states: “By the end of the program, I’d gotten a taste of the resources Penn has to offer to its undergraduate business students.” This claim is followed by the mention of two Wharton courses: Creativity and Strategic Brand Management. Highlighting two specific courses shows admissions officers that the author did their research. However, the author doesn’t form a strong connection between these classes and their interests. Instead, they make a general statement that could likely be applied to many other courses: ‘”Creativity” and “Strategic Brand Management” will challenge me to learn and apply the diversity of technical and interpersonal skills required in the professional world.’ It would have been more impactful for the author to share why these particular courses will help them achieve their goals.


Overall, to strengthen this essay, the student should have referenced specific programs they are interested in and more clearly described how they fit into their overall academic or career goals. See more of our tips for the “Why This Major” essay.


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, which allows you to get feedback on your writing from someone else going through the admissions process. Use it to improve your essay and give feedback to others, which will help improve your own writing skills!



Meghan Lavin
Blog Writer

Short Bio
A teacher, food blogger and avid reader, Meghan is an expert at all things writing and literature. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching, and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Irish Literature and Culture at Boston College currently. Meghan enjoys coffee and cooking.