One of the best qualities that any college applicant can have is confidence. Confident applicants are comfortable enough with themselves and the people around them to foster a supportive and innovative environment on campus, and are thus a welcome addition to any entering freshman class.

As such, colleges are constantly on the lookout for signs of confidence: interviewers hope to find a firm handshake and a self-assured smile, and adcoms like a touch of sanguine, humanistic positivity in both recommendations and essays. However, the line between confidence and overconfidence is a very fine one. Because of the ever-present expectation for applicants to appear self-assured, many students actually end up overshooting their mark and coming off as overconfident, especially in the tone of their writing.

Even if you think that your writing is generally modest, you should still check for these common pitfalls just in case. Most overconfident writing is done unintentionally, and, well, one more proofread never hurt anyone.

  1.     Different, not evil.

The only predictable thing about adcoms is their unpredictability; it’s hard to know exactly who will be reading your writing, so it’s difficult to tailor your writing to a certain person or group’s sensitivities. While this doesn’t mean that your writing should be boring and milquetoast (this is another bad extreme), it does mean that you have to write a little more carefully than you usually do.

As a general rule, conflicts between people should be written as differences in preference or personality. The only constant exception to this rule is if the essay is about you learning to accept personal differences; then, it’s okay to start off the essay with stronger language, but resolve it in a difference of personality by the end.

For instance, the English major black sheep of a STEM family might want to write that her family was “too logical, too rigid; they didn’t see the point in poetry and words and things that were alive. How could they be so stagnant – so dead?”

While this is okay to start things off with, this becomes a problem if her entire essay continues in this same tone. Then, this tone becomes one that shows prejudice and closed-mindedness towards an entire half of academia. It makes the writer seem prone to stereotyping and overgeneralization, and makes her look pretentious and stuck-up. A better way to handle the same situation would be to describe the concrete differences between the English discipline and the STEM subjects, and to frame the same situation through the lens of a personality difference. While the writer likes flexibility and interpretation, her family prefers definite answers and explication.

To sum things up, characters in college essays should be portrayed as different from yourself, but not inherently bad (at least, by the end of the essay). Boil things down to the actual, specific differences between you and them. This way, you can show that you are not only open-minded enough to understand the other side of the argument, but are tolerant enough to respect personal differences.

You should definitely watch out for this pitfall when your essay involves you being the “odd one out” or you trying something and not liking it. If you find yourself complaining about something or someone, always give it a second look. Even indirect things like “I’m raising awareness for the arts, which are underappreciated in my society” or “I couldn’t work in a lab anymore; it was too constricting, too abstruse, too impersonal and didn’t allow me to play with my ideas” can be the crucial difference between feeling good about yourself and feeling too good about yourself.

  1.     Show, don’t tell.

Imagine that there’s a new kid in class, and you decide to chat him up because he looked like a nice person. After the hellos and how-are-yous, he suddenly turns to you and says, apropos of nothing:

“I’m a visionary.”

Seeing your reaction (or lack thereof), he clears his throat and continues.

“Ever since I remember, I’ve always had these great ideas that everyone around me thought was great. I can intuit the way things are going to go and know when an opportunity should be taken. Before I knew it, everyone was picking me for leadership positions and would always come to me for advice. I’ve done a lot of impressive things too – want to hear about them?”

Keep in mind that you’ve exchanged a total of fewer than 50 words with this person; enough to know that he’s from Chicago, but not much else. Yet, he’s already bombarding you with facts about himself without any context whatsoever. You don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not (you have no way of knowing), and it’s not even presented in a particularly interesting way.

This is the situation adcoms are met with when they read an essay that tells, but doesn’t show. It not only reads like a litany, but also makes your text come off as superficial, tautological and self-centered, as if you’re forcing knowledge about yourself onto the reader.

Now, your personality is a key part of a college essay. But how you present it can make or break you. Usually, you want to stay away from directly assigning personality traits to yourself in the essay – especially traits that would normally appear only after you’ve known another person for a long time (like being a visionary, for instance).

Instead, tell stories about yourself that illustrate these traits that you have – if you’re a good leader, for instance, you can devote a section of your essay to the time you led your robotics club to victory at a competition. By narrating a story like this, you make your essay easier on the eyes for the reader (it’s always more entertaining to read a story than a list of facts), and provide some evidence for the personality traits that you have. There’s also more of a chance for you to make a stronger impression on the adcoms; if they can sympathize with and relate to your stories, you’ll be that much more memorable.

  1.     Don’t complain about having good qualities.

This one’s relatively straightforward. Don’t complain about being something generally perceived as good, such as being smart, being wealthy, being kind, and so on. There is no faster way to turn someone’s opinion against you.

Instead, write about the actual problem that this good trait gives you. Instead of writing that you’re too smart for others to understand you, spin the story so that it’s one of trying to find acceptance and someone who has compatible thought patterns. Instead of writing that you get taken advantage of because you’re too kind, describe the problem as one of balancing others’ needs with your own. By framing your stories in this way, you’ll come off as more approachable and relatable.

  1.     Don’t list your ECs in your essay.

This one’s also straightforward. Yes – you should be proud of all the great things you’ve done! But don’t do it in your essay; that’s what the extracurricular section of these applications are for.

Listing your ECs in your essay is redundant and a waste of the adcoms’ time; chances are, they’ve already read about your ECs by the time they read your essay. It also makes it seem like you don’t have much to say about your personality, so you’re just re-using your ECs to take up space in the essay.

If you absolutely must list ECs for contextual purposes, try to keep things general. Instead of listing out the names of every award you’ve won and every event that you’ve performed for, simply cover it all with a broad umbrella statement. If you’ve been active in science events since childhood, for instance, just say “I’ve won many awards at science competitions” (although even then you should try to avoid saying much about your awards in the first place). No need to get specific; they already know.

  1.     A second opinion, please.

Now, this really isn’t a common mistake, but more a word of advice. You usually will not be the best gauge of how you come off to a reader when you write, and you definitely won’t be once you’ve been scrutinizing the same personal statement for a month. Always get a second person to read your essay, and make sure to ask about your tone.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, one way to get an accurate reading on how you sound is to present your reader the paper, but say it isn’t yours. Tell your reader that you’re proofreading a friend’s paper, and you’re not sure, but you think some parts might sound a little cocky. Most people will give you their honest opinion about how the paper sounds this way, and you’ll be able to catch more mistakes.


Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si