The 18 Most Common Essay-Writing Mistakes

Many colleges ask for an essay to learn more about why you are returning to school. We want to share with you the 18 most common essay-writing mistakes. These are mistakes that students commit every year and that have a disastrous effect on their chances of getting admitted. Learn from their mistakes so you don't commit any of these errors in your own essays.

1. Not answering the question.

It may seem like an obvious mistake, but many applicants don't answer the question. Or they answer part of the question but not all of it. If you are asked about a time that you've been a leader and the impact that your leadership had, don't just describe when you have been a leader. Make sure to also address the impact of your leadership. This is a mistake that many students make when recycling their essays or using the same essay for more than one school. If you do recycle essays, edit them carefully to make sure that they completely answer the question asked.

2. Showing that you know nothing about the school.

Colleges and graduate schools take pride in the fact that they each have their own strengths. They want to see you address those strengths and how you will benefit from them. While it can be tempting to copy and paste the essays from one school to another, you'll want to instead make sure that each essay addresses the strengths of each school. Admission officers can tell when essays are so general that you have used them to apply to multiple schools or haven't done your homework about the strengths of their program. In at least one of the essays, be sure you show how the school's particular strengths match your needs.

3. Parroting back what's on the website or brochure.

To try to show their knowledge about a particular school, some applicants go to the school's website or brochure and copy text from them into their essays. Admission officers are oftentimes the ones who write this material, and it does not impress them to see their own descriptions of their schools in essays. Do your own research. Visiting a school or at least talking to some of its students and faculty by telephone is critical. By doing so you can include in your essays what you have learned from sitting in on classes, interacting with students or observing an activity. This kind of insight demonstrates that you have taken the time to research the school and understand what it has to offer.

4. Assuming the persona of who you think the school wants.

Some applicants try to be who they think the admission officers want them to be. They exaggerate strengths that they think will impress the school or even try to flatter the admission officers by declaring that their school is the only one for them. Unless you mean it, the admission officers will see through this hyperbole. It is better to reveal your honest intentions, strengths and opinions. You will produce more genuine and believable essays that will ultimately help you get admitted.

5. Not revealing enough about you.

The questions you answer may be about your family, a figure you'd like to have dinner with or travel you've done. But the bottom line is that the admission officers ask these questions as a way to learn about you. So instead of writing an autobiography of a historical figure or a detailed travelogue of the places you've been, make sure the focus is still on you. If you were writing about a historical figure you might write about what you would want to learn from him or her and why this is important to you. If you were writing about travel, you would want to spend time on how it has affected you versus your daily itinerary. In other words, regardless of the question, remember that the essay is still about you.

6. Trying to be funny when you're not.

It takes a very skilled writer to write a humorous essay. If you're not this type of writer, the essay is not the place to try to be. You can't miraculously change your writing style overnight. Often an attempt at humor may appear trite or plain silly. It's better to stick to your own style.

7. Not knowing why you want to go back to school.

While answering the questions, you will need to explain why you want to go back to school. The more you understand your motivations, the stronger your essays will be. You don't need to have every step of your future career worked out because admission officers understand that a college or graduate degree will help you figure this out. But you do need to have some good reasons about why you want a degree at this point in life.

8. Forgetting to tie in your goals with the school.

It's important that you not only explain your career goals but also elaborate on how the school will help you to achieve these goals. Admission officers want to see this connection. This helps them to see what you will gain from attending their school.

9. Not writing about individual achievements.

While it's important to show that you can be a team player, it is also important to define your individual accomplishments. Some students only write about their accomplishments as a part of a team but never address what they contributed as an individual. This is a big mistake. If you are writing about a group accomplishment, make sure to describe how you individually contributed to the success of the group.

10. Writing a resume in paragraph form.

Essays should be more than glorified resumes. In other words, don't just list your accomplishments. Describe the importance of them and what you have gained from the experiences. Analyze and reflect on their value.

11. Not explaining what you have learned.

More important than your actual accomplishments is what you have gained from them. This is the key piece of information that admission officers want to know. As you're writing the essays, think about what you have gotten out of the experience, how you would approach a similar situation differently and how you have applied your knowledge to other interactions.

12. Running out of time.

It is a mistake to think that you can develop meaningful essays overnight. Thinking about your goals, the meaning of a college or graduate school education and your life's accomplishments takes a lot of quality time. Give yourself enough time to think about what you've done and what you believe in to develop the strongest essays possible.

13. Not having a point.

As you are writing the essays, it's not enough for the essays to be well written and tell a good story. They also need to convey a message to the admission officers. In other words, what strengths do they reveal? How do they portray you? What impression do they leave? Try to take a step back to examine the message that you are sharing with the reader through your essay. If you can't find it, then your essay is probably lacking in focus.

14. Weak introspection or analysis.

Admission officers don't just want to know about your actions. They want to get inside of your head to understand your thoughts and motivations. Try to share what you are thinking to give them a better idea of who you are. Admission officers expect to see both self-reflection and analysis in the essays.

15. Skimping on editors.

It's difficult to edit your own essays when you are so close to the material. One of the best ways to improve your work is by having someone else give you feedback. Find colleagues, friends and family members who are strong writers to look at your work. Ask them to point out weaknesses, to check for continuity and to make suggestions on how to strengthen your messages. Their feedback is a necessity to write a successful essay.

16. Losing your voice through the editing process.

While it is critical to get feedback from editors, it is equally important that you use the feedback as a guideline for your writing but that you still retain your own voice. You don't want your work so heavily edited that it no longer sounds like you. Similarly, if you blindly accept everyone's suggestions you might end up with an essay written by committee rather than by you. Editing should enhance your writing, not take the place of it.

17. Not proofreading.

Almost every admission officer can point to an essay each year in which an applicant writes the wrong school's name. A little proofreading can go a long way. It's not enough to use the computer's spell check. Take the time to read each word of the essays and check grammar, punctuation and spelling. Or if you aren't skilled in copyediting, find someone who is.

18. Not taking some time away from your writing.

Like a fine Napa wine, essays take time to develop. Often the best way to improve the essays is to take a break from writing them. So write the essays and then allow yourself some time away. When you return to look at them you'll have a fresh perspective and will be able to see how you can improve them.

These are the most common essay-writing mistakes. Keep these in mind as you write your own masterpiece. Simply by avoiding these mistakes you can save yourself a lot of unnecessary aggravation, and you will ensure that you have the strongest essay possible.