College Application Essay Guidance, Writing

The Bad Essay

accept or deny designIn last week’s post, I discussed whether an essay can make or break an admissions decision. The answer: it depends. If you don’t have “the goods”—the grades and test scores—a good or even great essay will rarely push you from the “Deny” to the “Accept” pile. But if you land in the “Maybe” pile, a strong essay can make a difference.

How about if you write a “bad” essay?  Can it push you from “Accept” or “Maybe” to “Deny”?


Bad essays come in many forms:

  • Poorly written:
    • Careless grammar, misspellings, incorrect vocabulary usage, convoluted.
    • Solution: Do a careful self-edit and ask a teacher or essay professional to review your draft.
  • No point or no story:
    • Wanders, recounts a history rather than telling a story, leaves reader at end wondering what was the point.
    • Solution: Be very clear on the point you are trying to make. Can you say it in one sentence? If not, keep working until you can. Then edit your essay to ensure that every sentence is helping you make this point.
  • Clichéd:
    • Tired topics that make admissions officers’ eyes glaze over, such as:
      • “I tried out for the team and didn’t make it, and then I tried out again and I made it. I am really determined and work really hard.”
      • “I went on this community service trip and discovered that everyone is really the same. And I got more out of the experience than the people I was helping.”
    • Using clichés in your essay, such as:
      • cutting edge, I learned my lesson, I always learn from my mistakes, I know my dreams will come true, I can make a difference, _________ is my passion, I no longer take my loved ones for granted, these lessons are useful both on and off the field, I realize the value of hard work and perseverance, was the greatest lesson of all, I know what it is to triumph over adversity, xx opened my eyes to a whole new world.
    • Solution: If you write something you’ve heard said the same way before, it’s probably a cliché. Circle those phrases and try to make the same point in an original way. Ask a teacher or essay professional to review your essay for clichés.
  • Unflattering self-portrait:
    • Tells a story that shows you in a poor light and makes you unlikeable, such as:
      • “I used to be a mean girl. (75% of the essay is spent on all the “bad” things the student used to do). Then I changed and I became a compassionate leader.” (25% of essay devoted to the “good,” to the change.)
      • “I used to be a selfish player on the soccer team, only thinking of myself. (75% of essay.) Then I saw the light and I became a selfless leader and was elected captain.” (25% of essay.)
    • Solution: Choose a story that focuses on your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you choose a story that shows how you have changed, make sure the vast majority of the essay is dedicated to the “new” you, the “changed” you, the “positive” you.

The “Bad Essay” is to be avoided at all costs. Even if you are qualified academically, if you come off as unlikeable, arrogant, careless or lazy, your admissions file can easily be tossed into the Deny pile.

Don’t self-sabotage and give colleges a reason to deny your application! Take advantage of  Montauk Writer‘s free tips for writing effective essays.

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