By Jon Fortenbury, USA TODAY College
College application essays scare most of us.
Even if you consider yourself a pretty good writer, the thought of cranking out an essay that will determine whether or not you’ll get into college can leave you in a cold sweat.
But writing that college application essay doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, you can be yourself -- relaxed and sincere. Keep in mind, though, that there are some things you definitely shouldn’t include in your essay.
1. Flat-out lies
This one seems obvious but has to be mentioned. While it’s true that there are a lot of facts about yourself you won’t include (such as all those Justin Bieber songs you have on your iPod), you need to accurately portray the ones you will include.
So, if you say you’ve escaped abject poverty and your high school transcript shows you went to some upper-class private school, college admissions officers are going to see right through that. Just be smart about it and honest, while still making yourself look awesome.
A friend of mine had a fellow creative writing classmate who was writing a memoir about being a waitress. While this might not be the typical dramatic memoir you would find in the best-sellers section of the bookstore, she made it interesting without having to appeal to small or big lies. It’s all in how you spin it.
2. Unnecessarily big words
There’s nothing wrong with big words. But using a word that even admission counselors have to look up in the dictionary is not impressive, it’s annoying. Don’t reach into the dictionary just to sound sophisticated. Use words that make the most sense and convey your message clearly and effectively.
It’s not just big words that will trip you up. I had a journalism professor who hated the word “utilize.” While I would argue there are rare cases where this word is necessary, he’s right: Using the word “use” makes more sense in most cases. Heed the favorite saying of English teachers everywhere: “Don’t use a 10-cent word when a five-cent word will do.”
To be on the safe side, especially for you non-writers, enlist an editor to look over the word choices in your essay before sending it off.
3. A voice that’s not your own
In my many years of helping friends write essays (including college application essays), I’ve noticed that they become a completely different person in their writing. Their writing voice is nowhere near their speaking voice.
Now, I’m not saying you should use slang or interject sentences with the word “umm,” but be yourself.
My sister, who I’ve helped with many of her high school and college essays, becomes almost a different person in writing, saying things like, “The indication of her rhetorical strategy…” when in real life she’d just say, “Her style of persuasion…”
Which sounds better and more likely to be the voice of an 18-year-old? They want to hear from you, not someone else.
4. Tiny examples to prove big points
Don’t say you’re a hard worker because you take out the trash whenever your parents ask you. Small examples and everyday anecdotes can be great, but don’t go too small.
The logic has to connect. Taking out the trash doesn’t equal hard worker. You could have been taking it out to get your parents off your back or because it stunk. What does equal hard worker is you tutoring disabled children at a local school. Then from there, get into small anecdotes, such as teaching a kid how to tie his shoes.
Take notes from President Obama. He mentions a bigger theme, such as unemployment, and pairs it with smaller examples, such as a struggling mother. This personalizes and drives his point home. You taking out the trash doesn’t connect to any grand, noble conclusion on its own.
5. A list of accomplishments
As mentioned in a recent USA TODAY College article, merely listing all of your accomplishments in your college application essay is a terrible use of your 500+ word limit. It’s boring and might lower your chances of acceptance into those universities in Chicago, New York or wherever you’re dying to go.
I once went to a group job interview where the CEO asked us why we wanted the job. One by one, we all made the mistake of listing our accomplishments. When I started out my answer with, “Well, I’ve been writing for so-and-so years,” he stopped me and said, “Jon, I know that. I have your resume. Just answer the question.”
The same idea applies here. Your GPA and extracurricular activities are well-documented elsewhere. This essay is your opportunity to go in-depth on maybe one or two of these accomplishments. Imagine that they’re allowing you to color in one or two paintings at the art gallery that is your life. Which is the most beautiful when painted with detail?
All in all, be yourself, be accurate and display truths and accomplishments you think are worth sharing.