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How To Be Rejected By Your College Essay

It is an American obsession for high school students to get in to well known colleges. But many students think that even if they have less than stellar grades in high school, that they may be able to get into a great school just by writing a top-notch essay. The internet is filled with sample essay questions, professional essay writing services, and a lot of advice as to how to write to get into a particular college. In reality, those who work in higher education like myself know the exact purpose and rules for a college essay, plus why they are used in the first place. Without understanding these, students risk falling in to the common traps that can lead their essay to get them rejected from a college.

Directors of admissions at even famous colleges emphasize that an essay only has a one specific role: It is to help the college to get to know an applicant beyond the quantitative aspects in their application such as GPA, courses taken, and AP credits earned. They want to get to know the student’s personality, outlook on life, and above all how they would fit with the school’s student body. These Directors also add that, while an essay might be used as a tiebreaker between students for admissions or to explain a situation that accounts for bad grades, essays do not carry more weight than classroom performance in admission decisions. The bottom line is that student grades will speak much more loudly for admissions than an essay will since these reflect student skill, perseverance, and the ability to learn new things. I’ve even had some admissions staff at larger colleges tell me that they are so busy that don’t even read essays because they get far too many applicants, so always the purpose of writing an essay in context.

Based on not only the feedback from admission offices I’ve spoken with over the many years I’ve been working with students, and on helping students with essays themselves, there are some things that can cause you to get yourself rejected from a college by your essay. Just a handful include:

You Didn’t Clearly Show Your Positive Traits

Colleges are looking for students who would be a good addition to their student body, and this is especially true for smaller and competitive schools. You’ll want to make sure that you show all of your positive traits in some way in a college essay and not just leave it to them to guess. Showing that you are kind, caring, humanitarian, and would be a compassionate person to have walking around on their campus is extremely important. If you volunteered to help people, took care of animals at of shelter, or participated in community events then you should say so in your essay. Colleges want to get to know you better through your essay, so tell them about your positive qualities that they would want to know.  Your scientific curiosity, your love of the arts, or your pursuit of independent knowledge through reading – these are things that a college would want to hear about and would see as positive traits that are not reflected in your academic record. Many colleges often don’t want to add uni dimensional overachievers that think about nothing else except grades, they want a student of diverse interests and perspectives, or is otherwise “well rounded.”

You Showed Negative Traits In Your Answer

Colleges have become progressively more conscientious about who exactly they add to their student body. Think about the tragic history of various campus shootings across to the United States, and you can see why making sure that they only allow students in who would be “good fit” is critical for them.  Exhibiting anything that could be seen as a negative trait in a college essay, in what you say or what you have done in the past, can often be a fast way to get your application rejected. Answers to essay questions or even supplemental questions can often serve as a red flag for a prospective college, so be very aware of this before you submit your answers. Describing or supporting violence, extremism, hate, or other negative qualities will virtually guarantee that show that you are not a good fit with the student body that they want to protect (and this includes on your social media account, which colleges often check). But this is not their only concern. Some college admissions departments have told me that if there is a gap in attendance for the student they will want a clear explanation about it, frankly because they want to make sure that the student was not in legal trouble or even incarcerated at the time. Always be careful with your answers for any college essay to not show characteristics that would give a college concern when reviewing your essay. These can include political, religious, or social views, but in reality this includes anything else that might give them a bad impression.

You Didn’t Actually Answer The Question

One of the most common beginners mistakes that college Professors see is when a student, who seemingly writes a great essay at first glance, gets a low grade because they simply didn’t answer the question. Many students can write very beautiful, flowery prose, but in the final analysis they don’t actually do what the Professor asked. I also see the same mistake when students write college essays. They believe that their essay will show their intelligence, so they used obscure vocabulary and try to be clever, only to hit the word limit without without answering what was asked. Believe it or not, writing isn’t actually part of intelligence tests, and a college essay certainly isn’t the place to try to show off. Any admissions essay is to learn more about the student, including whether they can follow instructions and remain on-task. Before writing an essay, always carefully read the question and ask yourself “what are they really asking me to do?” You should refer back to the question as you draft your answer to make sure what you write is relevant to what it asks. Always remember that no college essay is more important than grades, unless you are accounting for special circumstances that impacted them. Regardless of your answer, never focus more on sounding impressive than on actually answering the question, since getting off track is a fast way to show a college you can’t stay focused and follow through.

You Didn’t Individualize Your Answers

Students have been applying to more and more colleges over recent years, and it’s not unusual to have a few back up schools among them. But this trend can also give way to laziness when it comes to writing a college essay, which can manifest in a student’s writing as generic-sounding essays, especially for any back up or reach schools. No respectable college wants to receive an essay that reads between the lines as “I’m just taking a shot here,” as if they would admit students by lottery. To the greatest extent possible, college essay answers should be individualized to the college itself, since they will want to add students who have seriously looked in to them and are certain they want to attend there. If you did a campus visit then say so, or if you know of the work by a certain Professor then mention that in your answer. Check their website to find things you would be interested in, such as student clubs, organizations, or classes you would want to take then mention these in your essay. Your direct knowledge of the school will validate to the college that you are certain you want to be there, and then they can have confidence that they would be making a good decision if they did offer your admissions.

You Didn’t Write The Essay Yourself

Colleges have grown increasingly serious about issues like honesty and integrity over recent years, and in the last decade they have become adamant on the subject. Students routinely have to take exams in a special “lock down” browser, submit papers to anti-plagiarism software, and follow other procedures set forth to ensure student honesty in the work that they submit. This view also includes the application process, where colleges can and will reject students at the first sign of dishonesty. The expectation that all colleges have when they read a student essay is that the student wrote it, and that it comes from no other source. Therefore be clear that using chat AI, professional essay writers, or copying it off of the internet is strictly forbidden. In fact, when you submit an application, there is always a clause that essentially asks the student to affirm that they have been honest in what they are submitting. Even if a student is admitted to a college, and their dishonesty is later discovered, the admission decision can be rescinded or they can be expelled even if they moved on to campus. In other words, if you feel that you can just ask a chat bot or hand it off to a professional service to write a killer essay for you, it is going to show in the writing. College admissions committees are not stupid, they represent professionals with multiple advanced degrees and years of reading authentic student writing. If the words were written by a professional, chat bot, or any other source but a college-level applicant it will be very apparent, and their response will be a rejection letter.

In Summary

Always keep in mind that the purpose of a college essay is for a college to learn more about a student, beyond what they can see from just grades, SAT scores, or AP credits earned. Essays are a chance to show your positive qualities, and to emphasize why you would be a good addition to their student body. Always make sure that you individualize your essay to a particular college, generic essays will not be as convincing to schools when you make your case for admission. Also make sure that you actually stick to the question when answering, if you get off track the words may sound nice but they may not actually answer what was asked. Finally, always write college essays yourself, since it can be construed as academic dishonesty if you don’t. Writing college essays is a rite of passage for students, and a badge of honor when you are admitted – so take your time and enjoy the process.

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