3 College Essay Mistakes Your Teen Needs to Avoid

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: 3 College Essay Mistakes Your Teen Needs to Avoid

Written by: Brad Schiller

After thousands of conversations with college-bound students about college admissions, I’ve learned that for the vast majority of students, writing their college essay is the most dreaded and difficult part of the college application process.

What makes it particularly challenging is that the essay has never been more vital to students’ applications and their ability to get admitted into their target and reach schools.

Why Your Teen Needs a Strong College Essay More Than Ever

First, many schools have moved to test-optional applications, leading some students to submit applications without ACT and SAT test scores. When admissions officers have less information to review and make a decision, the remaining information, including the essay, becomes even more telling and essential. 

Second, schools are receiving a record number of applications, yet they are not adding additional spots for students. That means the admissions rate for many colleges is on the decline. The bottom line is, it’s harder than ever to get into college.

Third, recent admissions data revealed that a strong college essay can increase your teen’s chances of admission by up to 10X. In other words, the essay matters… a lot

To help your teen write a strong essay, look out for these three mistakes, which are well-intended but misinformed. 

3 College Essay Mistakes Your Teen Needs to Avoid


Mistake #1 Believing They Just Need to “Tell Their Story”

You’ve probably heard this advice from admissions officers or school counselors. However, the tricky part is that what admissions officers are looking for must be taken into consideration when telling any story.

When students hear “just tell your story,” oftentimes, they end up making two mistakes that harm their writing process:

#1 They believe that how they write is far more important than what they write. In other words, they become focused on flowery language, clever metaphors, and other elements of style. While integrating stories, metaphors, etc. isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if done correctly, what you don’t want to do is focus solely on the clever wording without placing enough emphasis on the power of the message. 

#2 By focusing on their story, they place the emphasis on themselves as opposed to considering their audience, which is the most important factor when writing a college essay. Ultimately, admissions officers are looking for students who will be successful in college and after college. So, while it’s important for students to share their story, it’s equally as important to position themselves as a student who will be successful on campus and post-graduation. The best way for students to achieve this is to present their story, their strengths and their ideas in a clear, compelling, and well-structured way.

Mistake #2 Soliciting Too Much Help from Family, Teachers, Relatives, Etc.

Your teen may know friends, relatives, or teachers who are great writers. But be careful with thinking these individuals will provide helpful feedback on your teen’s college essay. These well-meaning helpers may give your teen feedback without having a true understanding of what admissions officers are actually looking for.

When writing their essay, students need to keep the five traits that college admission officers are actually looking for in mind.

  1. Drive 
  2. Intellectual curiosity
  3. Initiative
  4. Contribution
  5. Diversity of experience

Instead of trying to write an essay based on feedback they’re receiving from friends, family members, co-workers, etc., they need to stay laser-focused on writing an essay that demonstrates how they have one or more of these five traits. 

Mistake #3 Thinking It Takes Months to Write a Stellar Essay

Of course, it’s important for students to take the essay-writing process seriously. However, they don’t need to painstakingly stress over their essay for weeks (or months) on end. This is one of the biggest myths about college essays.

Rather than agonizing over their essay, here is a process that has worked for thousands of college applicants I’ve worked with, along with the time allotment for each step:

  • Day 1: Brainstorm content (45 minutes)
  • Day 2: Create an outline (30 minutes)
  • Day 3: Write the first draft (30 minutes)
  • Day 4: Revise, based on feedback (75 minutes)
  • Day 6: Get more feedback, and revise again (30 minutes)
  • Day 8: Final read-through and polish (30 minutes)

Although every student will approach their college essay in their own unique way, I’ve found, through data and experience, that students can write a strong college essay in about 4 hours of focused work – especially if they summon the assistance of a seasoned college essay writing coach.

The Good News

While it may be concerning that much of the commonly-shared advice about college essay writing is wrong, or at least incomplete, don’t worry.

Knowledge is power. Now that your teen understands what college admissions officers are really looking for, they have an incredible opportunity to write a compelling essay that not only wows admissions officers but increases their chances of acceptance. And considering only 25 percent of students submit an essay that is strong enough to improve their chances of acceptance, there is plenty of room for your teen to set themselves apart by writing a captivating essay.

For more information about how to write a great college essay, check out these free resources:

About Brad Schiller

Brad is an MIT graduate, as well as the CEO and Co-Founder of Prompt, the world’s most respected and fastest-growing college essay coaching and feedback company. Visit the Prompt website, or connect with them on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn

If you enjoyed reading “3 College Essay Mistakes Your Teen Needs to Avoid,” you might also enjoy:

12 Questions Your Teen Should Ask Themselves Before Writing Their College Essay

Off to College: 8 Important Talks to Have with Your Teen

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