College App Essays That Try Too Hard to Please Admissions Officers

Recently, the mother of one of my students asked why her son was having a hard time with his college application essays. My response was that he was trying too hard to please the reader. It’s understandable that when there is so much competition for admission to selective colleges, students would be especially eager to write what they think admissions officers want to read. Unfortunately, the reaction they are likely to evoke is exactly the opposite of what they want.

Students often think they need to impress the reader with their accomplishments. Well-meaning parents or friends may tell them that this isn’t the time to be modest. But you don’t want to come across as bragging. Confidence is appealing, arrogance is off-putting. If a student writes that a project to raise money for a new children’s playground would not have been completed without her, admissions officers are likely to decide that their freshman class will be quite complete without her.

It is important to convey what you will bring to a college community without alienating the reader. One student wrote that he is far too humble to try to be the center of attention, not realizing that praising himself for being humble doesn’t make him sound very humble. He is a genuinely modest person but had been told that if he didn’t sound confident in the essay, he would be at a competitive disadvantage. What he meant to communicate in the essay was that he is a reserved person who feels uncomfortable in the limelight, and so he learned to become an attentive listener, which has enabled him to work collaboratively with others and serve as a mediator during conflicts.

There is no need to tell the reader that you have certain qualities. It is much more effective to share an anecdote that illustrates those qualities. Give the facts and allow the reader to come to the conclusion that you are a leader or an exceptionally creative person.

If students sometimes try too hard to impress in their main application essay, they can really go overboard in the “Why are you applying to our college?” essay. You see this prompt on a lot of Common Application supplements, and it can be more challenging than the longer essay because it is tough to respond in a way that doesn’t come across as sucking up.

It may be a shorter piece, but this essay can be as important as the long application essay. Admissions officers at some schools believe the response to this question tells them how much effort a student has put into getting to know the school and whether she is a serious applicant who is likely to matriculate. A student who has researched a college and knows it’s the right place for her is also less likely to transfer or drop out, and that means a higher retention rate for the school. While some students use this essay as an opportunity to demonstrate fake interest in a school, they usually end up with a generic answer that won’t enhance their application. For students who are genuinely interested in a college, the process of answering this question helps them assess whether the school is a good fit and enables them to write a meaningful response. Some admissions officers actually pay extra attention to this essay or to other short essays, because students are less likely to get help on them, so they may be seen as more representative of the student’s writing skills.

When responding to the “why our college” prompt, in addition to writing what they think admission officers want to read, most students tell admissions officers what they already know. They are aware that their college has a reputation for educational excellence. They know the low student-teacher ratio and the great internship opportunities. This is the kind of essay that sounds it was lifted from a school’s viewbook or website.

You need to use this essay to show that you and this school are a perfect match, and flattery is not the best way to do that. Telling a school that it is respected will get you no respect. Instead, think about your interests, strengths and goals, and look for how they mesh with those of the school. If one school’s mission statement talks the importance of the life of the mind and another stresses its commitment to preparing students for the job market, you get a sense of the different approaches each college has to education. You may realize that one school is a much better fit for you. Taking the time to review course offerings in the catalog, and reading up on professors, research opportunities, and student organizations will help you make sure you are applying to schools that are truly good matches. Instead of trying too hard to win over admissions officers, you will be able to make a compelling case for admission, in a matter of fact way that is ultimately much more effective.

Success Stories

  • Annie S., Encino
    "It looks like I’m going to Macalester next fall!!! Thanks for all your help. I would not have been able to get through the process without you!"
Independent Educational Consultants Association