Why 99% of Application Essays Turn Out Boring

It’s always interesting to hear people’s responses to the question: who are you?


It may seem obvious, but the way in which you answer that short question is predicated on your interpretation of yourself in that moment, and what you find yourself saying may shed more light on your disposition than you had previously thought.


For instance, if you grew up dancing from an early age, you may say, “Well, first and foremost, I’m a dancer. I’ve been dancing my whole life. I started with ballet, but since then, I’ve branched out to more contemporary styles. I also love choreography and creating new routines for my team.”


If you’re particularly fixated on what you’re doing in the moment, you may say, “Right now I’m still in high school, I like to travel, play sports, and hang out with my friends. But currently, my life is pretty much just writing college essays and studying for exams.”


If you associate your identity more strongly with what you want to achieve, or a higher moral purpose, you may say “I’m thinking about becoming an entrepreneur in the future. I have an idea of what I type of business area I want to focus on, but I’m still trying to make the right connections and understand the skill-set I need to build. I’m trying to figure out how I want to impact the world.”


Think about those three descriptions I just gave. All three descriptions, they could describe a single person. In fact, it’s likely there are many people out there who more-or-less fit those descriptions. It’s not hard to fathom someone grew up a dancer, led a dance team, is currently in high school and applying to college, and is also considering pursuing entrepreneurship in the future. There’s probably someone out there who is currently a professional video game player, blogger, and musician. There’s someone out there who is captain of her lacrosse team and coordinating a widespread service effort while dabbling in photography on the side. There’s someone out there who is a valedictorian, doing cancer research, holds a seat in a prestigious state-level orchestra, and is involved with mock trial.


You may think, “Wow! Humans are incredible. So multifaceted. Such a huge degree of complexity and a range of experiences.”


And you’d be right! Humans are all individuals and completely unique in their identities.

But (and there’s always a but), this all-encompassing reality, the zest and uniqueness of the individual, is seldom reflected in college essays. That’s right. Every year, millions of students apply to colleges and 99% of the essays are boring. It’s like listening to the same damn song, over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.


Just imagine being a college admissions officer. My goodness. When autumn rolls around and the leaves begin to rust orange and red, these poor people are bombarded with thousands of essays and crazed parents on the phone asking if their tertiary connection with the husband of a board member will help their son or daughter get into the university. And to dispel the myth, admissions officers do read all the essays! It’s just that they’ve read so many essays throughout the application cycle (let alone their lifetimes) that they can efficiently pick out which essays have promise within reading the first couple of lines.

The vast majority of college admissions essays don’t stand out.


Personally, I’ve never worked as an admissions officer, but I have spent countless hours mentoring students on writing college essays over the years, and I’ve discovered a strange trend in how so many essays can seem like variations of each other. For example, if you take two individual students, one who immigrated from China and one who immigrated from India, you may be astonished by how much their essays on assimilating to an American community may actually resemble each other. Obviously, the students, countries of origin, and experiences are different, yet the admissions officer, your audience, has likely read many types of stories related to bridging cultures, gaining confidence in a new setting, and appreciating traditions.


Why do college essays often come out so similar?


There are a couple of potential reasons I can think of. But the main reason, in my estimation, is that high school students have likely followed similar life pathways. The nature of life narratives demonstrates these striking similarities. Everyone starts as a helpless infant. Next, as a kid, you start exploring and trying new things. You roam around outside for the first time, expanding your horizons past the immediate world of your house or apartment. You get a feel for what you like and don’t like, develop a personality, rebel against your parents, and become “yourself” for the first time. You take up new hobbies in middle school and form groups of friends and get ostracized from them. You fail a lot, get embarrassed a lot, experience many setbacks, and learn from your mistakes. You become stronger. Later, you may begin to excel and specialize at your interests and passions while attaining new leadership and responsibility in high school.


And now here you are.


Food for Thought


To write unforgettable college essays that highlight your strengths as an individual and capture your essence as a person, you need to start thinking more deeply about who you are. Everyone can begin explaining who they are through the activities or extracurriculars they do, but it’s those individuals who take the time to reflect and challenge their perceptions of themselves, they are the ones who dominate the college admissions process. And this is amazing news for you, because as I said before, barely any essays actually accomplish this! The opportunity is yours for the taking!


The core of college essays isn’t just answering the question “who are you?” Realize that you truly are so much more than your experiences, passions, and others’ perceptions of you. You’re even more than the identity you’ve carved out for yourself thus far. Who you are constantly changes. This journey is about exploring yourself, capturing your evolution, and attempting to answer “who are you, really?”

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