Five ways to avoid that cringe-worthy essay

You want your essay to be the one that is passed around the admissions office…. or not. It’s a little bit like the difference between being famous and infamous. We all know that a sincere, well-written essay that provides insights about how the student has matured, is occasionally shared among the admissions staff. But, I’m guessing that there are a lot more essays that produce eye-rolls, giggles and gasps of “not again.”

So how do you make your essay famous instead of infamous?

Here are some basic tips to avoid that cringe-worthy essay:

  1. Don’t write the “safe” essay. Pick a topic that only you can write about. It could be something that others also experienced but make sure to have your own personal take on how it affected you. Lots of students think that the only things colleges care about is community service, so they feel the need to write about their mission trip experience. It is very hard to write a compelling essay that is remarkably different from the hundreds or even thousands of other mission trip essays. Admissions officers have read it all before. Here are some of the most frequently used mission trip snippets: “I never expected to learn so much.” “I received so much more than I gave.” “On the outside we might be different, but I learned that underneath, we are all really the same.” Triple eye-roll.
  2. Avoid the generic and get specific. Don’t write that you’re well-rounded or that many people have impacted you. Tell the reader what you’ve done, how you’ve been influenced and by whom.
  3. Don’t repeat information that is elsewhere in your application. There is no need to share your participation level (hours per week and weeks per year) because colleges ask for that information on your activity list. It is important for the student to use every opportunity to provide insight into who they are and impress the admissions office. Certainly you can talk about your extracurricular activities in your essay, but avoid the laundry list and instead talk about how and why you’re involved in these activities.
  4. Don’t complain. If you have endured difficult circumstances, it is appropriate to share your story. But don’t point fingers, whine or sound like you’ve given up. It’s important to demonstrate perseverance and resilience. The better essay will talk about how you have dealt with and hopefully overcome the obstacles presented.
  5. Don’t talk about rankings. Many students love focusing on the numbers when they are writing their “why this college” essay. They believe they are flattering the college by telling them that the reason they want to attend is because the college is highly ranked in S. News & World Report. Obviously schools are aware of their rankings but they want to know why you want to attend.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;