The Bad Essay

accept or deny designIn last week’s post, I discussed whether an essay can make or break an admissions decision. The answer: it depends. If you don’t have “the goods”—the grades and test scores—a good or even great essay will rarely push you from the “Deny” to the “Accept” pile. But if you land in the “Maybe” pile, a strong essay can make a difference.

How about if you write a “bad” essay?  Can it push you from “Accept” or “Maybe” to “Deny”?


Bad essays come in many forms:

  • Poorly written:
    • Careless grammar, misspellings, incorrect vocabulary usage, convoluted.
    • Solution: Do a careful self-edit and ask a teacher or essay professional to review your draft.
  • No point or no story:
    • Wanders, recounts a history rather than telling a story, leaves reader at end wondering what was the point.
    • Solution: Be very clear on the point you are trying to make. Can you say it in one sentence? If not, keep working until you can. Then edit your essay to ensure that every sentence is helping you make this point.
  • Clichéd:
    • Tired topics that make admissions officers’ eyes glaze over, such as:
      • “I tried out for the team and didn’t make it, and then I tried out again and I made it. I am really determined and work really hard.”
      • “I went on this community service trip and discovered that everyone is really the same. And I got more out of the experience than the people I was helping.”
    • Using clichés in your essay, such as:
      • cutting edge, I learned my lesson, I always learn from my mistakes, I know my dreams will come true, I can make a difference, _________ is my passion, I no longer take my loved ones for granted, these lessons are useful both on and off the field, I realize the value of hard work and perseverance, was the greatest lesson of all, I know what it is to triumph over adversity, xx opened my eyes to a whole new world.
    • Solution: If you write something you’ve heard said the same way before, it’s probably a cliché. Circle those phrases and try to make the same point in an original way. Ask a teacher or essay professional to review your essay for clichés.
  • Unflattering self-portrait:
    • Tells a story that shows you in a poor light and makes you unlikeable, such as:
      • “I used to be a mean girl. (75% of the essay is spent on all the “bad” things the student used to do). Then I changed and I became a compassionate leader.” (25% of essay devoted to the “good,” to the change.)
      • “I used to be a selfish player on the soccer team, only thinking of myself. (75% of essay.) Then I saw the light and I became a selfless leader and was elected captain.” (25% of essay.)
    • Solution: Choose a story that focuses on your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you choose a story that shows how you have changed, make sure the vast majority of the essay is dedicated to the “new” you, the “changed” you, the “positive” you.

The “Bad Essay” is to be avoided at all costs. Even if you are qualified academically, if you come off as unlikeable, arrogant, careless or lazy, your admissions file can easily be tossed into the Deny pile.

Don’t self-sabotage and give colleges a reason to deny your application! Take advantage of  Montauk Writer‘s free tips for writing effective essays.

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Can an essay make or break your college admissions decision?

The short answer: it depends.

The longer answer: If you don’t have the grades and the test scores a college expects from its applicants—in other words, if you aren’t academically prepared—it is extremely unlikely for your essay to push you over into the Accept pile. Even the most interesting, unique, or creative essay.

Penn’s dean of admissions said he guessed that the essay played a role in admissions decisions for one out of every seven applicants for the Class of 2016. Admissions officers at smaller schools often spend more time reading essays, particularly when SAT or ACT scores are not required. At larger universities, particularly state schools, admissions teams simply don’t have the time to give each essay a careful read.

So do essays make a difference at all? While a GREAT essay won’t make up for poor grades or test scores, if you have the goods, a GREAT essay can distinguish you from the pack of other qualified applicants.

And what about the BAD essay?  Can it move you from the Accept to the Deny pile?

Stay tuned to find out.

Bird by Bird

birdbybirdIn Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott recounts her late father’s advice to her brother:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ 

I’m guessing that nearly all of us have had this experience of overwhelm—whether it’s something “big” like navigating a major life change or something “small” like piles of laundry we can’t seem to deal with. In each case, “bird by bird” is sound advice. Pick up a t-shirt, fold it, start a pile. Repeat. T-shirt by t-shirt.

The high school students I work with on their college application essays often feel overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start. How many essays do I need to write? How can I possibly do this on top of everything else on my list?

I help students tackle their essays, bird by bird. First, we brainstorm, come up with ideas. Then they write one paragraph, then another and another. A draft emerges. Suddenly the pile is a little less daunting. We keep working, bird by bird, deadline by deadline, until they’ve hit SUBMIT for the final time.

Bird by bird. The perfect recipe to defeat overwhelm.