Using Your College Essay to Stand Out

With all the essays that college admissions counselors read, it is more important than ever to write one that stands out. Not only should it grab the reader’s attention immediately – it should be authentic, well-crafted and tell a story that is interesting.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

Quite often students focus so much on what think they should be writing that they miss what they should not be doing with their college essays. In fact, great essays are rare, according to most counselors. The best ones leave a lasting impression on their readers and they avoid some common mistakes:

  1. Rehashing academic and extracurricular activities
  2. Starting with a preface
  3. Ending with a “happily ever after” conclusion
  4. Telling your readers what to think
  5. Being overly cautious
  6. TMI
  7. Showing the essay to too many people
  8. Over-editing

Rehashing academic and extracurricular activities

The college essay is not the place to list academic and extracurricular accomplishments that already show up in transcripts, award lists, and activities. While it is fine to focus on a specific life-changing event related to these things, essays should provide the reader with insight that they cannot otherwise gain in the application itself. You want to highlight the unique characteristics that make you a strong college candidate within your story. In addition, you should ask yourself: Are you self-motivated, a leader, passionate? Are you a good problem solver? Is your work ethic exemplary? These are examples of things that matter to college counselors.

Starting with a preface

Telling the reader what your essay is going to be about is not necessary and wastes an opportunity to grab their attention immediately. “This is an essay about my passion for politics” is not only unnecessary, it’s boring. Instead, start with a strong anchor sentence that sets the scene for your story so that you draw your audience in right away.

Ending your college essay with a “happily ever after” conclusion

Readers are smart. If you have already shown them that you learned something important in your story, you don’t need to state that again in the ending. Furthermore, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you don’t need to state that in the end of the essay. Show readers in in the body of your story.

Telling your readers what to think

Again, your readers are smart. They don’t need or want to be told what to do. You should never assume that they agree with your opinions, beliefs, or ideas. Also, remember that you should not seek to change their minds. It’s great if you’re involved in activist work or interned with a well-known congressman. Just make sure that you show more about the work you’ve done and what you’ve learned rather than using your essay as a platform to make your case.

Being overly cautious

College essays are a place to be bold and highlight your unique characteristics. They should reveal the person you really are, not a made-up personality. Moreover, colleges aren’t looking for perfect people, they admit real people. They aren’t as interested in hearing about the person you think you should be – they want to know more about the person you already are.


Did you skip a class regularly and still end up with an “A-?” It’s probably best not to mention that. Furthermore, it doesn’t exactly highlight your discipline and commitment. Your essay provides you with the chance to make a great first impression – use it. While you should feel free to be bold, you want to draw the reader into your experience without shocking them or turning them off.

Showing your college essay to too many people

Everybody has an opinion, and most people like to express theirs. Each person will have a different idea about what you “should” or “should not” write. If you change your essay to suit too many people, you’ll end up with a story you might not recognize. Despite the fact that you may decide to share it with teachers, counselors, parents, or friends, understand that it is your essay, not theirs. Above all, stick to your own voice and your own story.


Many students will show their essay to multiple people, editing it each time someone makes a comment or shares an opinion. If multiple changes are made, the story can get “watered down” to the point that their unique voice disappears. You don’t want to sound like everybody else, and colleges don’t want you to. In effect, they want to know the real you.

Moxie College Counseling takes pride in our essay counseling services. We have numerous highly qualified Essay Specialists on staff to walk students through the essay writing process. For more information, contact us at {202} 301-8437.