7 things about writing essays that you’ve gotten wrong

Oh the horror. When you start writing, this is probably one of the few things still in your control (your grades are set, you can’t really join an extracurricular or start a project in a month, your teachers have probably formed an impression of you that is difficult to change in a short period of time). Where do you even start? Let us look at certain pitfalls and why essay writing really isn’t as painful as you may consider it to be.


  1. Try too hard to fit a style/topic that you think the college you’re applying to ‘likes’

Let’s say based on your research and the essays of your seniors who were accepted, your dream college seems to like pet-lovers and those who advocate for animal rights a lot. So are you going to write an essay on loving animals?

This example may seem absurd to you, but replace “pet-lovers” with anything else (like “feminist”, “vegetarian”, “adventurist”, “political activist” etc.) and it will seem more relevant, especially when you don’t even have any idea on where to start writing. I myself have tried to write an essay on defying gender norms, because I thought that it will fit in well with the school culture, but it just didn’t work out. If you truly are an animal lover and feel passionate about that cause, by all means write about it. If not, don’t. Doing research on the school is important and great, but don’t try too hard to be something you’re not. For one, if you’re not passionate about animals, it will be difficult to come up with a convincing story. Secondly, those people who actually wrote about animal rights probably have activities (such as volunteering at an animal shelter) to substantiate their love. Do you? It will just leave the AO wondering, “If this person were truly so passionate about animals, why didn’t he/she do anything about this passion?”

  1. Imitate your senior’s essay

This is very similar to the point above. The main thing really is, are you sure that they two of you had similar experiences? Maybe you were from the same sport/art group/club, but both of you should have had vastly different experiences. The second thing is that the AOs who read the essays will mostly be the same every year, and they remember. (I was so surprised that he could remember what my senior wrote for his essay 3 years ago.) You really won’t want to become an applicant that colleges get a dime a dozen. And anyways, you are interesting, aren’t you?


  1. Lie

We are all innocent, puppy-eyed, adorable law-abiding citizens aren’t we? But lying in an essay is more common than you think it is. Writing about the time you passed by an Angsana tree? (Do you actually know what an Angsana tree looks like?) Changing the race of the Chinese foreign worker you talked to at a hawker centre to Bangladeshi (all in the name of “culture diversity”)? Talking about helping old ladies cross the road on a regular basis when actually you only did that once on a day when you were supposed to be doing CIP? All these are real examples of what people actually wrote in their essays. The sad (or happy) truth is, it isn’t going to hurt much most of the time. But it’s not going to help you much either. Yet if you accidentally let slip in your interview about something that contradicts what you wrote, you might get into trouble. So the moral of the story is: better not, there’s not much point.

  1. Write a UCAS essay

Most people would agree that writing UCAS essays are easier than writing those for US applications: talk about your achievements, elaborate on what you did, what you’ve learnt and how it shows your passion in the subject, then repeat. US essays are different. They want to hear your own story; they want to know your personality. So don’t make your US essay an achievement dump. The general rule of thumb is: if you’ve already listed something under the achievement/activities section, don’t write about it unless you have a really compelling story behind it. Write about something different, refreshing, that people won’t know about otherwise, like the times you spent folding a paper aeroplane, the time when you ventured off an untrodden path near your house, anything at all. Talk about your passions outside school, something that is truly you which is independent of the number of badges or trophies that you own.

  1. Adhere to everything your parents/friends say

Talking to your friends/parents/relatives/seniors/juniors and asking them to read your essays is great. They will be able to point out certain language errors or remind you of incidences that you may have forgotten – after all, they are the people who know you best. But do take their comments with a pinch of salt. They are not admissions officers. They are not the ones making the decision whether to admit you or not after reading your essay. Everyone’s personal opinions are probably different. Someone might love your style, another may find it pompous. Who knows what the AOs would think? Instead, try listening to your counsellor. He/she will probably be the person who knows it best. What happens if your counsellor’s advice differs from that of your friend’s? Smile nicely at your friend, and listen to your counsellor.

  1. Get too caught up over one idea

I have a friend who wrote over 20 drafts of an essay, all of them mercilessly rejected. (Actually 20 drafts isn’t a lot for college essays.) Oh poor thing. He had one problem: almost all 20 drafts were talking about the same incidents. He was convinced that that one glorious idea was simply “the one”, yet couldn’t seem to get that idea across convincingly. Was it because he wasn’t good at writing? Maybe. But there is a difference between bad writing and a bad idea. If your writing is bad, heavy editing might save it. But a bad idea can make it unnecessarily difficult or impossible for you to showcase yourself effectively. Sometimes it’s better to simply burn your drafts (figuratively, let’s not destroy the environment further) and come up with something totally new. Your best idea may not be your first.

  1. Write about someone else

Many of us have thought about writing about our parents, our teachers, or someone who has inspired us greatly. We can write so passionately about their hard work, kindness or dedication. But… wait a minute. How is this essay about you? Your parent/teacher/crush is not the one applying to college; you are. A general rule is that if you haven’t started talking about yourself in the 3rd paragraph, you should write about something else.