3 common college essay mistakes to avoid

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As college application deadlines near, students across the country are hoping that their essays will earn them a spot at their dream school. But not all college essays are created equal.

"I think the essays are the most stressful part of applying to college," says college admissions expert Danny Ruderman. "Because the kids know that they count, and they don't fully understand what colleges want to see."

Here are three kinds of essays that college experts say can hurt your chances of getting into the school of your dreams:


"There is an ongoing joke among college counselors about essays that students shouldn't write because every student does," says Ruderman.

"The 'study abroad essay' is very overused," he says. "The 'grandma essay,' which is when you write about your grandmother and how she's amazing, is nice, but I don't learn anything about you in the process."

Other overused topics include enduring an athletic injury or wanting to become a star, says Ruderman. "However, it's about how you approach it rather than the actual topic."

For instance, former Stanford admissions officer Grace Kim landed a full ride to Princeton University with an essay that some would say is cliche.

"Its funny, because I think my application essay is something I would advise students not to write about now," she tells CNBC Make It. "Often times we see essays about service trips that people do abroad and mine actually was about a trip that I took to Costa Rica with my church."

"I tell students to avoid writing about it just because it's often times a sort of cliche," says Kim, who currently works as a college consultant for education company LogicPrep. "If there's anything else that a student can highlight about themselves outside of that experience I would recommend they write about that instead."

Ben Kaplan graduating from Harvard


Ben Kaplan, CEO of PR Hacker and author of "How to Go to College Almost for Free," says one of the biggest mistakes that students can make is to not tell a cohesive story. He calls this the "combo meal essay."

"'The multi-topic combo meal' is the essay that goes like this: 'I did this as a volunteer but I'm also really into science but then also I did this,'" he says. Instead, take a topic or a theme and really develop it and show something credible and meaningful about you.

"Your application should be cohesive. You can't tell 27 different stories in one application," he says. "If you are telling the story that you're the kid who always wants to do good, your essay should reflect that."

Grace Kim at her Princeton Graduation


Kim stresses that writing an impersonal essay is a huge mistake.

"We always said when I was an admissions officer, we want it to be so personal to the student that you couldn't put anyone else's name on that essay and have it still be true about that other student," she says. "Make sure that whatever story you decide to tell really highlights the adjectives you want the admissions officer to know about you."

Students will often discredit their own perfectly valid experiences, says Kim.

"I think students get writer's block and say, 'Ugh, I don't know what story I'm going to tell' or 'I don't think that I've had any life experiences that are worthy of this college that I want to apply to,'" she says. "But it's not even so much that you have to have a huge experience, it's very much how the story is told."

Kim explains, "The best essays are the ones where you can very clearly tell what their values are, what their personalities are like, perhaps what their sense of humor is and just what matters to them."

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