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College Essays

5 College Essay Examples & What to Avoid

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By Kevin McMullin on July, 15 2022 | 7 minute read
How Not to Start Your College Essay

College essays need to start strong. They’re competing for an admissions officer’s attention, and you don’t want to lose your reader before your story ever really gets going. Here are five opening college essay examples to avoid, in other words, what's more likely to lose a reader’s interest.

It's that time of year again. The point in the application timeline where students are, or should be, getting ready to write drafts of their essays. Crafting strong essays for the application can be difficult for students, even the most skilled writers. Especially with students expected to write multiple essays with very different styles, it can feel overwhelming to submit a confident essay.

Just remember that first impressions matter in life and in college essays.

Personal Statement vs. Supplemental Essays

When applying through the Common Application, students are typically expected to write one personal statement submitted to every college and at least one supplemental essay per college.

The supplemental essay(s) demonstrate cultural and institutional fit for admissions officers. Many students refer to these essays as the 'why us' essays. And simply put, admissions officers want to learn why students are interested in the college and what makes them a great addition to their campus.

The personal statement, however, is an opportunity to show college admissions committees who the student is beyond the four walls of their classroom. Typically 650 words in length, the personal statement is, well, unique to each student. There is no 'right way' to write the personal statement, but we have a few tips to help students maximize their writing and avoid crafting a weak opening for their college essay. Each tip will also include an example of a real opening written by a former Collegewise student to demonstrate the tips we share!

To learn more about how to crack the supplemental essay, watch our Cracking the Supplemental Essays video!


1. An Introduction to Your Story

Imagine a student is telling a friend a story about life as a pitcher on the baseball team. The student wouldn’t start with, “Often in life, we face difficult situations that ultimately benefit us. While we may not see it at the time….” The speaker would lose the person’s interest before ever getting to the good stuff.

College essays work the same way. They’re stories, and stories need a beginning, not an introduction; instead of writing a general introduction to warm the reader up to a particular topic, starting with a clear opening that ties to the story are the best way to pique an admissions officer's interest in what they might learn from reading the essay further.

Real college essay example: "The worst part about being the slowest runner on my school’s cross country team is that I occasionally fall so far behind that I have to stop and ask for directions."


2. A Famous Quote

An essay that begins, “John F. Kennedy once said…” is already on the wrong track. Unless the quote was actually directed at the writer, the reader cares a lot more about what the student has to say than they do about any famous person’s pithy words. The one exception? Quotes can be effective when they’re part of the story. Say a student is writing about their experiences on a sports team, including a quote from one of their coaches can make their story more impactful. 

Real college essay example: "My baseball coach always says, “We’re going to play smart baseball, gentlemen because dumb baseball is no fun to play and even less fun to watch.”

3. A Definition

Opening with a definition like “Persistence is defined as…,” will probably not be a strong start. The reader, an admissions officer, doesn’t need the student to define words; they need them to tell a story that will help them learn all about who they are. If the personal statement is about persistence, explain how that trait is personified. Additionally, with the limited space students are given to share their stories, focusing on providing necessary details and leaving definitions to Google will help them maximize their writing. 

Real college essay example: "I hate heights. I am a complete scaredy-cat when it comes to heights. It must be genetic because there’s not much else that scares me. I’m usually pretty calm and composed. I have to be. There’s no time to be scared when you’re in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on a nineteen-year-old motorcycle accident victim who’s just gone into full cardiac arrest. I did that last week.” 

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4. Being Too Creative & Lacking Clarity

Some students try so hard to be creative, or to entice the reader with a sense of intrigue, that they sacrifice clarity. If the reader is one paragraph in and thinking, “I don’t have a clue what this student is talking about,” the arousing interest has moved to confusion. It’s certainly possible and often effective to begin an essay with a description that piques interest without necessarily revealing exactly what the description is about. What's important to remember is that although the personal statement is a unique essay, a student should stay true to the writing style they feel most comfortable with. 

Real college essay example: "Once you know what the chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken looks like before it’s cooked, you will never want to eat it again. I love my part-time job, and I’ve worked there for almost three years. But I really don’t enjoy looking at that chicken before it’s cooked."

5. Anything that Would Show Up on Google

You might think you’ve read or heard the perfect opening someplace else—a book of sample essays, a speech, a line in your favorite movie, etc. But pirating someone else’s writing is plagiarism, and every college I can think of would frown on an applicant who steals other people’s work without crediting the source. There’s always that chance that your reader could recognize what you’re sharing. And if they have even the slightest suspicion, the answer will always be just a Google search away.


FAQs & Final Thoughts

While there is no 'right' way to start any college essay, a few approaches may not be the best use of the limited space students have. Our list is just a few of the many tips we share with our students to ensure they're submitting confident essays to the admissions committees. In addition to our essay don'ts, we've come across a few frequently asked questions regarding college essays or the personal statement.

What are the Common App Essay Topics?

Each year the Common App releases its 7 essay prompts from which students can choose and write. Although they usually stay the same, there may come a year where one of two may change. That's why it's important to review the prompts early. 

To read through the Common App's 2021-22 essay prompts, read our Common App Essay Topics blog!

Are there Essay Topics To Avoid?

In short, yes! What's important to remember is that admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays every application year, and they've read it all. Students need to write about their experiences and what helped shape them to be who they are rather than what they feel admissions officers want to read. 


How Personal Should The Personal Statement Be?

Although the personal statement is a unique story for every student, many students write about personal struggles, challenges they face, and situations they overcame. And while there is no set list of topics to avoid, it is important to note that students should share how much they are comfortable with. After all, a stranger will be reading this essay.

Additional readings:

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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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