(Essays Gone Wrong)

The following are excerpts from essays that were actually written but never should have been. Some have outstanding prose styles and some were written by excellent students, but the topics were so poorly chosen you won’t believe that the writers ever viewed them as worthy. Most of the flawed decision-making here will be obvious to you, but as they say, common sense isn’t all that common.

  • QUESTION: Describe an experience in which your convictions were challenged.
    • STUDENT RESPONSE: “One’s sense of perception of the world is based on one’s own unique perspective. And since one’s perspective is constantly changing, one’s philosophy on life is always evolving into new forms. I have come to this realization through various personal experiences. For example, I have traveled to different countries, learning how each culture can view the same thing differently. I have also kept a journal since I was ten, and by reading through it I can see how my attitudes and beliefs have shifted so much over the years. Furthermore, I have experimented with E and shrooms (only twice), and have come to see how a mild change in brain chemistry can distort the way we see things.”
    • THE PROBLEM HERE: If it seems like something you shouldn’t be writing about, go with that instinct. Avoid such risque topics as drug use, no matter how enlightening the experience may have been.
  • QUESTION: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
    • STUDENT RESPONSE: “You want an impressive accomplishment? How about this: When I was in my junior year, I was already so skilled with computers that I was able to hack into my school’s mainframe system and change the grades of me and my friends. The school of course found out that someone had tampered with the grades, probably because I gave one of my friends straight As and he had never scored higher than a C in any of his classes. The school launched this huge investigation, so I ended up changing all the grades back, and still the administration never found out who it was. I later came forward, since I am really a fair person, who values honesty. I know this act is mentioned in my high school transcript, so I figured I’d explain the truth behind it. I believe it stands as a very positive mark rather than a negative. This experience not only demonstrated my technical gifts, since the school’s computer protection system was supposedly state of the art, but it also revealed my sense of morality since I turned myself in when I knew I could have gotten away with it forever.”
    • THE PROBLEM HERE: Explaining a blemish on your record, especially one involving academic dishonesty, is critical to bolstering your application. But it should be done in a short letter, not in your essay. If the way you first present yourself to a stranger entails making excuses for yourself (and trying to spin a blemish it as if it’s an accomplishment), then you will come off as a complainer (whose self-perception, in this case, is rather distorted). Use your essay as an opportunity to make yourself truly shine.
  • QUESTION: Tell us something about yourself.
    • STUDENT RESPONSE: “Several factors have influenced me over the course of my years. My loving family, my loyal friends, my rigorous school. I can’t really say what one thing has had the greatest impact on me. They have all shaped me in special ways. At college, I plan to build on existing skills and talents, and explore new and exciting ways to challenge myself. Science has always intrigued me, but I am open to business and the arts as well. Your school’s liberal arts education will allow me the opportunity to touch on different aspects of my character and I’m certain I will discover my true passion during my time there.”
    • THE PROBLEM HERE: The trouble with this essay excerpt is the most common problem among students. The tone is bland and straightforward, and the substance is so generalized and uncommitted that it applies to everyone and therefore says nothing about the individual.

Random Blunders

The following miscellaneous gaffes, while not directly related to college essays, nonetheless reveal the dangers in poor writing:

  • “I am eager to be part of your diverse campus so I can expose myself to many different people.”
    • We know what this student wanted to say, but the words did not come out quite right.
  • “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa and God.”
    • Without the serial comma before the “and” in this sentence, it seems as if this writer’s parents are Mother Theresa and God—which would probably look great on a college application.
  • Newspaper headline: “Porn Star Found Guilty on Bribery Charges is Appealing”
    • Like those optical illusion drawings, this headline can be viewed two very different ways.
  • Seattle’s PBS Station magazine was sent out to subscribers with this headline in 18-point type on the cover: “KCTS, Your Favorite Pubic Television Station.”
    • Did you miss the spelling mishap? Don’t rely on spell-check. Review everything with your own eyes.
  • Translations Gone Wrong: When different languages collide, it is often a unique opportunities for comedy (or tragedy, depending on your perspective) to unwittingly emerge:
    • The Chevy Nova was a bust in Spanish-speaking countries. “No va” in Spanish means “doesn’t go.”
    • The Dairy Association’s successful “Got Milk?” campaign spread to Mexico where its slogan was wrongly translated to read, “Are you lactating?”
    • In Taiwan, the translation of Pepsi’s slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation,” came out as, “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
    • Ford’s Pinto didn’t do so well in Brazil. Pinto is Brazilian slang for “male genitalia.”
    • General Motors made a car named Opel Ascona. This model tanked in Spain, where the name is similar to the term for “female genitalia.” Imagine a fender bender between a Pinto and an Opel.

Famous Last Words

A great conclusion is critical. Make sure your last words are wiser than these:

  • “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—” – General John Sedgwick, Union Army
  • “Give me a match and I’ll see if there’s any gas left in the tank.” – Anonymous

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