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You’re Doing It Wrong: The 3 Biggest Mistakes You’re Probably Making in Your Application Essays

act admissions essays gmat gre lsat sat Sep 05, 2019

By: Michael Noltemeyer, North Star Editing

Writing an application is like being trapped in a choose-your-own-adventure story that someone else is reading: your fate lies in the hands of your audience.

Problem is, most applicants don’t understand what their audience wants.

I don’t make that claim lightly. Over the last ten years, I’ve read literally thousands of personal statements and statements of purpose and everything in between.

That’s why I’m confident when I say you’re probably making at least one of these three mistakes I see on almost every essay that comes my way.

1. Thinking Your Essays Don’t Matter

Consider these figures from 2017:

Competition for Ivy League spots is so fierce that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford could each rescind their offers of admission to every student they have already accepted, choose another freshman class of the same size, and suffer no statistical drop-off.

In fact, they could probably do that several times over.

Even outside of the Ivy League, high-school valedictorians with perfect SAT scores, glowing letters of recommendation, and lists of extracurricular activities a mile long cannot count on guaranteed admission.

Applicants to graduate and professional school sometimes face even longer odds. Consider these figures, also from 2017:

Perhaps most dauntingly, because of funding constraints, many Ph.D. programs accept only a handful of students each year.

With ever-higher competition in higher education, how can you stand out?

The answer is your essay. In an increasingly impersonal process, your essay may well be your best, last, and only chance to distinguish yourself from the crowd. In short, your essay can make or break your entire application.

When you get right down to it, higher education is a sorting hat. It sorts students into the tiers of the middle and upper class in which they’ll live their lives.

You pay top dollar for tutors and test prep because you know that grades and test scores matter. Dominate a standardized test and you’ll enjoy a lifelong return on your investment.

Essays don’t matter any less. Sure, there’s not a single correct response like on a Scantron—but there are definitely wrong answers.

Why would you enlist an expert to help you avoid mistakes on your exam but not on your essay?

2. Thinking All Editors Are Created Equal

I get it. Really, I do. Editors offering online essay help—or even prewritten essays—are a dime a dozen. It can be hard to tell them apart. If you don’t know how to distinguish them, why even try?

Because editors are like photographers. A good photographer can make a plain face look like a supermodel. A bad one can make a supermodel look plain.

My job is to put you in the best light and find your most flattering angles. That’s how you look your best for the admissions committee when they start reading files.

Among professional editors, what separates the best from the rest is the ability to help you find your own voice so that you can speak for yourself. Good editors should seek, as much as possible, to fade into the background so you can take center stage.

In contrast, bad editors—even those with the best of intentions—often end up making things worse. Remember “Monkey Jesus”?

Source: Wikipedia

Don’t let your application become an Internet meme.

All editors may be created equal, but with apologies to George Orwell, some are more equal than others.

3. Thinking a Generic Essay is Good Enough

The extreme version of this is when people ask, will you write my essay for me?

No, I won’t.

But I’ll help you find the words you didn’t know you had in you—and those words are worth their weight in gold.

You see, the very best application essays stand out because they give a sense of the person behind the paper. They’re candid, clear, and compelling. And in a process marked by trumped-up claims of excellence, that’s refreshing.

I can help you every step of the way, but I don’t, can’t, won’t write a personal statement for you.

I couldn’t even if I wanted to.

The best I could offer would be an impeccably written impersonal statement—and that won’t do you any good at all.

It won’t resonate with your activities and your recommendations in a way that makes your application come alive. For all its rhetorical fireworks, its sound and its fury, it will signify nothing and still fall flat.

By working with you instead of for you, I can help you to produce a polished essay that is truly personal, a piece that is distinctly yours.

And after working with me, you’ll take away more than just a well-edited essay. You’ll also take away newfound insight into the writing process because you'll have participated in it every step of the way.

Your essay—and you—will be all the better for it.

Make Admissions Officers Choose Your Adventure

Remember when I said writing an application is like being trapped in someone else’s choose-your-own-adventure story? Here’s what admissions committees really want: a hero they can root for.

Think about it. Why does every politician’s stump speech include an everyman as the face of a growing problem? Because calculations can give context, but only stories can stir your emotions.

And every story needs a hero.

If you want to win people over, to make them like you and want you to succeed, then you need a strong narrative. In business, they say that he who has the best story wins. The same holds true here.

The trick is telling the right story.

The good news is you don’t have to do it all on your own. Heroes get help all the time. King Arthur had Merlin. Aladdin had the Genie. Simba had Rafiki.

Every story needs a hero, and every hero needs a sage.

I’m a storytelling sage who has helped thousands of successful applicants get into top schools by finding the heroic inside of themselves, turning them into heroes that application committees want to admit.

If you want application season to have a storybook ending, you need to be the star of the story—but not just any story.

The story that only you can tell.

Need a practiced eye to help you find that angle? Use coupon code “DOMINATE” to save 10% on an editing package today.

But even if you think the application process is stranger than fiction, change the way you’re thinking about your essay and you can write your own happily-ever-after.

About the Author

After almost a decade as a top editor at the world’s premier application editing service, Michael Noltemeyer left to found North Star Editing when he realized that editing alone is not enough: to get into top schools, you also need stellar guidance. He has helped hundreds of students gain admission to top-ranked colleges and med, grad, business, and law schools alike by harnessing the power of strategic storytelling. When he’s not busy helping clients get into the schools of their dreams, he also teaches writing at Loyola Marymount University in sunny Los Angeles, California.


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