Bad Essay Roll Call

1. The time-I-witnessed-injustice essay

Every year, hordes of Americans go abroad, look at poor people, and decide to care about social justice. Nearly all of them apply to law school.

I’m only being glib to show you what it looks like from the other side of the desk. If you choose to write about social justice, ask yourself two key questions: were you wronged, or were you close to the people who were wronged? Did you do anything about it? If not, you probably shouldn’t write the essay.

2. The blah business-school essay

This essay centers on an experience at a job or internship, and it reads like a cover letter. Ask yourself two questions: did the experience at the heart of your essay actually matter to you? Are you writing about a real accomplishment, or did you just do your job?

3. The over-serious essay

Illness, poverty, divorce, civil strife, abuse, and physical handicaps are obstacles. Flunking a math test, being rejected from an improv comedy group, losing a class election, and playing a bad round of golf are disappointments. Don’t write about a disappointment as if it’s an obstacle.

If you focus on a challenge that’s not a major life obstacle, make sure you write about the inner and not just the outer challenge. For example, the author of “Tourné” isn’t just writing about the a cooking test (the outer challenge); he’s writing about humility (the inner challenge).

4. The headless essay

Don’t rehash your résumé. Each page of your application is precious real estate. Your personal statement should tell a story that your résumé doesn’t.

Don’t write an aimless reflection. Write a focused narrative. Make sure your essay is about something.

5. The two-headed essay

It’s hard to write a successful personal statement with more than one key moment, event, or experience. Make sure your essay tells a single story.

6. The essay that’s really an excuse

Do not explain why you performed poorly on the SATs, got rejected from your top-choice college, or did not earn the GPA you had hoped for. You can explain any mitigating circumstances in an addendum. Dwell on the positive.

7. The novelty essay

Don’t submit an essay in the form of a poem, play, or legal brief. Submit your essay in the form of an essay.

8. The childhood dreams essay

If you are a college senior, it’s probably a mistake to set your whole essay in high school. If you’ve been out of college for more than a year, it’s probably a mistake to set your whole essay in college. You can talk about your childhood as long as you leap forward to the present. Your essay should reflect who you are now.

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