How to Write an Admissions Essay that Opens College Doors

Jaime Dalbke

How to Write an Admissions Essay that Opens College Doors

Guest post by Kamala Appel of

There are some common mistakes made by college applicants when writing their college admission essays. As a former recruiter for Yale University, I remember the reactions from admissions officers as they read such essays. I would say that there are six mistakes that are the most common and potentially the most deadly to college applicants submitting their college admission essays.

Mistake #1: Not Writing from the Heart

A little sincerity goes a long way- a lot goes even further. I realize that sometimes putting yourself out there can be scary and that saying what people want you to say can seem like a safer route to go. However, I have found that even though fewer people may appreciate what you have to say, the ones who do, will truly appreciate, and more importantly, identify with your candor and sincerity. In fact, sometimes I am surprised at the things that people remember about me from presentations or articles I have written, but it usually is something I just stated as an aside.

I know that one Oscar nominee, whom I interviewed when I was a journalist would agree.  After years of trying to “play the game,” he finally wrote a film that touched very close to his home and the hearts of the nominating committee. As a result, his film, “El Hijo de la Novia,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2001.

Mistake #2: Writing Something that Is Not True to You

Admissions Officers want to create a diverse student body. The only way that they can see what’s different about you versus someone else is by reading your personal statement. You would be doing yourself a disservice by writing something that is not true to you, your values, and your background -  represent! Some of the biggest and brightest leaders come from dark and humble beginnings.

Bill Clinton came from a dysfunctional family. Barack Obama overcame adversity. Look where both of them are now. Don’t be ashamed. Be proud because that is what makes you - you, and more importantly, it could be what sets you apart from the competition.

Mistake #3:  Not Proofreading.

I would strongly recommend that you proofread your essay or other written correspondence AND ask someone else to proofread it for you too.  Keep in mind that someone is taking the time to read what you wrote, along with thousands of other college admission essays and other college application materials. It is sloppy and rude not to take 15 minutes to look over your essay before submitting it.

Mistake #4:  Only Focusing on Achievements

Many people are ashamed of the challenges they face, and some label them as “failures.” I want to encourage you to view your beginnings as obstacles that you overcame, despite the odds. Believe me, someone who comes from a public school with very few Ivy League grads will stand out over someone from a prep school, despite what you may think. This is not to say that the odds are not against someone from the “outside,” so to speak, and with someone whose family came over on the Mayflower (willingly) and every generation attended HYP’s (Harvard, Yale, or Princeton), but believe me, those who know how to fight the good fight are usually the ones who win. The ones who know how to fight tend to be successful leaders, and admissions knows that good leaders can become good donors, even if it takes a few years. Also, good leaders tend to get good publicity, which also reflects well on the alma mater. Think about some recent presidents of the United States. Who was more popular with the media and the general public - the silver spoons or the ones who worked their way up from the bottom? This is not to say that there aren’t legacy kids who go on to do amazing things, but the stories just aren’t as interesting and newsworthy, are they?

Basically, I know how it feels to not want to stand out like a sore thumb, especially when you are a teenager and all you want to do is fit in and be accepted (yes, even the “outcasts” are still in groups and still seek acceptance on one level, even if they do not want to admit it). I just want you to know that the older I get, the more I realize that what I think makes me different is exactly what makes me connect to other people and causes others to become attracted to me. Do not be afraid to admit that you struggled with a subject, extracurricular activity, family situation, economic circumstances, especially if you managed to excel after much hard work. Believe me, your persistence and perseverance will not only benefit you in the admissions process, but in life in general. Take pride in overcoming your hardships.

Mistake #5:  Only Talking about Yourself

If you only discuss yourself, versus talking about yourself as part of a team, family, and community, you run the risk of sounding like someone who is self-absorbed. Nobody likes a narcissist, except the narcissist. This is not the only time I will state this, because it is so crucial: admissions officers look for future leaders. Of course, it is challenging and relative to define what a leader is, but let me share one basic principle of leadership that I think most people would agree with: to be a leader, you need to be part of a community AND to be an effective leader, you need an effective team to work with you. A good leader works for a cause bigger than him or herself. A good leader may make sacrifices to benefit others and the greater good.

Understanding the value, role, and importance of being part of a team is a lesson that you are never too young or too old to learn. One thing I learned from team sports as a high school student, and also in community groups and business groups as an adult is that to be part of a winning team, you need to know when to lead and when to follow. Sometimes the official “leader” may not always take the lead, and indeed this may be why s/he remains successful at the top. So how does this knowledge apply to you as a college applicant? Think carefully about your essay topic. You may decide that you want to talk about a group like an athletic team, cast of a play, or church group, etc., and how you worked together, more than just what you did as an individual. I suggest that you write or outline multiple essays and see which one fires you up, so to speak. Remember, passion is key to good storytelling and every alumni Interviewer and admissions officer likes a good story to wake him or her up after reading through hundreds of lists of achievements - snooze.

Mistake #6:   Submitting a Generic Application

Read each essay topic and try to put it into the context of the college. You can easily research a college’s history online or at your local library. Try to find out what the topics were for a year or two prior to your application year. This will help you tailor your essay to the university. I am not saying that you need to write a completely different essay for each application, but it needs to appear that you did. Then that university will feel like you are taking it seriously (and you should be).

Unfortunately, these are not the only mistakes made by college applicants when writing their college admission essays, or on college applications as they go through the college admission process. To help those who are serious about getting into an Ivy League college or other top college, I outline insider information based on my experience as a recruiter and alumni interviewer for Yale University. My recommendations, tips, and insider secrets are available in The Keys to the CASTLE book (College Admissions Secrets and Tips to Look Exceptional). If you want to increase the odds of getting into a top college or your child getting into an Ivy League college, then you need to go to Keep in mind: every day that goes by that you don’t access this information, your chance of getting in decreases. High school graduation is right around the corner, don’t you want to have big plans for the following fall?


Now that I’ve shared some common mistakes with you, let me share so tips that can help you get on the right path to writing a personal statement that may help you get into the college of your choice. The essay is your opportunity to shine, so take advantage of your chance to be in the limelight. Keep in mind, that the top colleges emphasize writing ability over test taking and even interview skills.

1. Fall in love with revising
2. Use proper, standard, formal English
3. Be a storyteller - bring your life to life with feeling
4. Don’t be afraid of controversy
5. Discuss influences and your personal history - both victories AND defeats
6. Keep it short and sweet

About the author:
After graduating from Berkeley High, Kamala Appel became the first in her family to attend an Ivy League college. While at Yale, Ms. Appel was among the first to implement a recruitment program that involved both junior and senior high schools. As an alumna, Ms. Appel conducted alumni interviews with high school applicants for Yale University. Ms. Appel earned a Masters of the Arts from USC's School of Cinema and Television. During her time at University of Southern California, Ms. Appel worked closely with the Dean and Associate Dean of the Cinema School on the school's largest revenue-generating course.

Kamala Appel is the author of the award-winning book The Keys to the CASTLE (College Admissions Secrets and Tips to Look Exceptional). In the book, Ms. Appel shares secrets and tips that just may help you get in everywhere you apply to college, just as she did when she was in high school. The book is available at

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