THE BLOG
11/05/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

What NOT to Include in Your College Application Essays

Anna Bryukhanova via Getty Images

College early action and early decision deadlines have come and gone, and you know what that means! Time to start prepping even more essays. (Sorry to all those going through this process. I feel your pain.)

The good news is: I have some words of wisdom to help make sure your essays are "totally baller" or whatever the kids are saying these days. As a college application consultant I have seen the good, the bad and the just plain ugly of these college essays while helping students reach for the Ivy League, and I've come up with some helpful tips to keep the admissions committee from lighting your application on fire and laughing maniacally.

Here is my list of six top words, concepts and other flubs not to include in your college essay:

1. The Word "Actively"

Anything that you are doing is already either active or passive, so saying that you "actively" participated or "actively" listened is not going to add anything. For example, "I actively did my homework" or "I actively slept through class" are not going to improve your application's standing. The only thing that can show how active you are/were is an example of you actually doing something: "I took charge of X club" or "I organized Y event." It's the details that count. Leave the adverbs at the door.

What to use instead: Nothing. Just use the verb alone. Be brave.

2. Hyperbole

I get it. You really want to get into this school. But let's not lay it on too thick, shall we. For example, "Attending X school will be the greatest honor of my lifetime." Well, hopefully not, right? The school wants to admit people who will go on to accomplish great things--even after the age of 22. (Conversely, "I will never possibly reach my goals if I don't get into the University of Y." I mean, it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence if you imply you're going to go lie down in a ditch instead of pursuing your dreams just because of one rejection letter.)

What to use instead: This is gonna blow your mind: Tell the truth. If you want to go to college to become a child psychologist, instead of saying you want to "delve into the wonders of the human mind in a way only X University can possibly hope to allow me," just say "I want to become a child psychologist because I like working with children and I think this is valuable work."

3. The word "knowledge

For some reason, the word knowledge sounds "smart." It just does. But it doesn't work so well in college essays. Here's why: It is not at all specific. Saying you have "knowledge of robotics" or that you "seek knowledge" in the philosophy department, does not tell the reader anything. What can you make the robot you've been working on do? Dance? Sing? Kill? (Let's hope not.)

What to use instead: A clause. Let me explain. "I studied hard to gain medical knowledge." vs. "I studied how to dissect a brain and how much Tylenol to take for a broken femur." The second sentence lets us know what you actually learned!

4. Your parents

Every high school kid in the world -- no matter what they say -- needs their parents' help sometimes. But the college app is not the place for this. If I had a penny for every time someone wrote that "My parents thought I should participate in X camp" or "My parents decided it would be good for me to study abroad in Lichtenstein" I would have a few dollars. While that's not a lot of money, it is so many pennies.

What to use instead: Your own soul/ego/self. What do you want out of your education? What have you learned? Why did you want to go to Lichtenstein?

5. Jargon/specific literary references

There are two elements to this suggestion. One for math and science people and one for us humanities folks.

For mathies (or sciencers as they're sometimes called) try to tone down the use of jargon, which will likely go over the heads of the admissions committee readers, no matter how obvious it may sound to you. Don't know what your readers will or will not understand? Take this as an example: I went into an electronics store a while ago and picked up a newly-released tablet, only to realize I did not know how to find the home screen. And most of the admissions officers will be older than me.

In the humanities, let's try to avoid phrases like "Just like X happens in Proust's À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, I want to..." Referencing Proust does not make you sound smart. Well, okay, maybe it does. A little. But all it really does is remind me that I studied French for 11 years and never even came close to thinking about the possibility of actually reading Proust.

What to use instead: Let's get a little explanation for the layman. For tech, math or science concepts consider this: "I used my iPhone to tweet a meme" vs. "I used my iPhone, a magical wafer that allows me to communicate through space, to tweet (i.e. send a pithy 140-character message that included a hilarious picture of James Van Der Beek crying.)" For the humanities, just jog our memories as to what happened in Book Three of the Iliad, if you're going to reference it, so we know where you're mind is headed.

6. Too much dialogue

Take a look at this potential opening to a college essay:

"Hey, dawg, wanna hang with us or are you busy hosting that lame charity event for all those sick children?"

"Sorry, guys. I gotta help these children. I'm their only hope," I replied.

"Listen, brah," interjected Wilhelm, "Whatevs. If you're down to be cool like us, let us know, but for now we just think of you as a big dork-burger because we are emotionally immature."

"That's very unfortunate. But I have to go do charity work, not for my resume or to complete some requirement for high school, but because I am a good person who cares about people and wants to make a difference in the lives of children."

A little dialogue sets the scene. But when you include four lines of dialogue in a row, it does not do this; What it does is hang a big sign on your essay that says: "These events never actually happened. I am making them up." I don't remember the color of the shirt I am currently wearing, let alone four specific lines of dialogue from last month!

What to use instead: One or two lines of dialogue, spread throughout the essay. Just remember this rule of thumb: Dialogue is meant to be used sparingly, like mayonnaise. Here's an example to help: "I'll never forget what my father said to me that day: 'Of course I love you more than your siblings.' 'Thanks, dad,' I replied." Now that you'd remember!

Okay, now get out there and write those essays! Good luck and Godspeed.