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Example Bad Essay

Just as there are noteworthy examples of excellent college essays that admissions offices like to publish, so are there cringe-worthy examples of terrible college essays that end up being described by anonymous admissions officers on Reddit discussion boards.

While I won’t guarantee that your essay will end up in the first category, I will say that you follow my advice in this article, your essay most assuredly won’t end up in the second. How do you avoid writing a bad admissions essay? Read on to find out what makes an essay bad and to learn which college essay topics to avoid. I'll also explain how to recognize bad college essays – and what to do to if you end up creating one by accident.

 

What Makes Bad College Essays Bad

What exactly happens to turn a college essay terrible? Just as great personal statements combine an unexpected topic with superb execution, flawed personal statements compound problematic subject matter with poor execution.

 

Problems With the Topic

The primary way to screw up a college essay is to flub what the essay is about or how you’ve decided to discuss a particular experience. Badly chosen essay content can easily create an essay that is off-putting in one of a number of ways I’ll discuss in the next section.

The essay is the place to let the admissions office of your target college get to know your personality, character, and the talents and skills that aren’t on your transcript. So if you start with a terrible topic, not only will you end up with a bad essay, but you risk ruining the good impression that the rest of your application makes.

Some bad topics show admissions officers that you don’t have a good sense of judgment or maturity, which is a problem since they are building a class of college students who have to be able to handle independent life on campus. 

Other bad topics suggest that you are a boring person, or someone who doesn’t process your experience in a colorful or lively way, which is a problem since colleges want to create a dynamic and engaged cohort of students. 

Still other bad topics indicate that you're unaware of or disconnected from the outside world and focused only on yourself, which is a problem since part of the point of college is to engage with new people and new ideas, and admissions officers are looking for people who can do that.

 

Problems With the Execution

Sometimes, even if the experiences you discuss could be the foundation of a great personal statement, the way you’ve structured and put together your essay sends up warning flags. This is because the admissions essay is also a place to show the admissions team the maturity and clarity of your writing style.

One way to get this part wrong is to exhibit very faulty writing mechanics, like unclear syntax or incorrectly used punctuation. This is a problem since college-ready writing is one of the things that’s expected from a high school graduate.

Another way to mess this up is to ignore prompt instructions either for creative or careless reasons. This can show admissions officers that you're either someone who simply blows off directions and instructions or someone who can't understand how to follow them. Neither is a good thing, since they are looking for people who are open to receiving new information from professors and not just deciding they know everything already.

 

Ignoring directions to this degree is not creative, just annoying.

 

College Essay Topics To Avoid

Want to know why you're often advised to write about something mundane and everyday for your college essay? That's because the more out-there your topic, the more likely it is to stumble into one of these trouble categories.

 

Too Personal

The problem with the overly personal essay topic is that revealing something very private can show that you don’t really understand boundaries. And knowing where appropriate boundaries are will be key for living on your own with a bunch of people not related to you.

Unfortunately, stumbling into the TMI zone of essay topics is more common than you think. One quick test for checking your privacy-breaking level: if it’s not something you’d tell a friendly stranger sitting next to you on the plane, maybe don’t tell it to the admissions office.

 

Examples:

  • Describing losing your virginity, or anything about your sex life really. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about your sexual orientation – just leave out the actual physical act.
  • Writing in too much detail about your illness, disability, any other bodily functions. Detailed meaningful discussion of what this physical condition has meant to you and your life is a great thing to write about. But stay away from body horror and graphic descriptions that are simply there for gratuitous shock value.
  • Waxing poetic about your love for your significant other. Your relationship is adorable to the people currently involved in it, but those who don't know you aren't invested in this aspect of your life.
  • Confessing to odd and unusual desires of the sexual or illegal variety. Your obsession with cultivating cacti is wonderful topic, while your obsession with researching explosives is a terrible one.

 

Some secrets are better behind lock and key. Or behind industrial strength rack and pinion matching machined gears and pressure bolt.

 

Too Revealing of Bad Judgment

Generally speaking, leave past illegal or immoral actions out of your essay. It's simply a bad idea to give admissions officers ammunition to dislike you.

Some exceptions might be if you did something in a very, very different mindset from the one you’re in now (in the midst of escaping from danger, under severe coercion, or when you were very young, for example). Or if your essay is about explaining how you've turned over a new leaf and you have the transcript to back you up. 

 

Examples:

  • Writing about committing crime as something fun or exciting. Unless it's on your permanent record, and you'd like a chance to explain how you've learned your lesson and changed, don't put this in your essay.
  • Describing drug use or the experience of being drunk or high. Even if you're in a state where some recreational drugs are legal, you're a high school student. Your only exposure to mind-altering substances should be caffeine. 
  • Making up fictional stories about yourself as though they are true. You're unlikely to be a good enough fantasist to pull this off, and there's no reason to roll the dice on being discovered to be a liar. 
  • Detailing your personality flaws. Unless you have a great story of coping with one of these, leave deal-breakers like pathological narcissism out of your personal statement. 

 

You're better off not airing your dirty laundry out in public. Seriously, no one wants to smell those socks.

 

Too Overconfident

While it's great to have faith in your abilities, no one likes a relentless show-off. No matter how magnificent your accomplishments, if you decide to focus your essay on them, it's better to describe a setback or a moment of doubt rather that simply praising yourself to the skies. 

 

Examples:

  • Bragging and making yourself the flawless hero of your essay. This goes double if you're writing about not particularly exciting achievements like scoring the winning goal or getting the lead in the play.
  • Having no awareness of the actual scope of your accomplishments. It's lovely that you take time to help others, but volunteer-tutoring a couple of hours a week doesn’t make you a saintly figure.

 

Cheering on a team? Awesome. Cheering on yourself? A little obnoxious.

 

Too Clichéd or Boring

Remember your reader. In this case, you're trying to make yourself memorable to an admissions officer who has been reading thousands of other essays. If your essay makes the mistake of being boring or trite, it just won’t register in that person’s mind as anything worth paying attention to.

 

Examples:

  • Transcribing your resume into sentence form or writing about the main activity on your transcript. The application already includes your resume, or a detailed list of your various activities. Unless the prompt specifically asks you to write about your main activity, the essay needs to be about a facet of your interests and personality that doesn't come through the other parts of the application.
  • Writing about sports. Every athlete tries to write this essay. Unless you have a completely off-the-wall story or unusual achievement, leave this overdone topic be.
  • Being moved by your community service trip to a third-world country. Were you were impressed at how happy the people seemed despite being poor? Did you learn a valuable lesson about how privileged you are? Unfortunately, so has every other teenager who traveled on one of these trips. Writing about this tends to simultaneously make you sound unempathetic, clueless about the world, way over-privileged, and condescending. Unless you have a highly specific, totally unusual story to tell, don’t do it.
  • Reacting with sadness to a sad, but very common experience. Unfortunately, many of the hard, formative events in your life are fairly universal. So, if you’re going to write about death or divorce, make sure to focus on how you dealt with this event, so the essay is something only you could possibly have written. Only detailed, idiosyncratic description can save this topic. 
  • Going meta. Don’t write about the fact that you’re writing the essay as we speak, and now the reader is reading it, and look, the essay is right here in the reader's hand. It's a technique that seems clever, but has already been done many times in many different ways.
  • Offering your ideas on how to fix the world. This is especially true if your solution is an easy fix, if only everyone would just listen to you. Trust me, there's just no way you are being realistically appreciative of the level of complexity inherent in the problem you're describing. 
  • Starting with a famous quotation. There usually is no need to shore up your own words by bringing in someone else's. Of course, if you are writing about a particular phrase that you've adopted as a life motto, feel free to include it. But even then, having it be the first line in your essay feels like you're handing the keys over to that author and asking them to drive.
  • Using an everyday object as a metaphor for your life/personality. “Shoes. They are like this, and like that, and people love them for all of these reasons. And guess what? They are just like me.”

 

Shoes are from several centuries ago and tend to be used as flower vases. And that's true for me too!

 

Too Off-Topic

Unlike the essays you’ve been writing in school where the idea is to analyze something outside of yourself, the main subject of your college essay should be you, your background, your makeup, and your future. Writing about someone or something else might well make a great essay, but not for this context.

 

Examples:

  • Paying tribute to someone very important to you. Everyone would love to meet your grandma, but this isn’t the time to focus on her amazing coming of age story. If you do want to talk about a person who is important to your life, dwell on the ways you've been impacted by them, and how you will incorporate this impact into your future. 
  • Documenting how well other people do things, say things, are active, while you remain passive and inactive in the essay. Being in the orbit of someone else's important lab work, or complex stage production, or meaningful political activism is a fantastic learning moment. But if you decide to write about, your essay should be about your learning and how you've been influenced, not about the other person's achievements.
  • Concentrating on a work of art that deeply moved you. Watch out for the pitfall of writing an analytical essay about that work, and not at all about your reaction to it or how you’ve been affected since. Check out our explanation of how to answer Topic D of the ApplyTexas application to get some advice on writing about someone else's work while making sure your essay still points back at you.

 

If you write your essay about art, be the guy all the way on the right, looking right at the audience to explain what's happening. Don't be the guy who is totally absorbed by what he's looking at.

(Image: Pieter Christoffel Wonder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Too Offensive

With this potential mistake, you run the risk of showing a lack of self-awareness or the ability to be open to new ideas. Remember, no reader wants to be lectured at. If that’s what your essay does, you are demonstrating an inability to communicate successfully with others. 

Also, remember that no college is eager to admit someone who is too close-minded to benefit from being taught by others. A long, one-sided essay about a hot-button issue will suggest that you are exactly that.

 

Examples:

  • Ranting at length about political, religious, or other contentious topics. You simply don't know where the admissions officer who reads your essay stands on any of these issues. It's better to avoid upsetting or angering that person.
  • Writing a one-sided diatribe about guns, abortion, the death penalty, immigration, or anything else in the news. Even if you can marshal facts in your argument, this essay is simply the wrong place to take a narrow, unempathetic side in an ongoing debate. 
  • Mentioning anything negative about the school you’re applying to. Again, your reader is someone who works there and presumably is proud of the place. This is not the time to question the admissions officer's opinions or life choices.

 

Don't make your reader feel like they've suddenly gotten in the ring with you.

 

College Essay Execution Problems To Avoid

Bad college essays aren't only caused by bad topics. Sometimes, even if you’re writing about an interesting, relevant topic, you can still seem immature or unready for college life because of the way you present that topic – the way you actually write your personal statement. Check to make sure you haven't made any of the common mistakes on this list.

 

Tone-Deafness

Admissions officers are looking for resourcefulness, the ability to be resilient, and an active and optimistic approach to life – these are all qualities that create a thriving college student. Essays that don't show these qualities are usually suffering from tone-deafness.

 

Examples:

  • Being whiny or complaining about problems in your life. Is the essay about everyone doing things to/against you? About things happening to you, rather than you doing anything about them? That perspective is a definite turn-off.
  • Trying and failing to use humor. You may be very funny in real life, but it's hard to be successfully funny in this context, especially when writing for a reader who doesn’t know you. If you do want to use humor, I'd recommend the simplest and most straightforward version: being self-deprecating and low-key. 
  • Talking down to the reader, or alternately being self-aggrandizing. No one enjoys being condescended to. In this case, much of the function of your essay is to charm and make yourself likable, which is unlikely to happen if you adopt this tone.
  • Being pessimistic, cynical, and generally depressive. You are applying to college because you are looking forward to a future of learning, achievement, and self-actualization. This is not the time to bust out your existential ennui and your jaded, been-there-done-that attitude toward life.

 

Edvard Munch probably didn't submit "The Scream" as his admissions essay. He smartly saved all that existential angst for his post-bac!

(Image: Eduard Munch [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Lack of Personality

One good question to ask yourself is: could anyone else have written this essay? If the answer is yes, then you aren’t doing a good job of representing your unique perspective on the world. It’s very important to demonstrate your ability to be a detailed observer of the world, since that will be one of your main jobs as a college student.

 

Examples:

  • Avoiding any emotions, and appearing robot-like and cold in the essay. Unlike essays that you've been writing for class, this essay is meant to be a showcase of your authorial voice and personality. It may seem strange to shift gears after learning how to take yourself out of your writing, but this is the place where you have to put as much as yourself in as possible. 
  • Skipping over description and specific details in favor of writing only in vague generalities. Does your narrative feel like a newspaper horoscope, which could apply to every other person who was there that day? Then you’re doing it wrong and need to refocus on your reaction, feelings, understanding, and transformation.

 

Your college essay isn't the place to be indistinguishable.

 

Off-Kilter Style

There’s some room for creativity here, yes, but a college essay isn’t a free-for-all postmodern art class. True, there are prompts that specifically call for your most out-of-left-field submission, or allow you to submit a portfolio or some other work sample instead of a traditional essay. But on a standard application, it's better to stick to traditional prose, split into paragraphs, further split into sentences.

 

Examples:

  • Submitting anything other than just the materials asked for on your application. Don't send food to the admissions office, don't write your essay on clothing or shoes, don't create a YouTube channel about your undying commitment to the school. I know there are a lot of urban legends about "that one time this crazy thing worked," but they are either not true or about something that will not work a second time.
  • Writing your essay in verse, in the form of a play, in bullet points, as an acrostic, or any other non-prose form. Unless you really have a way with poetry or playwriting, and you are very confident that you can meet the demands of the prompt and explain yourself well in this form, don't discard prose simply for the sake of being different.
  • Using as many “fancy” words as possible and getting very far away from sounding like yourself. Admissions officers are unanimous in wanting to hear your not fully formed teenage voice in your essay. This means that you should write at the top of your vocabulary range and syntax complexity, but don't trade every word up for a thesaurus synonym. Your essay will suffer for it. 

 

If you dress like this every day, you can use all the fancy words you like.

 

Failure to Proofread

Most people have a hard time checking over their own work. This is why you have to make sure that someone else proofreads your writing. This is the one place where you can, should – and really must – get someone who knows all about grammar, punctuation and has a good eye for detail to take a red pencil to your final draft.

Otherwise, you look like you either don’t know the basic rules or writing (in which case, are you really ready for college work?) or don’t care enough to present yourself well (in which case, why would the admissions people care about admitting you?).

 

Examples:

  • Typos, grammatical mistakes, punctuation flubs, weird font/paragraph spacing issues. It's true that these are often unintentional mistakes. But caring about getting it right is a way to demonstrate your work ethic and dedication to the task at hand.
  • Going over the word limit. Part of showing your brilliance is being able to work within arbitrary rules and limitations. Going over the word count points to a lack of self-control, which is not a very attractive feature in a college applicant.
  • Repeating the same word(s) or sentence structure over and over again. This makes your prose monotonous and hard to read.

 

Repetition: excellent for mastering the long jump, terrible for keeping a reader's interest.

 

Bad College Essay Examples – And How to Fix Them

The beauty of writing is that you get to rewrite. So if you think of your essay as a draft waiting to be revised into a better version rather than as a precious jewel that can’t bear being touched, you’ll be in far better shape to correct the issues that always crop up!

Now let’s take a look at some actual college essay drafts to see where the writer is going wrong and how the issue could be fixed.

 

Essay #1: The “I Am Writing This Essay as We Speak” Meta-Narrative

Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine. I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.

In my junior year, I always had in mind an image of myself finishing the college essay months before the deadline. But as the weeks dragged on and the deadline drew near, it soon became clear that at the rate things are going I would probably have to make new plans for my October, November and December.

Falling into my personal wormhole, I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. “Maybe you should write about Star Trek,” she suggested, “you know how you’ve always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!” I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened.  Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

I fell into a state of panic. My college essay. My image of myself in senior year. Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there. My heart lifted, I took his advice and listed three of my greatest achievements - mastering my backgammon strategy, being a part of TREE in my sophomore year, and performing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from The Pirates of Penzance in public. And sure enough, I felt inspiration hit me and began to type away furiously into the keyboard about my experience in TREE, or Trees Require Engaged Environmentalists. I reflected on the current state of deforestation, and described the dichotomy of it being both understandable why farmers cut down forests for farmland, and how dangerous this is to our planet. Finally, I added my personal epiphany to the end of my college essay as the cherry on the vanilla sundae, as the overused saying goes.

After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal. Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.

In the middle of a hike through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, I realized that the college essay was nothing more than an embodiment of my character. The two essays I have written were not right because they have failed to become more than just words on recycled paper. The subject failed to come alive. Certainly my keen interest in Star Trek and my enthusiasm for TREE are a great part of who I am, but there were other qualities essential in my character that did not come across in the essays.

With this realization, I turned around as quickly as I could without crashing into a tree.

 

What Essay #1 Does Well

Here are all things that are working on all cylinders for this personal statement as is.

 

Killer First Sentence

Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine.

Funny, striking, memorable – this sentence has it all:
  • A strange fact. There are different kinds of tornadoes? What is a "landspout tornado" anyway?
  • A late-night-deep-thoughts hypothetical. What would it be like to be a kid whose house was destroyed in this unusual way?
  • Direct engagement with the reader. Instead of asking “what would it be like to have a tornado destroy a house” it asks “was your house ever destroyed."

 

Speaking of tornadoes, how awesome was the Wizard of Oz?

 

Gentle, Self-Deprecating Humor That Lands Well

I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened.  Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

The author has his cake and eats it too here: both making fun of himself for being super into the Star Trek mythos, but also showing himself being committed enough to try whispering a command to the Enterprise computer alone in his room. You know, just in case.

 

A Solid Point That Is Made Paragraph by Paragraph

The meat of the essay is that the two versions of himself that the author thought about portraying each fails in some way to describe the real him. Neither an essay focusing on his off-beat interests, nor an essay devoted to his serious activism could capture everything about a well-rounded person in 600 words.

 

Great Exit

With this realization, I turned around as quickly as I could without crashing into a tree.

The essay illustrates its own stopping by having the narrator literally stop in the middle of a hike and narrowly avoid a collision. That’s funny and clever without being too gimmicky.

 

The ending should be short and sweet, so your reader doesn't start wishing you'd turn into a human cannonball.

(Image: fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons.)

 

Where Essay #1 Needs Revision

Rewriting these flawed parts will make the essay shine.

 

Spending Way Too Long on the Metanarrative

I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.

In my junior year, I always had in mind an image of myself finishing the college essay months before the deadline. But as the weeks dragged on and the deadline drew near, it soon became clear that at the rate things are going I would probably have to make new plans for my October, November and December.

After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal.

Look at how long and draggy these paragraphs are, especially after that zippy opening. Is it at all interesting to read about how someone else found the process of writing hard? Not really, because this is a very common experience.

In the rewrite, I’d advise condensing all of this to maybe a sentence to get to the meat of the actual essay.

 

Letting Other People Do All the Doing

I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. “Maybe you should write about Star Trek,” she suggested, “you know how you’ve always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!”

Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there.

Twice in the essay, the author lets someone else tell him what to do. Not only that, but it sounds like both of the “incomplete” essays were dictated by the thoughts of other people and had little to do with his own ideas, experiences, or initiative.

In the rewrite, it would be better to recast both the Stark Trek and the TREE versions of the essay as the author’s own thoughts rather than someone else’s suggestions. This way, the point of the essay – taking apart the idea that a college essay could summarize life experience – is earned by the author’s two failed attempts to write that other kind of essay.

 

Don't be a passive panda. Be an active antelope.

 

Leaving the Insight and Meaning Out of His Experiences

Both the Star Trek fandom and the TREE activism were obviously important life experiences for this author – important enough to be potential college essay topic candidates. But there is no description of what the author did with either one, nor any explanation of why these were so meaningful to his life.

It’s fine to say that none of your achievements individually define you, but in order for that to work, you have to really sell the achievements themselves. 

In the rewrite, it would be good to explore what he learned about himself and the world by pursuing these interests. How did they change him or seen him into the person he is today?

 

Not Adding New Shades and Facets of Himself Into the Mix

So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.

In both of these passages, there is the perfect opportunity to point out what exactly these failed versions of the essay didn't capture about the author. In the next essay draft, I would suggest subtly making a point about his other qualities.

For example, after the Star Trek paragraph, he could talk about other culture he likes to consume, especially if he can discuss art forms he is interested in that would not be expected from someone who loves Star Trek.

Or, after the TREE paragraph, the author could explain why this second essay was no better at capturing him than the first. What was missing? Why is the self in the essay shouting – is it because this version paints him as an overly aggressive activist?

 

Star Trek fans are a dime a dozen. But a Trekkie who is also a graffiti aficionado? Now that's a novel intersection of cultural tastes.

 

Essay #2: The “I Once Saw Poor People” Service Trip Essay

Unlike other teenagers, I’m not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive. My whole outlook on life changed after I realized that my life was just being handed to me on a silver spoon, and yet there were those in the world who didn’t have enough food to eat or place to live. I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.

During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness. But my most vivid memory was the moment I first got to the farming town. The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water? As these questions rolled around my already dazed mind, I heard a soft voice asking me in Spanish, “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”  I looked down to see a small boy, around nine years of age, who looked starved, and cold, wearing tattered clothing, comforting me. These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate ahead of themselves. It was at that moment that I saw how selfish I had been. How many people suffered like this in the world, while I went about life concerned about nothing at all?

Thinking back on the trip, maybe I made a difference, maybe not. But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.

 

What Essay #2 Does Well

Let's first point out what this draft has going for it.

 

Clear Chronology

This is an essay that tries to explain a shift in perspective. There are different ways to structure this overarching idea, but a chronological approach that starts with an earlier opinion, describes a mind changing event, and ends with the transformed point of view is an easy and clear way to lay this potentially complex subject out.

 

Arranging your narrative in order of what happened when is a simple and surefire strategy.

(Image: User:Lite via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Where Essay #2 Needs Revision

Now let's see what needs to be changed in order for this essay to pass muster.

 

Condescending, Obnoxious Tone

Unlike other teenagers, I’m not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive.

This is a very broad generalization, which doesn’t tend to be the best way to formulate an argument – or to start an essay. It just makes this author sound dismissive of a huge swath of the population.

In the rewrite, this author would be way better off just concentrate on what she want to say about herself, not pass judgment on “other teenagers,” most of whom she doesn’t know and will never meet.

I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.

Coming from someone who hasn’t earned her place in the world through anything but the luck of being born, the word “compassion” sounds really condescending. Calling others "less fortunate" when you're a senior in high school has a dehumanizing quality to it.

These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate in front of themselves.

Again, this comes across as very patronizing. Not only that, but to this little boy the author was clearly not looking all that “fortunate” – instead, she looked pathetic enough to need comforting.

In the next draft, a better hook could be making the essay about the many different kinds of shifting perspectives the author encountered on that trip. A more meaningful essay would compare and contrast the points of view of the TV commercials, to what the group leader said, to the author's own expectations, and finally to this child’s point of view.

 

It may help to imagine you have the compound eyes of an insect. How many different perspectives can you see and describe?

 

Vague, Unobservant Description

During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness.

Phrases like “cries of the small children from not having enough to eat” and “dirt stained rags” seem like descriptions, but they're really closer to incurious and completely hackneyed generalizations. Why were the kids were crying? How many kids? All the kids? One specific really loud kid?

The same goes for “filthy rags,” which is both an incredibly insensitive way to talk about the clothing of these villagers, and again shows a total lack of interest in their life. Why were their clothes dirty? Were they workers or farmers so their clothes showing marks of labor? Did they have Sunday clothes? Traditional clothes they would put on for special occasions? Did they make their own clothes? That would be a good reason to keep wearing clothing even if it had “stains” on it.

The rewrite should either make this section more specific and less reliant on cliches, or should discard it altogether.

The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. 

If this is the “most vivid memory,” then I would expect to read all the details that have been seared into the author's brain. What did their leader tell them? What was different in real life? What was the light like? What did the houses/roads/grass/fields/trees/animals/cars look like? What time of day was it? Did they get there by bus, train, or plane? Was there an airport/train station/bus terminal? A city center? Shops? A marketplace?

There are any number of details to include here when doing another drafting pass.

 

Reading vague generalizations is like trying to make sense of this blurry picture. Is it flowers? Holiday lights? Confetti? Who knows. And after a while, who cares?

 

Lack of Insight or Maturity 

But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water?

Without a framing device explaining that this initial panic was an overreaction, this section just makes the author sound whiny, entitled, melodramatic, and immature. After all, this isn’t a a solo wilderness trek – the author is there with a paid guided program. Just how much mortality is typically associated with these very standard college-application-boosting service trips?

In a rewrite, I would suggest including more perspective on the author's outsized and overprivileged response here. This would fit well with a new focus on the different points of view on this village the author encountered.

 

Unearned, Clichéd “Deep Thoughts”

But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.

Is it really believable that this is what the author learned? There is maybe some evidence to suggest that the author was shaken somewhat out of a comfortable, materialistic existence. But what does “there is more to life than just being alive” even really mean? This conclusion is rather vague, and seems mostly a non sequitur.

In a rewrite, the essay should be completely reoriented to discuss how differently others see us than we see ourselves, pivoting on the experience of being pitied by someone who you thought was pitiable. Then, the new version can end by on a note of being better able to understand different points of view and other people’s perspectives.

 

It's important to include deep thoughts and insights into your essay - just make sure your narrative supports your conclusions!

  

The Bottom Line

  • Bad college essays have problems either with their topics or their execution.
  • The essay is how admissions officers learn about your personality, point of view, and maturity level, so getting the topic right is a key factor in letting them see you as an aware, self-directed, open-minded applicant who is going to thrive in an environment of independence.
  • The essay is also how admissions officers learn that you are writing at a ready-for-college level, so screwing up the execution shows that you either don’t know how to write, or don’t care enough to do it well.
  • The main ways college essay topics go wrong is bad taste, bad judgment, and lack of self-awareness.
  • The main ways college essays fail in their execution have to do with ignoring format, syntax, and genre expectations.

 

What’s Next?

Want to read some excellent college essays now that you've seen some examples of flawed one? Take a look through our roundup of college essay examples published by colleges and then get help with brainstorming your perfect college essay topic.

Need some guidance on other parts of the application process? Check out our detailed, step-by-step guide to college applications for advice.

Are you considering taking the SAT or ACT again before you submit your application? Read about our famous test prep guides for hints and strategies for a better score.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

How To Write An Essay

Part 8 - Examples of Good and Bad Writing

Learning to write often works best by example. The following are excerpts from nine first-year student essays. Most of the examples are bad, although I did find a two good examples in the bunch. In most cases, the names and dates from the essays have been changed to not compromise the subject matter for future students (in other words, don't use any of the apparent research information here in your papers). I have tried to categorize the errors as best as I could. Errors or bad portions are usually bolded to help you identify them.


Good Examples

Smith was a religious, Christian man. His notion of monads included contextual references to God. He believed that God controls the harmony of life through these monads.

The essay then goes on to discuss these monads in a Christian context. Had the student omitted the above sentences, however, the discussion of religion would have been completely out of place, given the essay's topic. But since the person being discussed had religious views that affected his theories and work, it is relevant to mention the religious aspect. Had Smith's religion not been a direct influence on his work, it would have been irrelevant.

Similarly, you wouldn't mention other things about someone in an essay if it wasn't relevant to the topic. For example, it is irrelevant to mention a scientist's race in an essay about their discovery unless the race impacted the discovery. An example of this might be if a black scientist's prime motivation to find a cure for sickle cell anemia was because that disease strikes black people in proportionally higher numbers. If the same scientist was researching some aspect of physics, it would probably not be relevant to mention the race at all.


An introductory paragraph:

On March 4, 1849, John Smith was born to Anna Bradcock Smith and James Smith. Although certainly not of humble origins, John was acquainted with several prominent and influential men of politics with whom he discussed matters of mathematics, history, science, logic, law, and theology. Smith was brilliant in each of these fields, but he became known particularly for his contributions in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, and logistics. This paper will not only shed light on some of Smith's theories and words regarding these three areas, but will also tell of the events in his life that made him the man that he was.

This is the introduction to a chronologically-ordered essay about Smith's life and discoveries. As such, the choice to begin with his date of birth is a good one. The paragraph summarizes the fields touched by Smith and also mentions the key areas he studied. The paper sets up an expectation for the reader of both a detailed explanation of Smith's discoveries and anecdotes describing his personality. The sentence structure is grammatically sound and flows well.


Bad Examples

Bad Grammar

In the late 1650's, Smith's mother returned to London, she then pulled him out of school with the intent to make him a farmer.

  1. Apostrophes indicate possessiveness or contractions, not plurality. The decade is the 1650s.
  2. The sentence is a run-on. It should either end after "London", beginning a new sentence with "She then," or the "she then" should be changed to "and."
  3. To make someone a farmer is to create a farmer for them. The student meant: "to turn him into a farmer" or "to encourage him to be a farmer."

Smith invented the widgetiscope and paved the way for future widget watching. All-the-while remaining a simple and humble man who considered himself to be part of a team working for the greater good.

  1. The bolded part is not a complete sentence. The entire thing should be one sentence.
  2. "All-the-while" does not require hyphenation.

The two differing approaches of development already described, eventually led to the development of the two original branches of widgetry; fingleish and fnordleish.

This sentence is mispunctuated. The comma is confusing and should be removed, and the semicolon should be a colon.


Awkward Wording

Another of Smith's ideas was the method of differentiation. The university re-opened after the plague in 1667. Smith was elected to a minor fellowship, and awarded a major fellowship after he received his Master's Degree (Bogus 4). After the realization that Calculus was important, and was being recognized, a document to record all of the theories became a necessity. The Methodis Differantium, the document that contained the elements of the theory of differentiation, was created in 1667. Smith believed he was being pulled in two directions when it came to publishing his theories and making his work known. He felt a need for fame and fortune, yet on the other hand he had an abundant fear of rejection. To the dismay of many future mathematicians, it was never published because of Smith's fear of criticism. Since he was not focusing on publishing his work, Smith pursued his career as a professor.

This so-called paragraph is an utter mess. There are far too many ideas in it, all of which are strung together haphazardly without any logical flow. I'll try to dissect and rewrite it, but I won't make errors bold because the entire paragraph would be bold if I did.

First, let's pick out the different topics being addressed:

  1. the method of differentiation
  2. the university re-opening after the plague
  3. Smith's ascension through the university ranks
  4. the need of a document detailing differentiation, which was eventually created
  5. Smith's mental state, desires and fears

Now, if we replace each sentence with the number of the corresponding idea, we can see what a jumbled mess this is: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 4, 3.

Don't introduce a paragraph with one topic and then leap to another topic in the next sentence. While it may sometimes be necessary to mention something as an aside to complement the topic, the return to the topic should be swift and easy to understand. Don't bounce around within the paragraph as this student has done.

Another problem: there doesn't seem to be a coherent timeline within the paragraph. Did the university re-open in 1667, or was the plague in 1667? Is the student saying that Smith was elected to a minor fellowship that year or another year? Similarly, when did the major fellowship and Master's Degree come in? It's unlikely to have all happened in one year, though it is possible. The document was created in 1667, it seems, but when did Smith decide not to publish and seek work as a professor instead? Also 1667? It sounds like that was a very busy year for poor Smith!

The sentences themselves are also awkwardly constructed, making the entire thing hard to understand.

I'll make some assumptions regarding the confusing date information. Here is how this information should have been presented:

Smith's ideas on the method of differentiation were gaining recognition in the mathematical community, which made it necessary for him to produce a document detailing all of his theories on the subject. Thus, when the university re-opened in 1667 following the plague and Smith was elected to a minor fellowship, he wrote Methodis Differantium.

Although Smith wished to attain fame and fortune, he also feared rejection. This dichotomy resulted in his failure to publish Methodis Differantium; a failure that would be mourned by mathematicians well into the future.

Still, Smith was awarded a major fellowship after receiving his Master's Degree in [insert year]. Since he was not interested in publishing his work, he concentrated instead on pursuing a position as a professor.


Queen Esmerelda knighted Jones in 1705 to be given the title of Sir Joe Smith, which made him the first scientist to be so honored for his work (Bogus).

  1. The phrase "to be given" is awkward here. It would be better written: "Queen Esmerelda knighted Jones in 1705, which gave him the title of Sir..."
  2. Who else could be honoured for Smith's work other than Smith? It should say: "...which made him the first man to be honored for scientific work."
  3. There probably should be a page number listed in the citation.

Jones had a main idea of analytic geometry.

What does this mean? Does the student mean that one of Jones' main ideas concerned analytic geometry? Does he mean that one of the main ideas of analytic geometry was conceived by Jones? Or does he mean something else entirely? This makes little sense and is very awkward.


Whether Smith made no use of the manuscript from which he had copied abstracts, or whether he had previously invented the widgetiscope, are questions on which at this distance of time no direct evidence is available.

  1. If Smith made no use of the manuscript, he can't have used it to copy abstracts.
  2. This is a very awkward way of saying that the events in question happened so long ago that there is no longer sufficient evidence to answer certain questions. It would be better written:

Questions as to whether Smith made further use of the manuscript from which he copied abstracts or whether he had previously invented the widgetiscope are rooted so far in the past that it is impossible to gather sufficient direct evidence to provide answers.

This is still a bit awkward. It's best when broken up into smaller sentences:

There are still questions as to whether Smith made further use of the manuscript from which he copied abstracts or whether he had previously invented the widgetiscope. Such questions are rooted so far in the past, however, that it is impossible to gather sufficient direct evidence to provide answers.


Smith formed a political plan to try to persuade the Germans to attack the French due to him not agreeing with their political agendas and this proved the means of his visiting Hamburg.

  1. "Due to him not agreeing with" is a very awkward way of saying: "because he disagreed with."
  2. The second bolded part should be a separate sentence.
  3. "Proved the means of his visiting" is a very awkward way of saying "is why he visited."

Hyperbole

Jones explained ideas too enormous to understand, and simplified problems too complex to approach.

Not only is this hyperbole, it's also logically impossible. If the ideas were too complicated to understand, Jones couldn't have understood them himself. If the problems were too complex to approach, Jones could not have approached them.

More samples of hyperbole can be found in the collection of items with several errors.


Mismatched Words, Phrases, and Pronouns

After marrying Elizabeth, Smith's father fell ill for several months. After no sign of recovery, a lawyer was summoned to the manor. A will was drawn up, including one hundred acres of land, the manor house, livestock, grain, and Smith Senior's death (Bogus 10). His mother gave birth to Smith three months after Smith senior died. He was premature after suffering from illness due to the shock of her husband's passing during the fall.

  1. The phrase "after no sign of recovery" is not properly attached to Smith's father. Instead, it is saying that the lawyer did not recover from something.
  2. A will does not include land, a house, etc. It states to whom such things are bequeathed. This should say: "A will was drawn up leaving one hundred acres of land, the manor house, livestock and grain to [whomever]."
  3. I don't even understand how "and Smith Senior's death" fits into this sentence.
  4. "His" in the sentence "His mother gave birth..." refers to the antecedent "Smith Senior." Thus, Smith Senior's mother gave birth to Smith Senior's son. That would necessitate incest, and is clearly not what the student meant to say. They should have simply said "Elizabeth gave birth..."
  5. Who else but someone's mother gives birth to them anyway?
  6. Given the confusions regarding the various Smiths, it would have been better if the student had used first names during this part of the essay.
  7. There is inconsistency in capitalization. It is Smith Senior once, and Smith senior another time.
  8. The "he" in "he was premature" again refers to the wrong antecedent. Smith Senior was not premature.
  9. Smith did not suffer illness due to the shock of Smith Senior's passing. Elizabeth did. This sentence says that Smith suffered the illness.
  10. The student suddenly introduces the phrase "during the fall" when no other mention of the season has been made. This could be confused with Smith Senior dying from a fall.

Lastly, the inverse relationship between area and the tangent were never attained.

"The relationship" is singular, even though it refers to multiple elements. Thus, the verb "were" should be singular as well, and changed to "was."


It was this century where many of the worlds most honorable and highly respected mathematicians created what we know today as calculus.

  1. A century is not a place, it is a section of time. Say it is a "place where..." or a "time when..." In this case, "It was this century when..."
  2. Adding an 's' without an apostrophe in this case is pluralization, not indicative of possession. The student means "world's."

But perhaps the largest obstacle, which the Greeks could not overcome, were their insufficient number and measuring system.

"Were" is plural, but "obstacle" and "system" are singular. It should be "was."


Tragically at the age of six, Smith's father died.

This says that Smith's father died at the age of six. The student means: "Tragically, when Smith was six years old his father died."


Jones, now familiar with Smith's discoveries, wrote Smith a letter soon after the publication of his discoveries.

After the publication of whose discoveries: Jones' or Smith's?


Misused Words and Phrases

Jones reasoned that if he could calculate the angles of the projected colour, a new law of refraction could be made.

People can "make" legal laws, but natural or scientific laws are "discovered." To "make" a new law of refraction, Jones would have to alter physics.


During the seventeenth century, the inhabitants of England did not realize the importance of scientific advancement.

  1. "Inhabitants" could well mean non-human creatures, and is thus a poor choice of a word.
  2. Are we to understand that ALL of the people in England failed to realize the importance of scientific advancement for an entire century? It would have been better if the student had said "most people in England."

At the current time, the dominant belief was that light traveled in wave.

  1. The current time is the moment the reader is reading the sentence. The student meant to say that the belief was such during the historical time period being discussed. "Current" should be omitted.
  2. The phrase "in wave" has an error. It should either be "in waves" or "in a wave." Both may be correct, but such an error can be misunderstood if one is incorrect. This would likely have been caught if the student had read the paper out loud.

Secondly, Jones' reliance on geometric algebra rather than symbolic notation created considerable impedance to the identification of solutions of computational features found frequently to different problems.

Here is an example of a student not knowing the proper meaning of a word. Impedance means opposition to the flow of electric current. It does not mean the same as to impede, which is to be an obstacle. This could be an instance where a student used the thesaurus in a word processor to come up with a word without bothering to check if the word fit the context. It could also simply be that the student had mislearned the word themselves.

Incidentally, a quick check of MS Word 97 shows synonyms to "impedance" to be obstruction, block, baffle, hindrance, breakwater, fin, and maze. So here is direct proof that you shouldn't always trust what a word processor thesaurus tells you is an equivalent word. Be diligent and look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary before using them in your essay.


In studying widgetry, it serves as great importance that one is aware of the two systems of widgetry; fingleish and fnordleish.

Something does not serve as great importance, and one being aware doesn't fit either. This is a student trying to sound fancy but instead making no sense. The sentence should read:

In studying widgetry, one should be aware of the two systems of widgetry; fingleish and fnordleish.


General Sloppiness

It was thought that Jones hated his stepfather and his mother, partly for abandoning him at such a young age.

  1. Who thought so?
  2. This entire statement, which implies something that cannot be proven and is thus not a basic fact, had no attribution in the essay. Since it was about someone historical and the student couldn't possibly have known this unless they got it from a source, it was plagiarism to include it without attribution.

Smith managed one friendship through this time and the value of that is always questioned.

  1. Who is questioning the value? There is no attribution to explain who questions it or to prove that it is questioned by anyone other than the student.
  2. What precisely is being questioned? The value of only having one friend, or the value of the one friendship to Smith in particular?

...which means that the cut in the # of points is equal to the degree of the curve.

Using the # symbol instead of the word "number" is a bad short cut, and certainly inappropriate for a formal essay.


Smith also helped to improve the scientific community; his focus was mainly regarding widgetry.

How does a focus on a subject help to improve a community? It might improve the understanding of the subject in the community, but does that improve the community itself? This is a badly worded assertion. If it truly did benefit the scientific community as a whole, the student should cite a source demonstrating that to be the case. No attribution was present.


In one day, John's attitude towards school changed for the better. A boy ranked just above him kicked him in the stomach. At the end of the day John challenged the boy to a fight. Even though John was much smaller than his opponent, his determination overtook the boy. Winning the fight was still not enough. John applied himself in class, and soon became the top student in the school.

  1. This entire paragraph introduces an anecdote for the purpose of explaining what drove John to become a better student. Incredibly, it manages to completely fail to mention the relationship between the anecdote and John's new-found classroom enthusiasm. The relationship is implied and the reader can guess that John wished to beat the boy in more than just a physical fight, and thus worked hard to outrank the boy in the classroom, but that is not stated.
  2. The paragraph is very choppy and the sentences do not flow well. Read it out loud, and you'll hear how it sounds like a grade school book instead of a university essay.

During this time, Smith constructed a water clock. He constructed the clock out of an old box.

This is choppy. It could be easily combined into one sentence.


Jones became began to study motion.

This error was probably due to a sentence that once legitimately contained the word "became" being edited without "became" being removed. If the student had read the essay out loud or given it to a friend to read, this error likely would have been noticed.


Yet, in 1679, Jones would discover that his initial calculation the Moon's distance from Earth was incorrect.

Here is another example of a simple error of omission that could have been caught if the student had read the essay aloud or given it to a friend to read. The word "of" should be between "calculation" and "the." That one small error makes the entire sentence awkward and confusing. If the instructor has to reread the sentence to try to understand its meaning, the flow of the essay is interrupted. If this happens often enough in the essay, it gives an overall bad impression on what otherwise might be a very good paper in terms of research.

More examples of errors that could have been caught if the students had bothered to read their essay:

According to hi diary...

One of Smith's main contribution was his use of...

Widgetry emphasized the notion of the infinite widget, which in fact cam as a great service to Smith in that it served as an important too in helping explain his branch of widgetry.

Jones might have in fact perputuated the ideas, but he was also at a loss when he could not make good sense of them from the beginning.

Admiration for Smith grew in the filed of widgetry.

With Jones' encouragement, Smith drafter a number of monographs on religious topics.

Smith considers out universe to be a gravitational system...

On August 10, 1777, Jones was ent a letter from...


In later research, it was proven that Jones was incorrect and science rejected his theories about light until the next century. Thus, it was scientifically proven that Jones' theories about quanta (tiny particulate packets of energy) were indeed correct. The wave formulation was also correct.

  1. When was this "later research?" Who performed the research? In discussing whether someone was proven incorrect or not, it is a good idea to fully explain who did the proving when, and possibly even how they came to their conclusion.
  2. These sentences contradict each other. Was Jones proven incorrect or correct? Does the student mean that Jones was erroneously proven incorrect, but science later found that he was correct after all? Or was Jones correct about some things and not others?
  3. The use of "Thus" implies causality. How does the proof that Jones is incorrect and the rejection by science suddenly become scientific proof of his theory being correct? Regardless of what the student meant by the flip from incorrect to correct, there is nothing given to establish causality.

Regardles of whether...

It's disappointing to see such sloppiness as this in an essay. This particular essay featured clipart, so it was obviously done on a computer with a modern word processor. It clearly wasn't spell-checked. Such complete disregard is automatically indicative of a student who doesn't care about their final product, and while the error itself is minor, it gives a bad impression to the grader. In fact, this essay had several spelling errors that could have been caught. That's inexcusable at the university level.


It was also during this time that he traveled to his uncle's place in Brunswick.

"Place" is colloquial. Use "home," "apartment," "residence" or other such appropriate word instead.


Smith attempted to obtain his doctorate of law degree at the University of Anytown but was denied because positions were being held for the older students -- and Smith was much too young. Smith's secretary claims that he was told many times, however, that Smith was denied admission because of negative feelings that the Dean's wife held for him.

  1. Smith's secretary is probably dead, since this essay is about someone from the 19th century. Therefore, they no longer claim anything. It should be past tense.
  2. Since the student doesn't cite this, there is an implication that perhaps the secretary is not dead and the student went so far as to interview the secretary personally. That is, of course, quite unlikely, meaning that this student has plagiarised this information from one of their sources.

The following are a few concepts that form the basis of Leibnizian calculus: [followed by three bulleted paragraphs comprised mostly of direct quotation]

Using bullets in a formal essay is rarely appropriate. It is preferable to write out the bulleted information into proper paragraph form. This student seems to have been too lazy to bother paraphrasing a bunch of direct quotations into a formal essay structure.


Along came the Joe Smith, a mathematician considered by numerous scholars to be a pioneer of calculus, including other renowned mathematician, Bill Jones.

  1. "The" Joe Smith? There has only been one?
  2. The student means "another," not "other." Sloppy.

The first page of the essay starts with:

have been developed (5).

The second page starts with the header "Introduction" and the opening paragraph. Clearly, the student stapled the pages out of order. What a sloppy mistake! Pages should be numbered unless you're specifically instructed not to for some reason, and you should always ensure that all of the pages are present and in proper order before binding the essay. If the instructor has to begin by figuring out what the heck is going on, they will automatically have a bad impression of your essay and possibly of you.


Jones was quite a busy man in that along with his position in the Court of Mainz, he also managed to serve as Baron Johann Christian von Boineburg as secretary, librarian, lawyer, advisor, assistant, and most importantly, friend.

  1. "Quite a busy man" is a bit colloquial. "A busy man" would do.
  2. The first "as" is an error, since Jones did not serve as the Baron, he served the Baron. This may have been caught if the student had read their essay out loud.

Several Errors Combined

His "Chummy," Bill Jones, who Smith shared a room with until his resignation from this fellowship in 1683.

  1. "Chummy" should only be included if it was Smith's actual word for Jones. If this is the case, it is a quotation from a source and should be cited. If not, it is colloquial and should just say "His friend Bill Jones..."
  2. "Who" should be "whom" in this case. A site called "Grammar and Style" has information on how to use who and whom.
  3. This isn't even a complete sentence.

Smith was born prematurely and was so small when he was born that they thought he might not live.

  1. Repeating that he was born is redundant.
  2. Who does "they" refer to? Doctors? Parents? Relatives? Townsfolk? It is a pronoun without an antecedent.

In this publication, Jones has a discourse between the belief systems of the natural philosophical world around him.

  1. "Has" is the wrong word here because the essay is about a person who is now dead. Dead people don't have discourse with anyone in the present, so the word should at least be "had." But even "had" is awkward, and a better word would be "wrote."
  2. "Discourse" means to converse, especially orally. One does not speak orally in a publication. It is written. This word should be omitted.
  3. "Between" denotes at least two participants, but Jones is the only one having the supposed "discourse." This too should be omitted.
  4. "Natural philosophical world" is confusing. Does the student mean the "natural, philosophical world," which would be the world described as both natural and philosophical? Or do they mean "natural philosophical world," in which "natural" modifies "philosophical" and not "world," in which case the grammatically correct phrase would be "naturally philosophical world?"

This would be better written as:

In this publication, Jones wrote of the belief systems of the natural, philosophical world around him.

or, depending on the answer to the fourth point:

In this publication, Jones wrote of the belief systems of the naturally philosophical world around him.


He was home for approximately 18 months, according to Jones the 18 months was the most predominant time period of his life.

  1. This is a run-on sentence. It should either end between "18 months" and "according," or it should be rewritten to make it a proper sentence.
  2. "18 months" is repeated for no reason.
  3. "18 months" is plural, so it should be "18 months were" not "18 months was."
  4. "Predominant" means superior especially in power or numbers. Something cannot be "most superior." "Most" should be omitted.
  5. "Predominant" is not the best word in this case anyway. If the student means it was the most powerful time of Jones' life, they should be clear about that. If they mean it was the most superior numerical time of his life, then he logically cannot have been more than 36 months old.

Simpson was content after his ability to reproduce Smith's experiment. Jones was not that easy, the two men fought constantly.

  1. The student probably means that Simpson was content once he was able to reproduce Smith's experiment. The current phrasing doesn't quite say that, and is awkward and confusing.
  2. Jones was "not that easy" to what? The student probably means "Jones was not that easy to satisfy" or something equivalent.
  3. This is a run-on sentence. It should end after "easy," or be rewritten to be grammatically correct.
  4. Which two men? Simpson and Jones or Smith and Jones?

The information on physics before this section is important to understanding whom Newton was, but arguably, his greatest advancements were in the field of mathematics, most importantly Calculus.

  1. Incorrect use of "whom." Should be "who." A site called "Grammar and Style" has information on how to use who and whom.
  2. There should not be a comma between "arguably" and "his."
  3. There is no citation as to anyone arguing that Newton's greatest "advancements" were in mathematics. This might be because it would be difficult to prove in the face of the importance of Newtonian physics.
  4. "Advancements" is probably the wrong word. "Achievements" or "discoveries" would be better. Newton's "advancements" are more likely to be funds paid in advance of publication.
  5. The addition of "most importantly" is awkward. "Particularly" would have been a better word.
  6. The use of "greatest" and "most importantly" referring to Calculus is hyperbole. Given that this essay was for a Calculus class, it sounds like a kiss-up. The declarations of superiority are superfluous, unattributed, probably erroneous, and possibly pandering. It's all very ugly.

A concluding sentence:

Smith's great work, theories, and studies will continue to live on forever in the ever-changing world of science and mathematics.

  1. How can the student know that Smith's work will "live on" forever? That's an impossible assertion to make.
  2. Work, theories and studies don't "live." They exist, but they are not organic creatures.
  3. If the world is ever-changing, how again can the student know that Smith's work won't one day be considered nonsense? Or lost entirely?
  4. "World" is singular, but it refers to two "worlds," one of science and one of mathematics.
  5. This conclusion reeks of hyperbole. (So does the phrase "reeks of hyperbole," but this is not a formal essay.)

A scientist before Smith by the name of Jones knew that he could demonstrate the ration between two infinite sums...

  1. The phrasing here is a bit awkward. It would be better phrased: "Jones, a predecessor of Smith, knew that..."
  2. "Ration" is the wrong word. The student meant "ratio." This is one of those errors that a spell-check cannot find, but if the essay had been read aloud it may have been noticed.

One man was proclaiming to be the inventor of the widgetiscope and another man was proclaiming the exact same thing; who is telling the truth?

  1. The main problem here is the change in tense. You can't go from "was" to "is" if the subject remains fixed in time. Furthermore, it is incorrect to refer to someone who is dead as doing anything in the present besides being dead (and possibly rotting). A dead person is not telling anything right now, but they were in the past.
  2. Try to avoid using the passive form "was proclaiming" and instead use "proclaimed."
  3. This particular statement is also bad because of the subject matter. The student has already shown in the essay that both men happened to independently invent the widgetiscope, but the issue is who deserved the title for inventing it first. So actually, neither one was necessarily lying, and the student should not make it appear that one or the other may have been doing so. You must be careful not to libel people.
  4. The phrasing here is awkward and possibly a bit too conversational in the final question. A better way of writing this would be:

    Two men proclaimed to be the inventor of calculus, but only one could be given the credit.


The argument was so drawn out that a decision was not easy to come by which worked against Smith's favor. Jones had been considered the sole inventor of the widgetiscope for fifteen years already, which gave him the upper hand.

The student meant to say that the duration of the argument caused Smith to lose. But because the student failed to put the necessary comma between the bolded words, this sentence actually says, by means of a complicated string of multiple negatives, that it was not easy to come to a decision against Smith, meaning he won. This sentence would be better worded this way:

Because the argument took so long, Smith lost.

But then, at the beginning of the next paragraph, the student writes:

The argument took years to unravel and never really came to a definitive decision.

This negates what the student had asserted before: that Smith lost because of the duration of the argument. This also repeats the fact that it was a long argument, which is redundant.


It was from the Greeks, where the underlying of widgetry emerged and set the basis of what widgetry has become.

  1. The Greeks are a people, not a place, so things come from "whom," not "where."
  2. The comma in this sentence should not be there. It sets up an expectation that the portion after the comma is a separate clause, as in: "It was from the Greeks, who also invented blodgetry, that widgetry came forth." Note that because the "who" is in the separate clause, it should not be "whom."
  3. The underlying what? You can't just say the underlying of widgetry. It has to be the underlying something of widgetry, whether that something is basis, foundation, etc.

Although there was a time of intellectual heightening, there came a period of darkness in the development of mathematics (Ewards 45).

  1. "Intellectual heightening" is an icky, awkward phrase. "Intellectual development" would have been much better.
  2. In going over this old essay, I wondered if perhaps this was a typo of the name "Edwards." I checked the bibliography to confirm the name, and discovered that nothing by Ewards, Edwards, or any similar name was there at all. Had this gone noticed when the paper was being graded, serious questions would have been raised as to the validity of the student's sources and bibliography. Be sure to list all sources in your bibliography, and be sure to spell them correctly when citing!

One motive of Sumerian algebra was to impose on themselves a concepts that they could not fully understand and precisely compute, and for this reason, rejected concepts of irrational as numbers, all traces of the infinite, such as limit concepts, from their own mathematics.

  1. "Motive" applies to "Sumerian algebra," not "Sumerians." Therefore, that motive cannot be imposed on "themselves." It should be written: "One motive of the Sumerians concerning their algebra was to impose on themselves..." although that is still an awkward phrase.
  2. "Concepts" should not be plural. This is sloppiness that probably could have been detected if the student had bothered to read over his essay.
  3. The sentence should end after "compute." A new sentence should begin, "For this reason..."
  4. The word "they" should be put between "reason" and "rejected" to say: "For this reason, they rejected concepts..."
  5. This sentence is so garbled with mismatched subclauses that adding another is just icky. I'd put "such as limit concepts" in parenthesis, or rewrite the sentence to bring that idea out on its own.

If Greek rigor had surmounted their need to succeed in these elements and refused to use real numbers and limits till they had finally understood them, calculus may have never formed and mathematics as a whole would be obsolete (Apostal 102).

  1. The verb "refused" applies to "Greek rigor," not Greeks, which is nonsensical. Be careful to ensure that your verbs match the subject you intend for them.
  2. Don't use "till" when you mean "until." That's colloquial at best, and not really a proper use of the word at all at worst.
  3. The proper phrase is "have never been formed." To say something never formed begs the question: What didn't it form?
  4. Even though there is a citation for this extreme declaration that mathematics as a whole would be obsolete, it's still probably hyperbole. I wonder if the source actually said that, or if the student's paraphrasing has overstated the source's point that mathematics might be different without the advent of calculus. Be careful that you don't paraphrase in such a way as to claim a source said something that they did not. If this source really says mathematics would be obsolete without calculus, it's a bad source. Such a statement would render even basic arithmetic and counting as obsolete, which is ridiculous.

Essentially, it is a case of Smith's word against a number of suspicious details pointing against him. He acknowledged possession of a copy of part of one of Jones' manuscripts, on more than one occasion he deliberately altered or added to important documents before publishing them, and a material date I none of his manuscripts had been falsified (1675 had been changed to 1673)(Bogus, 78)

  1. "Essentially" isn't technically incorrect here, but students do have a tendency to use words like "essentially" and "basically" too often. It's somewhat conversational, and possibly colloquial. Try to avoid it unless something is truly essential.
  2. "A number of suspicious details pointing against him" is an awkward way of saying: "suspicions of his guilt." But what the student means is not suspicions, but points of evidence.
  3. When you list several examples of something you've indicated, the way to punctuate it is as follows (note the placement of the colon and subsequent semicolons):

    [Point being made]:[proof 1];[proof 2];[proof 3]; and[proof 4].

    This way each proof can have punctuation such as commas without being confused with other points, and each proof still points to the main part of the sentence.

  4. The "a material date I none of" doesn't seem to make sense at all. I think the whole thing is there in error, but for all I know the student was trying to say something different. I can't believe the student read this over and found it comprehensible.
  5. The parenthetical comment is important enough to be in the sentence properly. The student likely put the information in parentheses because the sentence was too awkwardly full of commas and clauses already. Had the student properly punctuated the list of evidence, they would have been able to put this date information in as part of a proof segment.
  6. The sentence has no period, which is sloppy.

This entire thing should be rewritten to say:

It is a case of Smith's word against the evidence of his guilt: he acknowledged possession of a copy of Jones' manuscripts; on more than one occasion he deliberately altered or added to important documents before publishing them; and his manuscripts had been falsified by changing 1675 to 1673 (Bogus, 78).


After quoting a dictionary definition:

The editors of the famous dictionary are probably unaware of the fact that they have just committed a cardinal sin in the mathematical world, in that they only described fingleish widgetry, and failed to include an explanation of fnordleish widgetry.

  1. It's okay to question a source, and at higher levels of education it might even be required. But if you're going to do it, be careful to do it well and with evidence. This just sounds presumptuous. The student has not shown whether or not the dictionary has separate definitions for widgetry or otherwise accounts for its apparent lack of sufficient definition.
  2. Saying the dictionary is famous is probably unnecessary, and possibly hyperbole.
  3. A "cardinal sin" is a sin of fundamental importance. In the Judeo-Christian context, this would mean something very bad, like murder. Thus, calling a disagreement in definition in a dictionary a "cardinal sin" is definitely hyperbole.
  4. Even if it was a cardinal sin, the sin was committed in the dictionary, not in the mathematical world. The student meant "against the mathematical world."

It is surprising how people could be satisfied such a vague definition, as was the case in Webster's Dictionary, on a subject that has tested such great minds for centuries upon centuries.

  1. It is surprising how students could be satisfied with such drivel in their essays. That sounds nasty, doesn't it? That's because it is. Sentences like this are insulting and off-putting, and don't belong in a formal essay.
  2. "Such great minds" requires an example. The word "such" should be omitted.
  3. "Centuries upon centuries" is redundant. Just say centuries and leave it at that.

Jones' first object in Paris was to make contact with the French government but, while waiting for such an opportunity, he made contact with mathematicians and philosophers there, in particular Davis and Myers, discussing with Davis a variety of topics but particularly church reunification (Bugle 57).

  1. An "object" is a thing. The student means "Jones' first objective..."
  2. This is a bad run-on. It should be broken up like this:

Jones' first objective in Paris was to make contact with the French government, but while waiting for an opportunity to do so, he made contact with mathematicians and philosophers such as Davis and Myers. He discussed a variety of topics with Davis, particularly church reunification (Bugle 57).


Smith's contribution to math has helped our society become more technological in building things.

  1. In this particular case, Smith made many contributions, not just one.
  2. "Math" is the colloquial version of "mathematics."
  3. Did Smith's contributions only help "our society?" What about other societies?
  4. "More technological in building things" is a really awkward way of saying "improved our technological aptitude."

Undoubtedly, Jones was one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived and this paper will demonstrate that, starting from his childhood until his death.

  1. Smith may have been a genius, but to blow that up to "one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived" is hyperbole. Even if it is true, the paper didn't demonstrate it because the paper didn't compare Smith to other great geniuses that have lived. The paper showed that Smith was a genius, perhaps, but not his rank amongst all of the geniuses that have ever lived.
  2. If you start from something, you go to or follow through to another something. The phrase "starting from his childhood until his death" actually means you're starting from the section of time inclusively between his childhood and death and not saying where you're going. Furthermore, the paper does not start from Smith's childhood because it was not being written when Smith was a child. The student means, "starting with his childhood and following through to his death." That is still awkward, and the sentence would be best written:

Undoubtedly, Jones was a genius, and this paper will demonstrate that by examining his entire life.


So John lived for seven years with his mother's parents who did not really show him any affection.

  1. "So" in this context is colloquial and should be omitted.
  2. This really should be cited. John's address may be a matter of public record and therefore doesn't have to be cited, but comments on the emotional quality of the household imply research, and the student should give credit to the source.
  3. "Really" is colloquial, and should be omitted.

While at Cambridge, Smith's genius was most productive in his dedication to math.

  1. Who is Smith's genius? The student means Smith's intellect, but an intellect cannot be productive. It facilitates productivity, but it is not productive itself. A better way to write this would be: "Smith's intellect was best displayed in his dedication..."
  2. "Math" is colloquial. It should be "mathematics."

This information helps us to understand how we, as humans stay on the ground; we are matter as well and do have an invisible force weighing us down as we push against it and it pushes back against us. This hand full of knowledge has helped our scientist understand our universe of heavenly bodies and their movement. It has also allowed scientist to delve further in exploring our galaxy.

  1. Does gravity only affect humans? Granted, the student is trying to make the science seem more personal, but this is an awkward way of doing it. It is also something that seems to indicate an essay geared to children. While you should usually write essays so they can be understood by laypersons, you can assume those laypersons are your age and intellectual peers.
  2. The description of the invisible force is very awkward. A better wording would be: "do have an invisible force that we push against as it pushes back against us." Gravity does not, in fact, weigh people down. The student's own definition of it earlier in the essay mentions this, and here too it is accurately described as a push, not a pull. To add in the bit about it weighing us down is contradictory.
  3. The student means "handful." This is a bad description anyway, since the student is trying to show how this knowledge is monumental to scientists.
  4. Both instances of "scientist" should be pluralized.
  5. One delves further into something, not in it.

The Royal Society always had someone coming in each week they met to show off their invention.

  1. "Always had someone coming in" is colloquial and awkward. It should say: "The Royal Society hosted a guest each week..."
  2. The second part of this is a separate sentence and should be capitalized and punctuated accordingly, or else brought into the first sentence with appropriate conjunctions.
  3. "Show off" is colloquial. "Demonstrate" would be better.
  4. Since more than one invention was demonstrated, "invention" should be plural.

A concluding paragraph:

Jones was a great man who made an impact in all of our lives. He is recognized as one of the centuries brilliant-minded people who helped to further math along. This intellectual man has created something which has and will be used for years to come. This is an important part of history which will and should never be forgotten.

  1. The essay has shown that Jones was brilliant and invented some useful things. It has not, however, demonstrated that he was a "great man." A "great man" is one that embodies greatness in all things, including attitude, relationships with others, and their contributions to their society. Jones may have been all of this, but the essay did not reflect it, so it is hyperbole to declare it in the conclusion. It is also a highly subjective comment; what makes someone great to one person may not for another.
  2. "Centuries" is the plural of "century," not the possessive. The student means "century's." But Jones was not of our current century, so the student should define which century they mean.
  3. Impacts are made on, not in.
  4. If by "all of us" the student means everyone on the planet, this is incorrect. Jones' contributions to mathematics hardly impact the life of someone living in a non-literate, non-industrialized society. Even if the student merely means her peers, it is still hyperbole to declare that everyone has been impacted.
  5. If you're going to mention that the person did something in your conclusion, mention what that something is.
  6. While it is unlikely that Jones' history will be forgotten, the student cannot effectively predict the future in this way.


Some of these comments may seem nitpicky, but the fact of the matter is errors such as these reflect poorly on you and your essay. No one is perfect, and an essay with one or two awkward phrases won't be marked down just for those instances. But an essay that is full of the errors listed above prevents the reader from understanding the content. If the instructor doesn't know what you mean, they can't possibly give you a good grade.