Essay Errors

By: GM

I have compiled a list of common errors applicants often make when writing their scholarship or admission essays. As usual, the emphasis is Chevening Scholarships, although this is applicable to other essay types. Ask yourself whether you are making one of these mistakes as you tackle your essays. Avoiding these essay traps could improve your chance of being selected.

  1. Not Understanding the Essay Prompts: Make sure you understand the essay prompts. Ask someone who has mastery of the English language if you don’t. Do not set your own questions. If asked to write about your leadership potential and influence, do not start off listing your academic exploits or writing a thesis on the bad governance in Nigeria and how you’re the chosen ‘messiah’. Chevening, for example, is a scholarship that is significantly tied to leadership, so essays that ask about network impact ought to show team leadership instead of focusing on how the entire human race is your friend.
  2. Essay Overload Syndrome: This means writing everything that comes to mind and forcing them into your essays. Writing your essays without first drafting an outline will ensure that you create a disjointed and lack-luster essays. Use the STARS model already elucidated by T.A in a previous article to structure the outline before tackling any essay. Allow the essay prompts to guide you, as you do this.
  3. Generic and Vague Writings: Example, “I am a great leader……….I am a fantastic organizer……………………….I am a creative strategist and an excellent time manager”. What exactly do you mean by these adjectives? Anybody can say just that! Show, don’t tell. Demonstrate that you’re a great leader, not by writing so, but by citing specific examples of what you did, the challenges you overcame, in what circumstances, and what you learnt, and the impact you had. Genericity will increase your chances of producing boring and ineffective essays. Be highly specific. State the place, the time, the people involved, quote the numbers affected and mention the obstacles surmounted. Generic essays are written without a clear message and they are boring and worse of all, annoying. You can never go wrong being over-specific, but you’re already wrong being generic. Word of caution: Where you think the assessor may not believe the statistics you quote (e.g. if you did a project that benefited 5000 people and feel the assessor is not likely to believe your accomplishment), it is best you play down the stats, and say, “over a hundred persons benefited”. This way, you are still specific but moderate. This is better than the vagueness of saying, ‘my project benefited many people.’
  4. Using Informal Writing Style: This will depict you as very unserious. Avoid them. Writing stuff like: hey bro, ain’t, legit, ur, lol, I wanna, I’m gonna, using slangs, using shorthand, spelling errors, not observing standard line and paragraph spacing, using local language or vernacular, using too many slashes and hyphen etc. These are all red buttons. No assessor may read through on sighting these. Your application is simply dropped in the trash even if the essay content is as qualitative as a Pulitzer award winning novel.
  5. Selfishness: Concentrating too much on what the scholarship can do for you and not what you can do for the scholarship sponsors, or for your home country. For Chevening, too much usage of “I” can be a very good thing, as the emphasis is you. Nonetheless, for some other platforms, too many “I’s” can make you come across as arrogant; balance your individual accomplishment with your team involvement.
  6. Going Back Too Far: Using accomplishments from ages back, for instance, during high school, especially after you have been working for 10 years, may not come across as compelling. If you have to go back that far, it is important to make sure the example is major and has special relevance in shaping who you have become as a leader.
  7. Using Clichés, Common Wisdom, Sermonizing, and Stating the Obvious: The selection panel knows what conventional wisdom says. They care about what you personally think or believe not what Socrates said about leadership.
  8. Overusing Quotes: Quotes indeed have a place in the essays, but think long and hard before using up precious space to quote some Greek poet or business leader. The assessors are interested in your original thoughts, not those of a dead philosopher.
  9. Not Answering the Question: Do not set your own questions. If the question asks for leadership impact, be sure to tell a story that clearly depicts you as a leader. If the question asks for career plan, give examples of SMART goals you hope to attain rather than why you’re changing your career pathway. Don’t beat about the bush. You will only annoy the Assessors.
  10. Not Being Memorable: Choose clear and relevant stories that are in sync with the Scholarship Brand. Unusual stories or a different take on a common topic can be interesting and capture the mindshare of the Selection Committee. Again, do not lie! Do not invent stories. Write your ordinary story in a great way. Liars are sooner or later found out! Originality and passion are the most important strategies to creating memory.
  11. Writing Too Many Essays at the same Time: Avoid writing multiple essays for different schools and scholarships at once. Tackle the essays one school/scholarship platform at a time and complete them before working on another school’s essays. More so, do not underestimate how much time and work are needed to develop a winning application. Give yourself at least one month to complete the essays and add another month or two for reviews. There is a reason the Chevening application window is that lengthy. Submitting too early will not earn you any additional points.
  12. Inappropriate Usage of Humour: Don’t be funny for the sake of being funny. This will question your sense of judgement. Your essay is serious business, and not playing time. Trying too hard to sound funny will not win you any friends on the Selection Panel. Humor if ever used, should be subtle.
  13. Being Too Stiff/Over-formal: This is the opposite of the inappropriate humor mistake. It is expedient that you open up and share personal (appropriate) stories that give the assessors insight into who you are and what matters to you. Concentrating all your essays on your professional life misses the chance to show the full range of your personality, motivations and character.
  14. Trying to Be Remarkable/Creative: Sometimes, less is best. Plastic essays can always be detected by expert psychologists after 3minutes. I’m not against creativity but ensure that your creativity resonates with the Scholarship’s theme and that it comes off well instead of appearing like a scam.
  15. Repetition: It is necessary to bring up different stories to show the expanse of your personality, experience, and perspective. Citing the same example recurrently will suggest that you have a dwarfed experience-base.
  16. Too Many Advisers/Editors: Too many chef spoil the broth. Beware of the too-many-cooks syndrome. Getting feedback from someone well acquainted with you, especially if that person is a good writer could be helpful, but it’s a disaster to have your twenty friends, your entire family, and every other Dick and Harry review your essays. This will produce a tasteless and incoherent application. In my opinion, 3 proof-readers/contributors suffices: An alumnus or current scholar, an academic in your chosen field and someone who knows you very well on a personal level.
  17. Rush Hour Syndrome: Do not wait till the last moments to begin your applications. True, some have won the award by simply starting the application and submitting on the same and final day, but you are not some people, and you may not have their graces. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. Don’t be in a rush to complete your application. Rather, focus on producing excellent applications. The best applications are a result of intense introspection, focus, and multiple revisions.
  18. Plagiarism: Plagiarize to your own peril. Most serious scholarship or grants commissions have got apps which enable them to screen for plagiarism. If your work gets assessed as 60% plagiarized, your prognosis is already poor. Plagiarism involves interposition, poor citation, failure to use quotation marks where they should be, invalid citation, paraphrasing, sentence plagiarism, multiple-source plagiarism, paragraph and whole document plagiarism etc. Plagiarism is a whole topic on its own, that I shall write about sometime if heaven permits. It is the reason why many essays as ‘wow’ as they were, could not be selected, having failed the originality test. Some of you may have templates or have seen winning essays online, use them to glean wisdom only as to style and coherence. Any ideas you catch therefrom must be developed in your own words and in the context of your own experience. Plagiarize to your own peril.

Best wishes!


*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), its partner organizations or any scholarship awarding institution. 



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