Former Admissions Officers Discuss Personal Statement Red Flags

InGenius Prep

Former Admissions Officers Discuss Personal Statement Red Flags

When writing the Common Application personal statement, high school students often aren’t sure exactly what is off-limits. Of course, a lot of things depend on the reader but overall, there are some personal statement red flags that every student should be avoiding. At InGenius Prep, we are lucky to have a team of former admissions officers who have a lot of experience inside the admissions office, who have read hundreds—if not thousands—of essays. So, we asked Former Admissions Officers from Duke, Georgetown, University of Chicago, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Bowdoin, and more on what counts among their biggest personal statement red flags.


The most glaring among personal statement red flags is plagiarism. Almost every admissions office uses tools to guard against the scourge of plagiarism and if a student has used content without giving due credit to where or who it came from, that is a major issue and would definitely be catastrophic to their chances of admission.” - Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Georgetown University

Lack of Research

“Another pitfall is a lack of research to back up claims made or obvious errors in facts that are included. A student may think that they have stated things accurately but if a quick check reveals otherwise, that is one of the personal statement red flags [I notice] because it shows carelessness and complacency. It is generally quite easy to confirm information from multiple sources before using it, so not much leeway would be given to a student who did not bother to verify the accuracy of their facts.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 30 School

Clear Lack of Proofreading

“Typos, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. While AOs are not grading these essays, they are evaluating your writing strength and how that will translate to the classroom. Everyone makes mistakes, but we also expect that these essays are edited thoroughly.” - Former Admissions Officer, Johns Hopkins University

Inauthentic Voice

“Fancy words used incorrectly immediately show me that the student isn't writing in their authentic voice. Or when I see vastly different writing ability in the personal statement vs the supplements—I get suspicious about how much inappropriate help they're receiving.” — Former Admissions Reader, Ivy League University

“While maybe not quite a "red flag" one of the most common (and easily correctable!) issues I see in college essays is what I think of as students pushing too hard to impress. So be judicious in your use of semicolons, dashes, etc. I usually recommend going ahead and using a period instead of semicolons where you could have two sentences. But the biggie is in word choices that seem chosen to impress (the thesaurus is NOT always your friend).  And that can have the opposite of the intended effect, resulting in awkward phrases, lack of clarity, and the phrasing sounding unnatural. Read your essays aloud and be on the lookout for anything that doesn't sound natural.” — Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University


Personal statement red flags can also occur if there is contradictory or inconsistent content in the personal statement when compared to other parts of the application. The person reviewing the file has access to everything – transcripts, activity lists, recommendations, essays, and more. Therefore, if a student were to write something that was clearly not consistent with what the reader sees elsewhere, they may begin to wonder about the veracity of what you are writing, and that is a really dangerous place to end up.

Students occasionally take the risk of writing about something that is totally disconnected to other parts of their application, academic or otherwise. Now sometimes that works and sometimes it does not. It is always better to have some connection, even if it is a tangential one, to other parts of the application. What that does for a reader is to show a common thread throughout the student’s application and gives them a better understanding of the synergy between the different parts of their application for admission.” - - Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Top 25 National University


“You should also avoid sweeping generalizations, clichés, and generic statements that are obvious. Without context or examples, this type of content in a personal statement shows that either this was an essay done at the last minute or that not enough effort was put into it. It is one thing to have weak writing skills, but backing up assertions with examples or connecting them with other facts is very necessary. Otherwise, the perception of the reader may become that the student is not really interested in the college and has basically just done the minimum. 

Of course, given that most students use the Common Application and the same personal statement goes to multiple institutions, it is even more important to write well to the best of their ability. Students must try not to embellish things beyond reason and ensure that they are accurate with facts and support their assertions robustly.” - Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Georgetown University

Unstructured Essays

“The other biggie when reading an essay is that the points, structure, and how everything fits together isn't clear. Often this turns out to be an issue where the connections seen in the writer's head don't make it onto the page. So connect the dots for the reader. Give transitions that show us how things fit together, which could be the logic, sequence of events, or just signaling a change in direction. You don't want a reader asking ‘how does this fit together?’ or ’why is this person telling me this?’” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

There you have it! Hopefully, now you have a better grasp of personal statement red flags and make sure you avoid things such as plagiarism, inauthentic voice, lack of consistency, and all of the things mentioned above. Write an essay that conveys who you are so that admissions officers can gauge whether you’re a strong fit for their institution or not. Good luck!

Watch out for more blogs in this series with the tag “FAO Advice” as we ask our Former Admissions Officers for more tips on admissions behind-the-scenes and FAQs from our students!

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