If their admissions essays were to be believed, over 200 students who applied for admission to undergraduate medical, dentistry, or veterinary programs at U.K. universities a few years ago all had the same childhood experience in which they burned a hole in their pajamas while playing with a toy chemistry set.

Happily, these statements aren’t to be believed. A study commissioned by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the organization that handles undergraduate applications to UK universities and colleges, suggests that these applicants copied parts of their statements from a sample medical school personal statement posted to an admissions advice website.

If this had happened in the context of U.S. college admissions, the applicants involved would have done themselves no favors by copying their statements. That would hold true even if the plagiarism had not been detected.

An admissions essay is your best chance to introduce yourself to the admissions committee as an individual, thereby making yourself stand out from the vast pool of other applicants. Anyone who copies a canned example of a personal statement is throwing that opportunity away. And, as the example of the ‘burned pajamas’ essay indicates, you have no way of knowing how many other people might be using the exact same material.

This story highlights one of the drawbacks of reading too many examples of college admissions essays ‘that worked.’ Even if you don’t set out to deliberately copy the material you read, you’re likely to absorb the format and language you find there. This can result in your writing an essay that sounds like it came from someone else. In addition, over-reliance on sample essays can undermine your creativity by giving you an overly rigid idea of the ‘right’ kind of topic or language for an admissions essay, too early in the writing process.

Go ahead and take a look at some sample college admission essays, if you think that will help you get started on your statement. But avoid using a sample essay as a model for your own. The essay that worked for the person who wrote it may not work for you. Your best approach to using your essays to increase your college admissions chances is to be yourself.

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