College Application Essay Do'S And Don'Ts

What should and should not be included in a college essay? What rules can and can’t you break? And what will or won’t allow you to maximize your productivity as you tackle this daunting task? So many questions, right? That’s why we put together a list of our top DOs and DON’Ts for the essay writing process. DO take a look!

  • DO give yourself enough time. Some students work well under tight deadlines, but we always suggest you start the essay writing process early enough to spend ample time brainstorming, free-writing, drafting and perfecting. You will need distance and time away from various stages of your draft in order to gain the necessary perspective it takes to make improvements. While many a student has regretted starting their essay the week (or night!) before it was due, we don’t know anyone who complained about starting his/her essay too early.
  • DON’T plagiarize. This one should hopefully go without saying. Not only does plagiarism reflect poorly on your character, chances are copying someone else’s words verbatim (or close enough) will not result in an essay that is reflective of your distinctive personality traits and writing style. Believe in your own abilities and create work that is yours and yours alone.
  • DO be honest. You are awesome (yes, you). Many of your experiences, when discussed honestly and thoughtfully are absolutely worthy of inclusion in a personal statement. Even if you don’t have kooky, out-of-the-box stories to tell, sincerity counts for a lot in an essay that aims to say something about your personality and values. You don’t need to make things up or exaggerate your circumstances. You are enough. Also, liars get caught.
  • DON’T exceed length limit. Attention to detail! An arguably annoying, yet critically important skill that will be relevant in almost any task you tackle in the future. Start this next phase of your life right by paying attention to the length limit. Many applications help you with this detail by providing word-limiting boxes in which you will paste your beautifully written masterpieces. But for those that don’t — beware! Double and triple check these details before submission.
  • DO respond to the prompt. You may have that really great story you want to tell, but if no one’s asking for it, writing it won’t do you any good. That said, we find that a wide range of stories, with just a bit of tweaking, can be molded to fit within the boundaries of the Common Application personal statement prompts. Let us know if you need help adapting your chosen subject to the Common App questions. We’ve helped many a student in the story/prompt matching game. That’s what we’re here for!
  • DON’T use cliches or overuse idioms. Cliches in college essays get us all bent out of shape. Think you can’t crack the nut of the personal statement without using these over-worn phrases? We don’t buy it. Whenever you find yourself recording a phrase off this list, dig deeper. We know you have it in you! Also, tell your story simply and directly. If you don’t idioms in your everyday speech, don’t try to squeeze them into your essay.
  • DO take breaks. Breaks are essential for generating creativity and keeping yourself from getting burned out. Taking regular breaks will keep you on schedule, but don’t take too many! Too many breaks in a row stop being breaks and start being procrastination.
  • DON’T rely on spell check. Spell check catches a lot, but not everything. It won’t catch homophones (the famous your/you’re pair, for example) but admissions officers sure will. Plus, giving yourself the chance to proofread in-depth will also allow you yet another chance to make sure you like the way your essay flows.
  • DO write about things other than your accomplishments. An essay in resume form is not the best use of your essay space. You can list all the great things you’ve done in other places in the application. Use your essay for reflection, showcasing humor, talking about your passions — anything that isn’t already reflected on your activity sheet.
  • DON’T stress out. Stress helped cavemen flee lions, but it may hurt you more than help you when writing your essay. Take a deep breath. Know that one hundred percent of students we speak to, even if they are scared at first, complete their college admissions essays. And call us if you need us. We can help alleviate some of the stress of this process. Dare we even suggest that we make it fun?

Even if the school uses the Common Application, they're likely to ask additional materials such as a college essay, letters of recommendation, SAT or ACT scores, high school transcripts, etc.

Why do colleges want me to write an essay?

Many colleges and universities ask applicants to write a personal essay, usually about 300 to 500 words in length that supports their application. It's a way for the admissions officer to get a sense of who you are personally.

How do I know what to write my college essay about?

Here are a few tips to help you get started.
  • Write about yourself. Use your own voice. Admissions officers want to get to know you, so be sure whatever topic you choose gives your personality a chance to shine through.
  • Stay focused. It's easy to cover too many topics, but the essay is usually fairly short. Give the reader an in-depth look at one project or passion.
  • Be yourself. Admissions officers have seen it all. They just want to read something authentic.
  • Think about your influences. Many college essay questions probe into what has influenced the applicant. This doesn't have to be an earth-shattering experience that changed your life. Often it could be describing a person who shared great advice, or even a book or piece of artwork that shaped your world view.
  • Consider a mundane topic. An essay doesn't have to be about a life-changing event to be interesting. Sometimes the simple things in life will give the reader insight into who you are.

Dos and Donts of writing college essays

  • Tell an engaging story with clear focus.
  • Show your personality. The best essays reveal something about the writer's passions and personality. For example, a thoughtful essay on the most difficult time in your life tells admissions reps more about you than a list of honors you've achieved.
  • Proofread your work, or better yet, ask someone else to read it through. It's very hard to proofread your own work.
  • Ask for constructive feedback. See if a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted advisor will read your essay and share practical advice to improve upon it.
  • Show me, don't tell me who you are. For example, don't tell me that you're an empathetic person. Show me through your story.
  • Use cliches and other overused phrases. (ex: dream come true, thinking outside the box, this made me a better person, etc.)
  • Just include a list of your accomplishments and activities. Colleges want to see more than a list. They want to know that you're a good citizen.
  • Rely on "how to" books. They're fine to help you come up with essay topics, but they tend to be formulaic.
  • Write about anything too controversial. It's usually a good idea to steer clear of divisive religious or political topics.
  • Repeat what's in your application. Admissions officers want more than a laundry list of your accomplishments. They want to know what kind of person you are. Share something they wouldn't know from reading your application.
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