Dos and don’ts of writing a college essay

College Admission: The Essay

Well, it’s official. The numbers are in from America’s top colleges and universities, and this past application was one for the record books: more applications and record low admit rates. Here are some of the latest stats:

  • UCLA received an eye-popping 102,000 applications.
  • Cornell University received got more than 47,000 applications, but only accepted 12.5 percent of them.
  • The University of Pennsylvania reported receiving more than 40,000 applications, but only admitted about 9 percent, also a record.
  • Princeton University also saw a cycle for the record books: It only accepted about 6 percent of its 31,000 applicants.

These numbers are NOT meant to discourage you. College admissions has always been competitive and remains competitive. What it means is that you continue to strive for your best, put your best foot forward, and put together the strongest application possible.

While your test scores and GPA give you academic cred with college admissions officers, it’s your college application essay that really helps you stand out among other applicants. Unlike a list of numbers, it answers the question they really want to know—what makes you you?

College Admission Essay

For some applicants, writing your college admissions essay can be the most challenging part of the application process. But it doesn’t have to be. At Kaplan, we encourage students to see at is as an opportunity, not a roadblock. By the time you apply your senior year, your GPA is already baked in and you might not be taking the SAT or ACT again, so this is the last piece of the application that’s entirely in your hands.

But where do you start? What do you write about? When students can tell a sincere and persuasive story, colleges get a better sense that these prospective students can bring unique experiences to the college environment.

Director of College Admissions at Kaplan Cailin Papszycki says: “The key is to inspire using a personal story that captures this quality. For example, did you overcome extreme shyness by shining in the school musical production? Did a family crisis change your outlook on life and make you a better child or sibling?”

But don’t just tell a story, cautions another expert. “Stories and anecdotes are an integral part of showing your reader who you are, but a good rule of thumb is to make these no more than 40% of your word count and leave the rest of your words for reflection and analysis.”

Tips for Stellar Admission Essays

Most universities require at least one essay as part of your college application, but many also require two or more essays of various lengths. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you start off on the right foot and avoid common college application essay mistakes:

DO revise often and early. Your college application essay should go through multiple stages of revisions. We’re not talking about a quick proofread; you should ask parents, teachers, and even your peers to read through your essay drafts and give you substantial critical advice.

DO use the first person. Avoid generic third person pronouns like “one” or “students.” This essay is about you!

DO say what you mean, and mean what you say. Be authentic, but not too boastful or self-deprecating. Be specific, clear, and concise. Using a thesaurus can help you find the exact word you want to convey a feeling or emotion.

DO start writing your essay early. Writing your college essay is not a task that you should put off until the last minute. In fact, you can give yourself a huge advantage by starting today.

DON’T expect your first draft to be perfect. Getting started is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Your first draft isn’t your final draft! Get past the first step; then go back and finesse the rhythm, pacing, and momentum.

DON’T rehash your resume or your LinkedIn profile. The college admissions committee has already seen a list of your extracurricular activities, volunteer work, honors, and awards you’ve received elsewhere in your college application. The essay portion should portray you as a mature, thoughtful individual, so find a personal story that reflects these qualities.

DON’T rely on famous quotes to do the heavy lifting. If you have a quote that particularly speaks to you, tell the readers why those words are so meaningful—don’t just regurgitate. In the same vein, avoid overly used clichés, maxims, and other common phrases. If you’ve heard it before, chances are the college admissions officers have heard it hundreds of times more than that.

DON’T make your essay read like the dictionary. Vocabulary words definitely belong in your SAT essay, but you want to sound like yourself and convey your own voice in your college application essay. If you wouldn’t ordinarily describe sharing meals with your family as a “salubrious assemblage of kin” your college essay is NOT the place to start. It will come across as disingenuous to admissions officers.

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10 College Application Essay Dos and Don’ts

The essay is often the college application component where students experience the most stress, and the element where they’re more likely to make mistakes. College admissions essays are not rocket science, but there are a number of steps that students can take to put together the most accurate and compelling essays that will help their chances of gaining admission to their top-choice colleges.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, application essays are the most important “soft” factors, or non-quantitative elements, that colleges consider when making admission decisions, right behind “hard” factors, or quantitative components, like grades, curriculum, and test scores. Essays are often more important than recommendations, extracurricular activities, and other qualitative application elements. While it’s important to put considerable effort into all college application components, essays are often the finishing touch and should be treated with great care and consideration.

Here are some college application essay dos and don’ts for students to keep in mind as they complete their applications this fall.

DON’T use the essay to repeat your resume.
This can’t be stressed enough. The essay is your opportunity to reveal something about yourself that can’t be found anywhere else in your application – use it! Many students use the essay to expound upon activities or interests that are already heavily demonstrated in their application through courses, the activity list, and more. Instead of reinforcing a top activity or interest, instead, write about something that reveals another dimension of your life or personality. If your top activity is swimming, don’t write about the big championship meet. Find something else that reveals something new and that shows you put a lot of thought into your essay. If your study of AP biology conflicts with your religious views, write about that and how you reconciled the two. Dig deep to find a topic that’s meaningful.

DO show a slice of your life.
When developing a topic that reveals something new, find a way to frame the story or idea that shows a slice of your life or the event. Be descriptive and give details that appeal to the senses – taste, touch, smell, etc. When writing about a meaningful experience or event, you don’t have to give a long timeline of events. Instead, give the reader the piece of the puzzle that conveys your message.

DON’T copy and paste.
With upwards of 25 or more essays to write for a balanced college list of 10-12 schools, it’s tempting for students to repurpose essays across applications if the prompts are similar. While students can use the same main essay on the Common App for multiple schools, we always recommend that students tailor their supplemental essays to the individual colleges. Telling Harvard why you want to attend Columbia is a quick way to end up in the “no” pile. Take the time to write original responses to all the prompts. It’s a lot of work, but it will pay off in the end.

DO show your knowledge of the college.
When tailoring responses to individual college prompts, it’s important to use specific details you’ve learned through visiting and research. Not only does this show colleges that you’ve have done your homework, but it also demonstrates your interest in the college – and colleges want to admit students who are likely to enroll. Show your knowledge of the college by mentioning specific courses, professors, places of interest, and more. Show how you fit into the campus culture and how you will impact the community through specific examples.

DON’T say what you think the admissions office wants to hear.
So many students think that they “know” what colleges want from an applicant, and this can have a big influence over their essays. Students will abuse the thesaurus and write about strange topics in an effort to impress and stand out. Instead of writing what you think the admissions office wants to read, write about what you want them to know. Again, the essay is a great space to reveal something new about you, so stand out by being yourself and showing another side of you as a person or student.

DO use your voice.
Using lofty language and complex sentence structure can make you sound sophisticated, but is that really how you speak? Don’t let your voice get lost in the pursuit to impress readers. Instead, write like you speak – keeping in mind that proper grammar and spelling is still important.

DON’T rely on spellcheck.
Spellcheck won’t catch every spelling or grammatical error! Take the time to read over all your essays carefully and keep an eye out for things like “out” when you meant to say “our” and other common typos. Have a parent or counselor read over the essay, too, to catch any errors you might have missed. Spelling and grammar errors can take away from an otherwise stellar essay – so be mindful.

DO double check that you’ve addressed the prompt.
This is one of the most common mistakes that students make. In the pursuit to write the perfect essay, many forget to connect it to the original prompt. While the Common Application prompts for the main essay are general enough to allow students to write about whatever they choose, it still needs to be clear how that essay addresses the prompt. The same applies to school-specific essays. Check and double check that a clear connection is made between the topic or lesson of your essay, and the question the prompt is asking.

DON’T wait until the last minute.
If you’re applying to 10 colleges and wait until two weeks before applications are due, you’re going to have a lot of writing to complete in a very short amount of time. Waiting until the last minute leads to stress and rushed essays that don’t accurately convey students’ messages. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, draft, revise, and get feedback on your essays.

DO seek feedback from your counselor.
Your college counselors are there to help, but they can’t if you don’t ask or wait until the last minute to seek guidance and feedback. Make a plan to meet with your college counselor and go over your college list and essays, and ask for feedback on your writing. Your college counselor can provide valuable insight into how to improve your college application essays, so be sure to seek feedback on your drafts as soon as possible. School-based counselors have a lot of students to advise and are very busy, so seek guidance early and often.

Essays are an important component in the college application process. While the essay alone won’t gain you admission to your top-choice college, a poorly written one can send you to the “no” pile pretty quickly. Take your time with your college application essays and seek guidance when you need it!

If you need additional help with your college application essays, IvyWise offers a number of services designed to help high school seniors with their college applications. Contact us today for more information on our programs for seniors.

Dos and Don’ts in Writing College Application Essays

College Essays Can Give a Glimpse into Your Soul

While student grades and test scores are clearly top factors in admissions office decisions, application essays often play a pivotal role. Like nothing else, essays give admissions readers a real sense for who you are as a person and student. Some say they are a «glimpse into your soul.»

Most colleges require at least one essay as a part of their applications; some require two, three or even more. Ranging in length from just a few words to one, two, or three pages of content, essay questions in any free-response section of the college application should be considered an opportunity to make a good impression.

At the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) yearly conference, college admissions deans have admitted repeatedly that poorly written essays can «do in» a student with top grades and test scores. and that great essays can sometimes turn the tide toward acceptance for a student with less-than-stellar grades and test scores.

These same deans have offered sage advice about the dos and don’ts of writing college essays.

DO

1. Write revealing, concise essays that inform, enlighten and amuse.

2. Present yourself as genuinely humble, modest, perhaps even self-effacing.

3. Be yourself.

4. Answer each and every aspect of the essay question as best you can AND within the character/word limit provided.

5. Come across as mature, positive, reflective, intelligent, down-to-earth, curious, persistent, confident, original, creative, hard-working and thoughtful.

6. Demonstrate evidence of your having real knowledge about a college and its many resources, including courses, programs, activities and students.

7. Write about anything that is counterintuitive about yourself, e. g., you are a football player who is totally into poetry, a young woman who is a computer or physics geek, a macho guy who wants to be an elementary school teacher.

8. Compose an essay, give it to others to read and edit, and then do a final edit before you declare that it is done.

9. Use a variety of words to describe something or someone, e. g., Charley, my friend, my buddy, my schoolmate, he, him.

10. Explain what needs to be explained, as in an illness, a learning disability, a suspension, a one-time bad grade, a family tragedy, a major challenge you have had.

DON’T

1. Write too much, ramble on, thinking that more (words) is better. It is not.

2. Brag, boast, toot your own horn, or come across as arrogant.

3. Write what you think college admissions people want instead of what you really think.

4. Go off writing about what you want to say rather than what the question asks AND ignore the specified character/word counts.

5. Come across as immature, negative, superficial, shallow, a phony, glib, a slacker, insecure, whiney, judgmental or disrespectful.

6. Give the impression that you know little about a college by writing trite, inaccurate or inconsequential things about it.

7. Make something up about yourself just to impress the admissions readers.

8. Write an essay and consider it done without looking for punctuation or grammatical errors and having it edited by at least one person.

9. Use the same words over and over, e. g., my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.

10. Make excuses for anything, including a bad grade, an infringement of rules, a suspension, whatever.

Application essays are a wonderful opportunity for you to show admissions offices who you really are, in what ways you think, how well you perform, and even your sense of humor.

If you want more advice about writing, take a look at the July 28, 2012 New York Times Book Review section for «How to Write» by Colson Whitehead.

Go to College Countdown to learn how my book, adMission Possible (Sourcebooks), can help you «dare to be yourself,» write compelling college application essays and get accepted to college.