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The Essay

Our counselors answered: What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

We Asked College Students:
What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Chris Powers

College Counselor and Philosophy Teacher
Powers College Counseling

TO BEGIN WITH... I) Remember that this is the part of the application you have total control over. (That's good.) 2) Don't write your essay at the last minute. This is an important part of the application. Leave yourself enough time to be able to think about it for a while, talk about it with others if you Wal1t, write it, leave it for a few days and come back to it. 3) Take seriously any specific instructions the admissions office includes. If they ask for a one-page essay, don't send three pages. And don't fit it onto one page by shrinking it into tiny type on your word processor. People have to be able to read it. You do not want to annoy the admissions office. 4) If you have any questions relating to any application do not be afraid to call the admissions office. They're used to getting calls like yours. FOCUSING YOUR THOUGHTS and CHOOSING A TOPIC 1) Read all of the essay questions asked by all of the colleges you are applying to. If you can write one essay which is appropriate for a few colleges, all the better. Two schools may have open-ended topics, one may be more focused, and if you gear your essay toward the more focused topic you may be able to/want to use it for all three schools. Then... 2) Sit around and THINK for a while. What is this college's question asking? Make sure your essay answers it, but tell your own story. If the question gives you some latitude, mull over various ideas until you hit upon one that "feels" right, or about which you're more excited about than others. 4) Write about something that is important to YOU (not to your brother, mother, counselor, or any of the other people who are giving you advice.) It will be easier to write and will have a more natural voice. 5) Don't try and second-guess the admissions office. Not "what do they Want to hear?" or "what would they like?" but "what do I want to tell them?", "what do I want 'them to know about me before they make their decision?" "what shall I talk about that will give them a feeling for what make me tick?" Remember, you're in the driver's seat for this one. WRITING I) Don't try and cover too much. All-encompassing essays will either be too long or, if shorter, superficial. Think about the things you've read and enjoyed; writing is usually interesting because of its detail, not its generalities. 2) Be personal. It's your application, your experiences, your thoughts, interests and personality. The admissions committee is trying to get to know you through your own words. Even if the topic is an intellectual one, the school is looking for a personal response. 3) Convey your feelings. If you're excited about something, convey that. If you feel strongly about something (positive or negative), express that. Dry essays devoid of feeling don't tend to be very interesting. 4) Don't try to be something you aren't. If the humor feels self-conscious, forget it. Don't force a "creative" essay. Write in a voice which feels natural to you. 5) Be reflective. Write in some depth. Use some detail or specifics,not just general (and superficial, and easy) statements. Flesh out your thoughts. Ask yourself WHY and HOW a lot as you write, not so much WHAT, WHEN or WHERE 6) What you say as well as how you say it are both important. A great idea poorly expressed will not seem so great. AND FINALLY... Once you've sent your application in, stop worrying about it. If you did your best, that's all you can ask of yourself!

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Dr. Bruce Neimeyer

Global College Search Associates, LLC

Here are some general pieces of advice that I give to students who are writing their essay……

1. Make sure you complete a spelling and grammar check on the essay. Since many students have access to these tools via their computer software, it is really hard to accept the lack of this attention to the essay. It really sets the tone of things to come in the rest of the application. 2. Make your story interesting. If it is a creative piece, then don’t take the obvious angle but one that grabs the reader by surprise. Once I had a student who wrote her essay about herself from the perspective of her dog. Except, she didn’t let you know as the reader that it was her dog until the very end! Very creative, funny and accomplished her essay assignment very well. 3. Be descriptive enough but succinct. You don’t need to write an essay that goes on for days. With the volume of essays that most of the readers are looking at in one sitting, taking three pages to make one point is not highly recommended. 4. I always suggest mapping out the parts of the essay: intro paragraph, many body/arguments, concluding paragraph. Jot down your general ideas under these categories and then expand. Look at it again. Maybe you will rearrange the middle section to hang together better and then edit further. Never feel that you will need to complete the essay beginning to end in one sitting and without some planning. The best ones always take a little time to develop. 5. Give yourself enough time to make a wonderful essay and to think about it. A rush job looks just like what it is…..rushed! 6. Look at your previous work from high school to see if there is a written piece of work you have completed that might fit the bill on your college essay. Maybe it was A work but could use some more editing to really make it shine. As long as the work is yours, genuine and a true example of your writing talents, it doesn’t matter when it was started or what it was originally intended for as an assignment. This is really to give the college a sense of your writing abilities and to learn a little more about you via the subject they have chosen as the topic that year. 7. If you are having trouble understanding what the essay is asking, feel free to contact the admissions office to discuss it with them. It never hurts to ask to clarify anything that is of question to you. Better to ask then to assume and get it wrong. We all know what happens when we “assume” ….. 8. First re-read your own work. Then have someone read over your essay when it is completed or when you ready to receive some constructive criticism about it. Your parents, a sibling or friend who is very good at writing or even a willing high school teacher that you trust are all good sources of others who can help you. Even if they don’t know the intent of the essay they are probably good readers and can tell you that a point is not clear enough and they are unable to follow your argument. If it is unclear to them, then editing again is probably in order. Better they tell you than the admissions office right? There are many others but this list covers the big items. Have fun with writing your essay. It is not meant to be a chore so don’t treat it like one!

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Barak Rosenbloom

College essay mentor, guide and editor

Make it an essay you're proud of

The big on is take your time. Writing a great essay is a long process, don't try to do it all at once. Beyond that, I'll start with the Don'ts and move on to the rest of the Do's: THE DON'TS: Don’t try to guess what the college wants. Read the prompt or question, and respond to it. They want to learn about you. Don’t try to impress anyone or sell yourself. Very few people can do that well, and it’s easy to come off as arrogant, obnoxious or shallow. Don’t plagiarize, cheat or lie. College admissions officers can sniff this out in a second. More importantly, is that how you want to live your life? Don’t tell them about yourself. Reveal who you are through your story. That happens when you talk about how you act, respond, think and feel against the backdrop of your topic. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. The people reading your essays have been through emotional and challenging experiences of their own. If you have a meaningful or memorable story to tell, tell it. Even if it’s unresolved in your mind. Don’t write about someone or something other than yourself. Your job as a camp counselor, your experience on the swim team, or your favorite book are just backdrops for writing about yourself. Don’t bore those poor folks reading hundreds or thousands of essays. Have compassion for them. THE DO'S: Grab your reader from the first line! Do the first six to twelve words make the reader want to read this? Maybe it’s a grab-‘em-by-the-collar kind of first line. Maybe it’s a gentle arm around their shoulder. Bring them in to your world through the story you’re telling. Once you have them, keep them. Remember that this is a story about you, not an academic essay. Find someone to support you at each stage of the process. Having a mentor or guide who understands the writing process is invaluable. This doesn’t mean that they’re doing the writing for you! Give yourself lots of time. This is a lot harder than writing about the War of 1812. The best essays I’ve read have come from a school that starts the process in the Spring of junior year. Keep at it until you love your essay and are proud of it. Read it out loud, or better yet record it and play it back. Does it sound like your voice? Does it show (as opposed to tell) who you are deep down, how you live your life, your values or how you’ve grown? What kind of person is in the story, and do you like that person? Ask others the same questions. On my college essay I fudged on a little detail that I thought would make me look better. It didn’t change the story at all, and made no difference in me getting in to Williams early admission. But to this day I wish hadn’t done that. I wish I had written an essay I could have been proud of.

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Karen Ekman-Baur

Director of College Counseling
Leysin American School

Here are a few tips that should help: DO 1. Make sure that your essay actually addresses the topic you have chosen or been asked to write about. Avoid digressing. 2. Include information about yourself, what you have experienced, or the way you see things that will distinguish you from others. (I know this may seem difficult. It may help to brainstorm some possible ideas with others whose opinions you trust.) 3. Remember that your essay will be read by an actual person - in many cases, several. Consider how you can appeal to the reader(s) emotions in your essay. This does not mean writing a sad plea of "Oh, please accept me!", but to grab the reader's attention through any number of a variety of emotions - humor, irony, excitement, fear, heartbreak, triumph, defeat, adventure. You name it - whatever fits your theme. 4. Write analytically, rather than just descriptively. Instead of just stating that an event happened, tell how that event affected you or made you feel. 5. Proofread carefully for obvious mistakes in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, paragraphing, and so on - all of the things your English teacher has been nagging you about! Ask someone else to assist you with your editing; we often don't see our own errors. 6. Proofread to make sure that a reference to how much you love a specific school only appears on the essay(s) which will go to THAT school! (See number 6 below.) DON'T 1. Don't merely regurgitate information that already appears elsewhere on the application. Your essay should reveal in more depth other aspects of your personality, interests, abilities, and experiences. It's okay to reference something that appears in another part of the application, but only to establish a context for what you want to describe/reveal about that experience. 2. Don't let someone else write your essay. It should speak in your own "voice". 3. Don't overdo the humor. I mentioned using humor as a possible "do" in the section above, but use humor selectively. Unless you're very clever with it, the script for a stand-up comedy routine probably won't make the cut and may not even seem very funny. 4. Don't ramble! Don't stick in irrelevant information just to pad the essay. When you're doing your final editing, remove irrelevant information that may have crept in. 5. Don't repeat things you've already said (unless you're doing it very deliberately for a certain effect). 6. Don't accidentally mention that another institution is your absolute favorite, top choice! This happens more often than you would think. (See number 6 above.)

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Tam Warner Minton

College Adventures

Do's and Don't for the College Essay

DOs Keep Your Focus Narrow and Personal Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end. Try having someone read just your introduction to see what he or she thinks your essay is about. Essays that try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered-down. Remember, it's not about telling the committee what you've done -- they can pick that up from your list of activities -- instead, it's about showing them who you are. Prove It Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons. There's a big difference between simply stating a point of view and letting an idea unfold in the details: ? Okay: "I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests" ? Better: "During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation." Be Specific Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details. ? Okay: "I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others." ? Better: "My Mom and Dad stood on plenty of sidelines 'til their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to working with fourth-graders." DON'Ts Don't Tell Them What You Think They Want to Hear Most admission officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear. Don't Write a Resumé Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn. ? "During my junior year, I played first singles on the tennis team, served on the student council, maintained a B+ average, traveled to France, and worked at a cheese factory." Don't Use 50 Words When Five Will Do Helpful Hint: Do not send an essay expressing that your deepest desire is to go to Princeton and then send it to Yale. You would be surprised how often this really does happen.

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Allen Regar

Do take your time on the essay. Although it is not long compared to some papers you have written by now, your essay must possess a depth of self-understanding that your high school research papers probably do not. Do plan ahead. Diving right into writing the essay may be okay for some, but most students need time to brainstorm, to consider a few topics before committing to one, and to have a sense of the structure before actually beginning the writing process. Be sure to give yourself enough time to write a meaningful essay. One month's time is not unreasonable. Do plan on editing and revising. Do it yourself, but feel free to ask a friend who loves writing or English to read your essay and provide feedback. As a matter of fact, it's best to ask a few different people. Everyone has an opinion, but if you hear the same critique from a number of individuals, then you should probably take their advice into consideration. Do have fun with it! The essay should be a personal journey of getting to know yourself better. This process should not only be revealing to a college admissions representative, but to you as well. We write to discover, and the college essay should be a lens through which you can see yourself a bit more clearly. Don't fill your essay with every single personal accomplishment. You want to highlight yourself without sounding like a braggart. Don't brag about your GPA or your standardized test scores. Your application already has space for that. Actually, you should not write about anything that already appears in detail somewhere else in your application. There is no need for redundancy. Don't rely on your parents or your best friend to be the only people who provide feedback on your essay. They know you so well that they can "read between the lines," that is, they can infer what is not written from reading the words on the page. They already know your life story, or much of it at least. A college admissions representative does not have that luxury. Be sure to spell out in clear language what you are trying to say.

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Eric Dobler

Dobler College Consulting

DON'T tell the reader what they already know about you. Instead, tell them what they should know about you. Respond to the question at hand and let them know why you matter, what kind of a difference you will make, that you can reflect on your life and who you are as a person and that you know how to use that understanding to make progress towards your goals and dreams. Before you start writing, DO look at what the question is asking for and prepare yourself to respond appropriately. When you are thinking about your answer, ask yourself repeatedly if you are answering what the question is asking for. It’s okay to want to talk about an obstacle or challenge you have faced in your life, but DON'T dwell on telling the story of this challenge – talk about what you learned from it, why you are a better person for having gone through it and how you’ve grown it. Nobody is going to learn anything of value from you if you fill your essay with complaints, excuses and self-loathing. One thing you absolutely should DO is read your essay out loud to yourself. Why do this? To see if your voice and your personality are really on that piece of paper. Are you in that essay or does it just sound like it could be anyone else? When you read it yourself and actually hear your words, you are more inclined to identify areas where your writing doesn’t flow well or where you start to stray from your message.

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Jessica Brondo

Founder and CEO
The Edge in College Prep

DO make sure that your own personality shines through. Colleges look at the personality of each student as well as their qualifications. This is your chance to show them who you are, not just what you've done! DO proofread! Over and over again. DO have someone proofread your essays! Don't be afraid to ask for help on wording and style either, just make sure that your voice is always the one being heard, not your proofreader's. DO use the first person. Colleges want to hear about YOU. This is very different from an academic essay. DON'T use a form essay! Colleges can tell when you weren't thinking about them specifically as you wrote your essay and were just casting a really wide net. Especially if you put the wrong colleges name on the essay! DON'T put the wrong school's name in your essay! DON'T use too many exclamation points- you want to seem passionate about something, but exclamation points are informal, and too many can seem overly frivolous. DO write about something you truly care about. The more you enjoy your subject matter the easier it will be to write the essay. DO use rough drafts. Write one, leave if for a day. Come back the next day with a fresh eye and go over it. You will be able to streamline your line of thought that way so you can fit into word counts.

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Mary Mariani

Make sure that your essay is grammatically. A poorly written paper with grammar errors is a real "killer". The readers expect the applicant to have a good foundation in writing. I believe it is always advisable to have someone re-read and "proof" your writing for you. Don't frequently use personal pronouns such as "I" or "you" in your essays. This tends to make the essay boring. Try to use an active voice and respond in a way to catch the attention of your reader. Use examples, write in a format that is descriptive, is logical, and flows. Frequently students will write their essays as if it is a history of events in their lives. Pick a couple of incidents, activities, etc. and "tell" how these were meaningful in your life. How did these events help you develop as a student and person. When students merely present a historical list of events, the reader does not get a sense of what type of person he/she is. Don't tell the reader information that can be read on the transcript or on another part of the application. Try to allow your personality to shine through your essay. What about you is so interesting and wonderful that the reader would say, "I think I would like to know this person. He/she will add something pretty interesting to our school."

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Brian D. Crisp

Founder and President
Crisp Consulting + Coaching; Burton College Tours

Prepare, Provoke and Personalize

Writing the college essay is necessary to gain entrance through the ivy gates. At the moment we are working with high school seniors feverishly writing compositions that highlight their unique attributes and strengths. Crisp Consulting + Coaching would like to offer some clear strategies for crafting personal essays that garnish positive attention from admission committees. 1. Prepare. Transition from thinking about your college essays to writing clearly and effectively with brainstorming. Collecting ideas will assist you in focusing a well-written personal essay. 2. Provoke. Personal essays should provide answers about you to the admission committee. These insights should display your strengths, passions and uniqueness. 3. Personalize. Remember, an effective personal essay is about you. Writing eloquently about a historical figure detailing myriad obstacles and accomplishments is for naught. The admission committee wants to know about the applicant not an icon or event. As more and more students apply to college, a strong personal essay will gain the attention of an admission officer. Crafting an essay based on your personal strengths and passions is a strategy that will assist you in the college admission process.

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