What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Application Process

Our counselors answered:

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Joseph Tavares

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

The college essay is a vital component of the application process. It's your chance to share with an admissions committee who you really are beyond GPA and SAT scores. Many students have trouble with this assignment: determining what they should write about and figuring out how to tell their story in the 500 words they have been given. And rightly they should, it's no easy task! One piece of advice I would share is don't expect the college essay to be something you can whip up in a few hours. This essay requires careful planning, days of writing and re-writing, sharing it with trusted adults to get feedback, and making sure the final version of the essay is error-free in terms of grammar. Telling your story through a piece of writing can be a difficult part of the college application process. Yet ultimately it helps colleges get to know the 'real you' and that's a good thing. So don't wait until the last minute and remember to seek out help!

Margaret Tung
Strategist Yale University

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Do's 1. Find a story or time in your life that illustrates something you're passionate about. 2. Don't be afraid to talk about challenges that you've overcome--don't be afraid to talk about sincere things you still struggle with. Ex: if you're a child of immigrant parents and you struggle with cultural identity--it's totally fine not to know where you stand. Feel free to talk about it--thoughtfully, of course. 3. Write in your own voice--the essay is supposed to help colleges get to know you. 4. Be grammatically correct, but don't be a robot. 5. Bounce some ideas off a couple people who know you best. They might be able to point you towards something significant in your life that 10 minutes of thinking overlooked. 6. Start early--you'll want at least 2-3 revisions. Don'ts 1. Don't think of it or write it like an English paper. This is about you, not a book. 2. Don't start at the last minute. 3. Don't be cheesy. 4. Don't be afraid to talk about you. 5. Don't think that you are uninteresting or that you don't have a story to tell. You are and, you do. 6. Don't copy someone else's admissions essay.

Geoff Broome
Assistant Director of Admissions Widener University

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

I think that the biggest trap that students fall into is to write about someone or something that influenced them (not a bad topic by the way), and then spend the entire essay telling the admissions office about their Great-Aunt Fanny. I am sure that Fanny was a lovely women, but the point of the essay is to tell us about you. You are the ultimate subject matter. Whatever you write, make sure that the message that is clearly conveyed is about who you are.

Carita Del Valle
Founder Academic Decisions

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Do provide new information that is not on your application. Do ensure you have a consistent theme. Do proofread. Do understand the mission of the school and how you will fit in. Do write as a story, not a term paper. Do not embellish your essay or have someone else write it for you. Do not go over the word count - make it concise and smart. Do not whine - be positive. Do not miss answering the topic. Do not write it as a term paper.

Mary Mariani

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

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."

Martin Rogers

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Here are two easily avoidable DON'TS, both of which involve the crafting of your academic “persona,” or the aspects of character that you try to provide for an admissions counselor. First, AVOID answering questions that portray you as a baby, a child, or otherwise immature. Answers that begin with phrases like “ever since I was three years old,” or “I can remember dressing up as a fireman when I was five,” or “for me, the first day of kindergarten was the scariest day ever.” It is overly sentimental, in the first place, and probably a bit of an application cliché (even though these memories are for you rather dear, remember that counselors probably read similar scenes all day!). You want to portray yourself a promising young adult, about to start making the first steps toward independence and adulthood; this involves creating a persona for yourself wherein you are disciplined, eager for challenges, proven in your abilities, etc. When you create a scenario wherein you are perceived as a child who is “playing” at being in the world (and probably still in diapers), you risk creating the exact opposite impression: immaturity, unpreparedness, and emotional instability. Second, be careful not to swing in the other direction and become overly grandiose. AVOID vague, overly ambitious and naive descriptions of your goals or your accomplishments. For example, don’t create a persona wherein you are trying to save the world (e.g. “I want to cure cancer and find a solution to our energy crisis”) or wherein your minor extracurriculars are overly-inflated (“my one semester as vice secretary for the Student World Affairs Club changed my life” or “the two hours I volunteered at the soup kitchen really changed lives”). Be specific and be realistic: don’t say “I want to work with children,” if you can say “I hope to increase my volunteer efforts with after school programs and lobby for more funding for Teach for America.” Qualify your accomplishments into realizable chunks: “I am new to the Student World Affairs Club, but I hope to make its newsletters more effective.” Rather than make these two common application mistakes, instead prefer specificity to vagueness, and a realistic portrayal of your current place in life: as a capable but eager-to-learn young adult getting ready to move into the world. You are neither a grandiose giant nor a silly baby, so don't portray yourself as one!

Eric Dobler
President Dobler College Consulting

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

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.

Barak Rosenbloom
College essay mentor, guide and editor essaymentors.com

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.

Eileen Ed.D.
Associate Director Educational Directions, Inc.

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Do: write your essay Don't: have someone else write it for you. Do: write about a topic of interest or special appeal to YOU. Don't: write what you think "they" want to hear. Do: be honest. Don't: be overly "clever". In short, make sure your ideas are your own. This is a personal essay. Stay on topic and don't get sidetracked by too many ideas. Come up with ways or examples to express your topic without sounding negative, angry, "cute", too eager to please. . .in other words, be who you are without going overboard. Don't rely on cliches, but don't use a thesaurus in an effort to sound too sophisticated. And once you write your draft, don't fall in love with it! Have someone you trust look at your ideas and accept constructive feedback to improve your work. You are putting your best foot forward!

Janet Elfers

What are some do's and don'ts for the admissions essay?

Do tell a story in an interesting and engaging way. Don't just relay the facts, but pretend you are sitting in a coffee shop talking to a friend. Don't repeat what is found elsewhere in your application, unless you're adding pertinent information to round it out. Do be yourself. Do write in your own style and using your own words. Don't steal an essay from the internet. Don't let someone else write it for you. Take the time to make sure your essay is something you're proud of.