The Dos and Dont’s of Writing a College Essay

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College admission officers read thousands of essays from prospective students, so it’s important to write something that stands out from the crowd. This is your chance to share something interesting about yourself — beyond your grades and test scores. 

Here are some “dos and don’ts” about writing a memorable college application essay.

Download college essay tips here!

Start early. It takes time to develop a topic, and most readers can tell if an essay is written at the last minute. The Common Application typically drops prompts in January, so you can start brainstorming by the end of junior year and during the summer before the application is due.  

Answer the question that is asked. You have a limited number of words to answer one question. Don’t sway off topic.

Choose a topic you’re passionate about. Be original; you’re more than a GPA or test score. Some of the best essays are about mundane topics presented in an interesting and meaningful way. 

Avoid broad generalizations or cliché topics. Narrow the experience or topic down. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you could insert your friend’s name into the essay. If so, it needs more personalization and focus. 

Example: Instead of saying “I love to travel,” focus on one experience during a trip: a conversation you had with an elderly local woman while waiting in a line at a cafe in Italy — and how that impacted or changed you.

Appeal to a broad audience. Admission counselors come from diverse backgrounds with varying points of view. Make sure your topic appeals to a variety of perspectives. 

Talk in your voice. Express your point of view so the reader understands who you are. Being genuine will create a stronger essay versus writing what you think someone will want to hear. 

Hint: If you write about an important person in your life make sure it’s not all about them; it should be about you.

Avoid inappropriate or controversial topics. Stay away from personal criticisms, divisive issues or controversial topics such as religion and politics. If the reader is offended by your point of view, it is not going to benefit you. 

Keep the reader engaged. Your English teacher was right about the importance of a strong story hook. Be creative to grab the reader’s attention in the first sentence. Make the reader want to meet you!

Don’t plagiarize. If the essay is not your voice, the reader will know. Admission counselors can tell when the voice changes and have tools that help identify plagiarized segments of sentences. 

Use the correct name of the university. If you are writing an essay that mentions the name of a school, make sure it’s correct. When students reuse an essay for multiple institutions, a common mistake is forgetting to change the school name! 

Proofread. Use correct spelling and grammar. Spell-check doesn’t catch everything, so enlist friends, family members or teachers to proofread. 

Writing a college essay can be a source of stress for applicants, but the finished product will help admission counselors get to know you and explore how you would fit in to their college culture and community. And, you may also discover something interesting about yourself!

Download tips for writing a college essay today!

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