Dos and Don’ts of College Essay Writing

In competitive admissions pools, where thousands of applicants have strong academic credentials and a laundry list of extracurricular activities, well-written personal essays can mean the difference between getting accepted, waitlisted or outright rejected. Your essays are a chance to go beyond the raw numbers like GPAs or test scores and show admissions counselors how particular experiences have shaped the passions, beliefs and goals you’ll bring to a campus community. But they also present an opportunity for you to reflect on these things, and think carefully about what you want from the next stage of your academic career.

Here’s how to ensure that your college essay writing stands out from the crowd:
1. Use too much humor. Unless you’re an experienced comedic writer, an essay that relies mainly on humor may give the impression that you’re not serious about school. Plus, humor depends heavily on context, so without cues like tone and body language, it may simply fall flat. If you’re not sure the reader will understand the joke, it’s best to leave it out and go for a more serious approach. If you’re on the fence, have a close friend, parent or teacher review it.

2. Exaggerate or lie. Never inflate your accomplishments or lie in your college admissions essay. Admissions counselors want to get a feel for what makes you tick, and they can usually sense when someone isn’t being his or her genuine self. Embellishments won’t impress them.

3. Fill your essay with SAT vocabulary. Pumping your essay full of big, sophisticated words to show off your vocabulary (or thesaurus) skills doesn’t make you look smart – especially if they’re not ones you use comfortably on a regular basis. Instead, use words that reflect how you would speak. A conversational approach creates a stronger connection with the reader than flowery, puffed-up language. (Remember, though: conversational doesn’t mean casual – never employ slang or abbreviations that you might use over text or email.)

4. Be afraid to start over. The first essay you write may not be the one you ultimately send to colleges, and that’s okay. False starts are a natural part of the writing process that can ultimately help you uncover what you really want to say and how you want to say it. This isn’t license to start a new essay every time something’s not perfect, but if you don’t feel as though a topic is clearly evoking your voice or experiences, going back to the drawing board can be the best course of action.
1. Be specific. Setting a scene helps the reader understand your perspective and voice better than simply telling them what happened. Try using descriptive and sensory details like sounds, smells, tastes and textures to paint a full picture of your experience. What was the weather like? What time of day was it? What were you wearing? Your final product might not include all of these specifics, but writing a draft in great detail can help put you back “in the moment” and remember why your topic is so important.

2. Be personal. Admissions directors want to learn more about you, so focus the essay on a personal experience from your life rather than describing something that happened to a friend or relative. Be willing to dig deep and share how it impacted or changed you. These events don’t have to span big portions of your life, either – describing a particularly significant day, or maybe a ritual or habit that’s important to you, can be incredibly powerful.

3. Take a break. Applying to college can be stressful, so build in enough time to pause between drafts rather than trying to crank out an essay the night before the deadline. Let the ideas percolate between drafts so that you can return with rested eyes and a fresh perspective. You may find that time off also helps clarify or “solve” parts of the essay with which you’re struggling.

4. Proofread, proofread, proofread! An essay with perfect grammar, punctuation and spelling alone won’t get you into school, but it can keep you out. Don’t let careless errors such as misspelled words or grammatical mistakes overshadow your hard work. Proofread your essays several times before you hit send. If you can, take a bit of time off between writing and reading. Even a 30-minute break can sharpen your editing eye after an intense writing session. Once you’re refreshed, try reciting the essay out loud so you can pinpoint awkward phrasing, or read a printed version instead of scanning on a computer screen. Another great proofreading trick is to start at the end of the essay and read backwards.
The key to utilizing these tips is time. Don’t be scared to start just because you’re not entirely sure what to write. If you’re already juggling coursework, extracurricular activities, test prep and personal commitments, this may seem like a difficult prospect – but setting aside just 10 minutes each day early in application season can help you lay a strong foundation before the deadlines start approaching.


Emily Newhook is an outreach coordinator for the MHA degree program from The George Washington University, MHA@GW. Outside of work, she enjoys writing, film studies and powerlifting. Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyNewhook and Google+.

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