The College Application Essay: Dos and Don’ts

EDISON — For many students, the essay is the most difficult and daunting component of the college application. Perhaps your student is completely overwhelmed by the essay and has no idea what to write, or maybe he or she has a draft that you feel needs some work.

“Students may not realize that the application essay truly does matter – it’s their place to show admissions officers who they are, what they would bring to the institution and most importantly, why they should be admitted,” says Anthony Giudice of the Edison Huntington Learning Center. “The best essays are those that are personal, come from the heart, and give the admissions officers a glimpse of the applicant’s character – something they would not learn from a student’s academic record.”


So, how does one write an outstanding essay? Giudice offers a few dos and don’ts for students:

  • Do follow the college’s instructions regarding the essay topic, length and format.
  • Don’t simply repeat information you’ve provided elsewhere in your application. Use the essay to share something about yourself that an admissions officer would not acquire by reading your resume or your answers to other application questions.
  • Do write an essay that is personal and vivid, showing, rather than telling, who you are, what matters to you, how you have become the person you are today or something similar.
  • Don’t write about an inappropriate or overly private topic or something that has not impacted you personally (a friend’s tragedy, for example, or a world event with which you are only somewhat familiar).
  • Do be passionate about your topic. Whatever you choose must mean something to you, otherwise you risk sounding insincere.
  • Don’t second-guess the admissions officers by writing an essay you think will impress them.
  • Do practice your essay. Many colleges provide their essay topics on their website in advance of application deadlines. Give yourself plenty of time to think about and write the essay, and consider trying out several topics.
  • Don’t send off your essay without having a teacher, guidance counselor or mentor edit and proofread it first. And while you may be eager to submit your essay the second you finish it, set it aside for at least one day, and then review it again with fresh eyes.
  • Do be specific and clear and focus on one topic, rather than several (while paying attention to the particular college’s essay topic). Select one moment or experience, and write an essay that puts the admissions officer in your shoes.
  • Don’t be vague or try to fit too much into a 500-word essay. Avoid general descriptions of a long period of time, which may make your essay lack the vivid detail that will compel someone to read further.

A well-written application essay could mean the difference between your student’s acceptance and rejection at the college of his or her choice. “Students may think a great essay should consist of a list of their achievements and activities and be chock full of fancy vocabulary, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Giudice. “Admissions officers are looking to the essay as a way to get to know the person behind the SAT scores. Encourage your student to be him or herself. That honest expression of his or her individuality will make your student’s application shine.”

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