Dos and Don’ts of Essays

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The essay is often the college application component where students experience the most stress, and the element where they’re more likely to make mistakes. College admissions essays are not rocket science, but there are a number of steps that students can take to put together the most accurate and compelling essays that will help their chances of gaining admission to their top-choice colleges.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, application essays are the most important “soft” factors, or non-quantitative elements, that colleges consider when making admission decisions, right behind “hard” factors, or quantitative components, like grades, curriculum, and test scores. Essays are often more important than recommendations, extracurricular activities, and other qualitative application elements. While it’s important to put considerable effort into all college application components, essays are often the finishing touch and should be treated with great care and consideration.

Here are some college application essay dos and don’ts for students to keep in mind as they complete their applications this fall.

DON’T use the essay to repeat your resume.
This can’t be stressed enough. The essay is your opportunity to reveal something about yourself that can’t be found anywhere else in your application – use it! Many students use the essay to expound upon activities or interests that are already heavily demonstrated in their application through courses, the activity list, and more. Instead of reinforcing a top activity or interest, instead, write about something that reveals another dimension of your life or personality. If your top activity is swimming, don’t write about the big championship meet. Find something else that reveals something new and that shows you put a lot of thought into your essay. If your study of AP biology conflicts with your religious views, write about that and how you reconciled the two. Dig deep to find a topic that’s meaningful.

DO show a slice of your life.
When developing a topic that reveals something new, find a way to frame the story or idea that shows a slice of your life or the event. Be descriptive and give details that appeal to the senses – taste, touch, smell, etc. When writing about a meaningful experience or event, you don’t have to give a long timeline of events. Instead, give the reader the piece of the puzzle that conveys your message.

DON’T copy and paste.
With upwards of 25 or more essays to write for a balanced college list of 10-12 schools, it’s tempting for students to repurpose essays across applications if the prompts are similar. While students can use the same main essay on the Common App for multiple schools, we always recommend that students tailor their supplemental essays to the individual colleges. Telling Harvard why you want to attend Columbia is a quick way to end up in the “no” pile. Take the time to write original responses to all the prompts. It’s a lot of work, but it will pay off in the end.

DO show your knowledge of the college.
When tailoring responses to individual college prompts, it’s important to use specific details you’ve learned through visiting and research. Not only does this show colleges that you’ve have done your homework, but it also demonstrates your interest in the college – and colleges want to admit students who are likely to enroll. Show your knowledge of the college by mentioning specific courses, professors, places of interest, and more. Show how you fit into the campus culture and how you will impact the community through specific examples.

DON’T say what you think the admissions office wants to hear.
So many students think that they “know” what colleges want from an applicant, and this can have a big influence over their essays. Students will abuse the thesaurus and write about strange topics in an effort to impress and stand out. Instead of writing what you think the admissions office wants to read, write about what you want them to know. Again, the essay is a great space to reveal something new about you, so stand out by being yourself and showing another side of you as a person or student.

DO use your voice.
Using lofty language and complex sentence structure can make you sound sophisticated, but is that really how you speak? Don’t let your voice get lost in the pursuit to impress readers. Instead, write like you speak – keeping in mind that proper grammar and spelling is still important.

DON’T rely on spellcheck.
Spellcheck won’t catch every spelling or grammatical error! Take the time to read over all your essays carefully and keep an eye out for things like “out” when you meant to say “our” and other common typos. Have a parent or counselor read over the essay, too, to catch any errors you might have missed. Spelling and grammar errors can take away from an otherwise stellar essay – so be mindful.

DO double check that you’ve addressed the prompt.
This is one of the most common mistakes that students make. In the pursuit to write the perfect essay, many forget to connect it to the original prompt. While the Common Application prompts for the main essay are general enough to allow students to write about whatever they choose, it still needs to be clear how that essay addresses the prompt. The same applies to school-specific essays. Check and double check that a clear connection is made between the topic or lesson of your essay, and the question the prompt is asking.

DON’T wait until the last minute.
If you’re applying to 10 colleges and wait until two weeks before applications are due, you’re going to have a lot of writing to complete in a very short amount of time. Waiting until the last minute leads to stress and rushed essays that don’t accurately convey students’ messages. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, draft, revise, and get feedback on your essays.

DO seek feedback from your counselor.
Your college counselors are there to help, but they can’t if you don’t ask or wait until the last minute to seek guidance and feedback. Make a plan to meet with your college counselor and go over your college list and essays, and ask for feedback on your writing. Your college counselor can provide valuable insight into how to improve your college application essays, so be sure to seek feedback on your drafts as soon as possible. School-based counselors have a lot of students to advise and are very busy, so seek guidance early and often.

Essays are an important component in the college application process. While the essay alone won’t gain you admission to your top-choice college, a poorly written one can send you to the “no” pile pretty quickly. Take your time with your college application essays and seek guidance when you need it!

If you need additional help with your college application essays, We offer a number of services designed to help high school seniors with their college applications. Contact us today for more information on our programs for seniors.

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