Do’s and Don’ts: Writing College Admission Essays

Writing college admission essays can be tricky

Flickr user Ryan Blanding

In the midst of worrying about GPAs, test scores, academic rigor, and completing requirements, it might be easy to gloss over another important element of the college application process: the admission essays. For some the essay is a welcome relief from all the data crunching, for others, it is dreaded.

As part of our ongoing college admission essay series, we’re here to provide some tips, tricks, and mindsets that will help making writing that essay easier, and hopefully produce better end results! Here are the do’s and don’ts of writing your college admission essay.

DO: Stick to the prompt

First and foremost, write what they want you to write. Answer the questions they ask. Trying to “cheat” the prompt by quickly writing about what was asked of you, and then going on to write about what you really want to say is not going to help you in the long run. So do yourself a favor and stick to that prompt–it’s what the college wants to know about you. Besides, the prompt gives your piece backbone and direction; it’s a useful structuring tool.

DON’T: Ramble or get off-topic

Again, stick to the prompt. It might be easy while telling your story to go off on a tangent and give too much necessary backstory or summary or just irrelevant information. Outlining your essay and coming up with topic points is a great way to reduce the likelihood of getting off-topic. Really focus on the core message of your essay.

DO: Pick an interesting and engaging topic

The admissions essay is all about you. Colleges want to get to know you on a more personal level, as they aren’t solely interested in test scores, GPA, or class rank. So use this platform to show them who you are.

On that note, when picking a topic for answering a prompt, keep in mind that the admission officers have read hundreds if not thousands of application essays. This means you’ll want to avoid generic topics like “I worked hard to balance my schedule.” What is something unique about you? What’s something you’re really passionate about or dedicated to? Allow yourself to stand out. Choose something interesting that also demonstrates the desirable qualities you have.

DON’T: Lie or embellish

Honesty is always, always, always the best policy. In an effort to sell yourself to the college, don’t go overboard and lie to make yourself sound even more impressive. I promise you can find something fascinating about yourself to write about, something truthful. Admissions officers have a nose for sniffing out falsehoods anyway, not to mention you could get into trouble by fabricating a fact or story just to get in.

DO: Brag a little bit

Graduating high school is an accomplishment, always filled with additional successes along the way. So be proud! You worked hard, now is the time to showcase your hard-won talents and wins. That isn’t to say you should be cocky or boastful, however. There’s a line. All the same, if you campaigned hard and worked to get policies changed in your time as class president, talk about it! If you practiced extra hours to shave a few seconds off of your personal swimming record, talk about it! If you formed a club, if you were the lead in a school play, if you got a 4.0, if you won the school talent show—this is your time to showcase it.

DON’T: Forget to edit

Often the Achilles’ heel of any essay—whether you’re a superb writer or not—is editing, or more specifically, lack thereof. It’s so easy to sit back after you’ve written your concluding paragraph, click save, and then send it in. That is a big DON’T! Always edit. Now is the time for spelling and grammar checks. Re-read and make sure everything flows. Give your essay to someone else so they can edit it with fresh eyes. You don’t want the admissions team to think less of your essay for one or two silly, fixable mistakes, after all.

Use these do’s and don’ts, as well as our other essay writing tips, and you’ll be in good shape. The essay is an important factor in the college admission process, and oftentimes the only time the college will get “to know the real you.” It’s not only a number game but a word game as well.