The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a College Essay

August 10, 2016
Stephanie Jolly

Learn the do’s and don’ts of writing a standout college essay.

Make sure your college essay has personality—yours.

While your test scores and GPA give you academic cred with college admissions officers, it’s your college application essay that really helps you stand out among other applicants, showcase your personality, and answer the question they really want to know—what makes you you?

Most universities require at least one college essay as part of your admission application, but many require two or more of various lengths. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you start off on the right foot and avoid common college essay mistakes:  

Do’s of college essay writing

Revise often and early. Your college application essay should go through multiple stages of revision. We’re not talking about a quick proofread; you should ask parents, teachers, and even your peers to read through your essay drafts and give you substantial critical advice.

DO use the first person. Avoid generic third person pronouns like “one” or “students.” This essay is about you!

DO say what you mean, and mean what you say. Be honest, but not boastful or self-deprecating. Be specific, clear, and concise. Using a thesaurus can help you find the exact word you want to convey a feeling or emotion.

DO start early. Writing your college essay is not a task that you should put off until the last minute. In fact, give yourself an advantage by starting today!

Don’ts of college essay writing

DON’T expect your first draft to be perfect. Getting started is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Your first draft isn’t your final draft! Get past the first step; then worry about momentum.

DON’T rehash your resume or your LinkedIn profile. The college admissions committee has already seen a list of your extracurricular activities and volunteer work, as well as the honors and awards you’ve received: you listed those accomplishments elsewhere in your college application. Your college essay should portray you as a mature, thoughtful individual. What is your personal story that captures this quality?

DON’T rely on famous quotes to do the heavy lifting. If you have a quotation that particularly speaks to you, tell the readers why those words are so meaningful—don’t just regurgitate. In the same vein, avoid clichés, maxims, and other common phrases. If you’ve heard it before, chances are the college admissions officers have heard it hundreds of times more than that.

DON’T make your essay read like the dictionary. Vocabulary words definitely belong in your SAT essay, but you’ll want to sound like yourself and convey your own voice in your college application essay. If you wouldn’t ordinarily describe sharing meals with your family as a “salubrious assemblage of kin” your college essay is NOT the place to start.

For tips beyond your college application, download your free KapMap—a month-by-month guide for your entire college journey.

Stephanie Jolly Bio: Stephanie Jolly is an alumna of NYU, and earned a perfect 800 on SAT Math. She loves to identify patterns and to break down Reading passages using the same analytical approach. She tutors, teaches, and writes content for Kaplan SAT, ACT, and AP programs in her home base of Kentucky—internationally and for Live Online.

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