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The Do’s and Don’ts of College Application Essays

July 26, 2017
Stephanie Jolly

Your college application essay can make you a dream student to your dream school.

Your college application essay can make you a dream student to your dream school.

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. Unlike a list of numbers, it answers the question they really want to know—what makes you you?

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

Do’s of college application essay writing

DO revise often and early. Your college application essay should go through multiple stages of revisions. 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 authentic, but not too 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 writing your essay early. Writing your college essay is not a task that you should put off until the last minute. In fact, you can give yourself a huge advantage by starting today.

Don’ts of college application 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 go back and finesse the rhythm, pacing, and momentum.

DON’T rehash your resume or your LinkedIn profile. The college admissions committee has already seen a list of your extracurricular activities, volunteer work, honors, and awards you’ve received elsewhere in your college application. The essay portion should portray you as a mature, thoughtful individual, so find a personal story that reflects these qualities.

DON’T rely on famous quotes to do the heavy lifting. If you have a quote that particularly speaks to you, tell the readers why those words are so meaningful—don’t just regurgitate. In the same vein, avoid overly used 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 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. It will come across as disingenuous to admissions officers.

To help you stay on track throughout the entire college application process and beyond, download your  free month-by-month KapMap College Planner.



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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