Application Essay Do’s and Don’ts From a College Advisor

Most students do not realize how many college essays they will be required to write. There can be two to six essays for each school, and depending on the number of colleges to which a student applies, this can add up to quite a bit of writing.

Beginning the essay writing process early is critical to relieving the stress that naturally goes along with completing college applications. Writing is a lengthy process, and students may not realize all the steps that crafting an effective essay entails: brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and rewriting.

A Word About the Writing Timeline

Taking deadlines into account is a great place to start in terms of spacing out the writing you need to do. If you are planning to apply Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA), you should focus on essays for those applications first. The ED and EA deadlines tend to be between November 1 and December 1, so getting started on your applications early in the summer before your senior year is a good idea.

You should also take your summer plans into account. If you are traveling over the summer or away at camp, begin a first draft of the personal essay, and possibly one or two supplemental essays, as soon as the Common Application or individual college prompts are ready, ideally before you depart. This way, you can add finishing touches when you return.

If you are working, interning, or taking classes over the summer, essays can be spaced out somewhat more liberally. That said, this will also depend on how many supplemental essays you are required to write. The more essays, the faster the pace of the writing timeline should be.

Ideally, you would begin drafting essays in June and continue throughout the summer to allow flexibility for your other summer activities. An optimal goal would be to complete the main essay and at least half of the supplemental essays before the senior year begins.

If you have more colleges to visit in the fall or additional SAT or ACT exams to prep for, you should make an effort to finish up most of your essays before you go back to school.

Reserve September and October for finishing up essays and tackling new ones for colleges that may have recently come into the mix. There are always eleventh-hour decisions that students make — and the related mad dash to complete applications in a few short days — so getting as much done early truly helps diminish last-minute work and stress.

College Essay Best Practices

As one admissions official put it, "The most important thing in the essay is not the 'what,' but the 'why.' We have the 'what' from your list of extracurriculars, scores, and awards. We now want to know the 'why,' the motivations that drive you."

Here is what you should (and shouldn’t) do to infuse your essay with the “why.”

Do’s

Do make an outline.

Taking time to plan out your essay before you sit down to write will minimize the time you spend staring at that blinking cursor. Brainstorm a few ideas of stories that say something about you, and write a brief, step-by-step outline of what you are planning to say in each paragraph. This will help your essay feel cohesive and keep your writing on track.

Do write honestly and openly.

This essay is an opportunity for you to truly give the admissions officers a sense of who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Use the opportunity to genuinely reveal yourself, instead of writing what you believe they want to hear.

Do use lots of details.

Give your essay texture by including lots of specific details that put your reader in your shoes. Think of the five senses: What were you seeing in that moment? Smelling? Tasting? Feeling? Hearing?

Do write in your own words.

Trying to sound impressive by using thesaurus words will, unfortunately, backfire. Using fancy vocabulary that you aren’t comfortable with will stand out in your essay and draw attention away from what you are really trying to say.

Do make sure that the grammar is perfect.

Editing should be as much a part of your writing process as typing up the words you want to say. Read the essay aloud to yourself and correct any sentences you stumble over as you read. Show the essay to trusted teachers or adults in your life and ask for their feedback. Be sure that your grammar is impeccable and that there are no careless mistakes (like accidentally using the name of a different school!).

Don’ts

Don’t write about inappropriate subjects.

Stay away from writing about sex, drugs, or violence. Instead of coming off as edgy, these topics often raise red flags with admissions officers. Opt for a story that you would be proud to share with anyone who crossed your path.

Don’t cast yourself in a negative light.

There are wise ways to discuss failures or struggles in your path. If you are including a story about a difficult experience, be sure that the story conveys how you learned something new and grew positively from it.

Likewise, pay close attention to your tone. Does your essay sound naïve or patronizing? Or do you come off as self-aware and humble?

Don’t write about global issues that have little impact on your life.

Unless the global issue you’re addressing has directly affected your life or you have done something truly meaningful to change factors that have contributed to it, it is best to stay away from topics that are not closely tied to your experience.

Don't write about yourself in the third person.

As a best practice, write your essay in the first person. After all, the essay is about you, so make sure it stays close to your personal perspective.

Writing a short piece that has to capture who you are can feel daunting, but by following these best practices and giving yourself plenty of time to craft your essay, you can write a stand-out piece.

Follow this link to ask questions about college essays and to find additional guidance on the topic, such as, The Best and Worst Topics for a College Application Essay.