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Dos and Don’ts of Writing College Essays

For a lot of students, the essay portion of college applications is one of the most daunting parts of the process.

But guess what? It doesn’t need to be.

Yes, the essay is where the readers get to know you and your voice. Yes, the essay is the part that separates you from everyone whose transcripts and resumes are similar to yours. And yes, a lot of pressure is associated with both of those facts. But if you follow the list of Dos and Don’ts below, you’ll be in a great position to not only start your essays, but also to create essays that show colleges and universities what sets you apart from the competition.


Think of these as stories.

More than likely, these essays are unlike anything you’ve written for school. They’re narratives, so they should sound like you and include descriptions that put the reader directly into whatever circumstances you’re writing about. These stories should show (not tell) the reader what you’ve experienced and how that’s shaped you.

Allow yourself time to brainstorm.

No matter which prompt(s) you answer, all colleges and universities want to know who you are as a result of whichever story you chose to tell. Set aside time to turn inward and reflect on experiences that have shaped you, as well as what you’ve learned from each of those experiences.

Write about something important to you.

Please read this carefully: you do not have to write about a dramatic occurrence or tragedy to gain the attention of your audience. Admissions offices are not searching for students with the most wild or absurd stories; they’re looking for who you are. Free yourself from the unrealistic expectation that you must talk about something large-scale, and explore small-scale occurrences that taught you important lessons or developed your character. The best PB&J you ever had? Write about it. The first time you went into Costco? Write about it. As long as you can explain why it mattered and who you are because of it, literally nothing is off the table.

Choose ONE thing and dive in.

Most schools have word/character limits on their essays, which means the more breadth you include, the less depth your story will have. In other words, selecting one topic to write about means you can go much more in-depth and provide a more specific picture of who you are. Avoid the temptation of writing about many different experiences in your story.


Rush a prompt just to get it over with.

While it’s understandable that you may not be psyched about accomplishing this task, admissions offices will be able to tell if you threw something together at the last minute. They read tens of thousands of essays per year, which means they’re experts in sniffing out the stories with clear intention and effort, as well as those without.

Write in a formal, stuffy tone.

The college essay should be a narrative, not an analysis. This is not the time to try out new vocabulary words or fancy phrases you’ve heard. An easy rule of thumb: if you don’t use those words in conversation, they won’t come across as genuine in your story. That being said, you also don’t want to…

Be too casual in your word choice.

While it is important that your stories sound like you, you should avoid using slang words or phrases that might confuse the average college admissions advisor, as that is an almost certain way to ensure your application goes in the “No” pile. Keep in mind that most adults are not in the know about the ever-changing vernacular used in your social circles.

Be afraid to scrap your first draft.

If writing your college essay feels awkward or tedious, you’re writing about the wrong thing. Ideally, your story should be one that you’re excited to talk about because that will come through in your writing and the audience will feel it. So although it can be overwhelming to consider, don’t force yourself to finish a story that isn’t authentic just because you were afraid to start over.

Essentially, the more authentic you can be, the better. The more clear a picture of yourself you can provide, the better. At the end of the day, it all comes down to letting admissions offices see who they're getting should they choose to admit you to their campus.

Now get brainstorming!

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