College Admissions Essay “Do”s and “Don’t”s

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I can still remember sitting down at the computer the weekend before college apps were due to write my admissions essay. I had sufficiently procrastinated to the point where my parents might actually take disciplinary action if I didn’t write my essays. I sat down, scrolled through the Common App, and hoped one of the prompts would read, “Tell a moderately humorous story about something that happened during your charmed, suburban childhood,” but no such luck. All the questions about “a time when you struggled” or “when you experienced a major failure” made me feel like I lacked depth. As I ruminated on the “write about whatever you want” prompt, Dr. Seuss suddenly popped into my head; hours later, I had 650 words about how The Sneetches had taught me a valuable lesson about tolerance. It wasn’t a bad essay, but, given the schools I was applying to, it could have been better.

Do: Start Early (like, right now)
Basically, the first “do” is really a “don’t be like me.” Obviously, the earlier you start your essay, the more time you have to work on it; however, students don’t always realize that this also means you have time to switch prompts if you end up hating yours or start over if you think of something better. Starting early means you can put away your essay for a week or two and come back to it with a fresh mindset. If you wait until the weekend before you’re trying to get your applications sent out, like me, not only are you not sending colleges your best essay, but you’re also forcing yourself to write about whatever you can think of that day. It’s not that I’d never had to cope with failure by the age of eighteen, but that time I didn’t pass my second degree black belt test when I was ten just didn’t spring to mind that day (probably not the greatest travesty if I wanted to avoid the “white kid from the ‘burbs” vibe).

Don’t: Let the Prompt(s) Intimidate You
College admissions essay prompts are notoriously vague and broad and yet somehow impossible to write about. “Write about a life-altering experience,” may seem to suggest that you have to write about your parents’ divorce because it’s the biggest thing that ever happened to you and it was really tough and you learned so much, and—stop. Can you condense the emotional roller coaster that was your parents’ divorce including a poignant takeaway that will impress an admissions officer into 650 words? If you can be careful, write skillfully, and say something a little different than everyone else writing about divorce, go for it. Otherwise, why can’t a “life-altering experience,” be something positive, such as meeting a new friend? Or even something that might seem trivial until you explain it’s significance to you, a shopping trip with your Aunt that changed your view of her? Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you write about so much as how you write about it, so make sure to choose a topic that you think you genuinely learned from and can write about sincerely.

Do: Open with Something Unexpected
Remember, this essay is a chance to fill in some of the blanks about you left by your GPA, test scores, and resume; even if these components of your application are exemplary, they can’t create an accurate portrait of who you are. My own essay started with some (albeit slightly forced) anecdote about how the lesson in a Dr. Seuss book stayed with me later in life. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave the reader something to remember about me; in fact, two admissions counselors mentioned that they remembered my essay about Dr. Seuss when we met in person.

Don’t: Try Too Hard
As much as you want to stand out for all the right reasons, you don’t want to stand out for all the wrong reasons. It’s better to have an opening that’s a little cliche or to sound like your typical high school student than to be that kid who thought making an Elle-Woods-style video admissions essay would lead to guaranteed admission.

Do: Focus on YOU!
Even if the prompt is about someone or something outside of yourself (ex “someone who has had an impact on you”), the significant take away from the essay should be about how you’ve grown.

Don’t: Give a Play-by-Play of Your High School Career
Again, this is your chance to fill in the blanks left by your resume, not to reinforce it. If you write your essay about all the AP classes you took or give a general overview of your four years on the Volleyball team, congratulations—you’ve told me nothing.

In conclusion, be honest, start early, and try to sound like “the best version of yourself”–whatever that means!

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