Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a College Admissions Essay

Break out your pen and paper, and take a look at our tips for writing a great college admissions essay!
Break out your pen and paper, and take a look at our tips for writing a great college admissions essay!

Today we’ll be giving some tips about how to and what to write for your college admissions essay! Don’t waste your summer! Make sure to start early on these essays because it’s quite possibly the most important piece of writing you’ll ever do!


  • Do show, don’t tell: This is the classic advice every essay writer receives. Engaging writing is engaging because it elicits sympathy and understanding from the reader. Humans love storytelling, as it’s essentially hard coded into our DNA, and there’s no better way to connect with your reader than to tell stories or short anecdotes. This isn’t to say you should spend 500 words elaborating on a single story. Rather, you should include sentences that allow the reader to picture themselves in the moment. For example, instead of using the bland line”I love teaching because it allows me to help others gain a better understanding of the world,”  try something like “I’ve never been more proud than when Bobby Sue finally realized how Gauss’s Law works. After hours of slogging through a single assignment during a help session, there was no greater joy than seeing his face light up with understanding, and that single moment made the entire semester of tutoring worth it.”
  • Do have a good hook: Admissions committees are reading hundreds, if not thousands, of applications, so make sure to capture their interest. Draw them in with an interesting anecdote, and give them something to remember you by. Of course, don’t be melodramatic or insincere with this hook, but make sure to start off on the right foot. Just think back to all the required reading assignments you’ve had in the past — don’t be that author who bores you starting from line 1; be the author who engages you and draws you in so you want to continue reading.
  • Do demonstrate your passion: The essay is essentially the only opportunity you get to show off who you are. Both ApplyTexas and the CommonApp only afford a very limited number of characters to describe your listed activities, so the essay is the only significant opportunity you get to describe in detail your hopes, dreams, and interests. Take advantage of this! The most important thing is to demonstrate that you’re an interesting person and that you have a life apart from just school. If you have an extracurricular you love, write about it! If you have a hobby you enjoy doing, explain why you love it! Talk about anything you have a strong passion for because that is without a doubt the easiest way to translate passion onto the page.
  • Do be humble and genuine: Admissions officers can smell insincerity a mile away. If you volunteered once at a soup kitchen, don’t write an essay about how bad you felt for the patrons and now want to dedicate your life to abolishing poverty. Even if admissions officers didn’t major in math, they can tell when something doesn’t add up. One meeting with the underprivileged likely won’t elicit an epiphany, and one event likely won’t determine your entire life’s path. Don’t be overdramatic or oversell your experiences to make some grand statement about life or morals. Be humble and true to yourself! No one expects a high schooler to have had dramatic life-changing experiences, so there’s no need to wildly upsell your accomplishments or motivations. A pinch of humility will go a long way in distinguishing yourself from the rest of the overeager pack.
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  • Don’t draw attention to your flaws unless you have a really good explanation: We all have things we’re ashamed of on our transcripts, but it’s important to remember that these essays are a chance to sell yourself. If you have a 100% solid explanation of what went wrong (family member died, test center’s power went out, etc.), you can briefly spend some time explaining that, but if it’s something more mundane like just having an off semester, I would try and avoid explaining it. Admissions officers know that no one is perfect, and you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to your flaws. If you’re buying a product, do you want to hear “it works well most of the time, but on occasion it can completely break”? No, of course not! Play up your strengths, not your weaknesses!
  • Don’t speak in platitudes: You don’t want to be the 1000th person to write “Since I was a child, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a physicist.” Though this may certainly be true, it’s become so oft repeated that it’s a cliche. Focus on the things that make your story different than everyone else’s. Talk about the challenges and how you over came them. Talk about what you’ve done along the way. No one cares about where you started from. It only matters how far you’ve come.
  • Don’t turn your essay into a rehash of your resume: Admissions officers have read your resume; use the essay as an opportunity to elaborate on the resume, not to simply repeat it. Some students simply list out their accomplishments, bragging about all that they’ve done, but don’t do this! It’s cool that you won first place at state for debate, but so what? It’s nice that you set a national record for high jump, but now what? Very few accomplishments are inherently impressive, so what you absolutely must do is elaborate on why this achievement meant something to you. What obstacles did you overcome? What lessons did you learn? Why did winning mean something to you? Tell the story of your accomplishment. Don’t just list achievement after achievement in an attempt to impress.
  • Don’t write a sob story: This is a hard line to straddle, but don’t exploit your challenges to elicit pity from an admissions officer. If you faced serious obstacles and setbacks in your life, feel free to elaborate on them, but absolutely make sure to explain how you grew from this and how you overcame. Bad things can happen to anyone, but it takes someone special to have the fortitude to endure and overcome. This is what admissions officers want to see — okay, you faced enormous odds, but what did you make of it? How did you do your best, and how did you persevere when times were tough? No one wants to hear a pity party. No one wants to hear a sob story. What we do love, however, is an underdog story. We love hearing about how the little guy beats the odds or how the little guy never gave up. Focus on this, the success and the journey, not on the failure!
  • Don’t focus too much on the anecdotes: The corollary to “Show, Don’t Tell” is to not show too much. Use the showing as a way to draw your reader in, but make sure to describe how this event impacted you. Don’t get too caught up in the presentation of a story that you fail to tie it back to what it meant to you. The “show” should be a jumping off point to then begin “telling.” Don’t waste too much time on a story if you can’t elaborate on your personal takeaways. There doesn’t need to be a wide-sweeping moral to the story, but there does need to be a significant amount of exposition dedicated to exploring how this story/event impacted you. What did you learn from this event? How have you grown? How has this driven you? The essay is a time for introspection, so share these lessons you’ve learned with the world!
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