Do’s & Don’ts of Writing a College Admission Essay
After three years of high school, you would probably be glad never to write an essay again. If you plan on going to college, however, you’re in for some bad news. Essay writing is one of the more important things you need to get out of your high school experience, because you can’t get through college without it.
That means most schools will want to make sure you know how to put an essay together before they offer you admission. It’s a lot of work for you to write, it’s a lot of work for them to read and evaluate, but it really is for your own good.
More than that, college admission essays and personal statements give you the chance to tell your story. The decision your admissions officer must make is about more than just your grades and your extracurricular activities. They want to know about your interests, your values, and your character. They have to decide whether you are a good fit—both for their institution and higher education in general.
You must have other things on your mind besides your essay with college on the horizon. We have inside information to help you with those matters, too. You may be asking, “Are AP classes worth it?” You could be working on your college application checklist. Or you may be nervous about your last year of high school—which is why we offer advice for high school seniors: keep your head up!
So for now, how do you create a college application essay, personal essay, common app essay, or whatever you need to write to get in? These tips will get you most of the way there—you’ll just have to come up with the exact words.
How do you write a college admission essay?
Just get started—the hardest part is the first part. Starting early is key to writing a college essay, so you should get started the summer before your senior year. If you can get your essay finished during this summer, you’ll have plenty of time to adjust it or rewrite it, as well as to get started on other essays, as well. Plus you’ll be in a position to apply for early decision deadlines by the winter, which is always a good idea.
Find an idea wherever you can—application essays tend to be a source of hesitation more than inspiration. Most colleges, as well as the Common Application, will have the topics for their essays available online. Look them up, and then start looking anywhere and everywhere for ideas. It’s always good to pull ideas from your own experiences. Think about what you’ve accomplished and what you feel defines you. Think about parts of your background that have shaped your life. Ultimately, every application essay you write is going to be about you, as it should be the easiest thing to write about and it will give admission officers an idea of who you are.
If you’re stumped, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can start will the closest sources, like friends and family, and don’t forget about your teachers, either. If you’ve written essays for them before, they’ll know your strengths and weaknesses and can steer you towards topics they know will work for you.
Make a plan—it may be tempting to dive in and write, like pulling off a bandage. The smarter move, however, is to strategize. Be sure you have a main idea you want to get across and that it’s present throughout the essay. What is the point of your story; what one thing do you want to make sure the reader gets from the piece? Most application essays are required to be pretty short, anywhere from 200 to 900 words. You want to make the best use of that limited number of words, so you should map out what you want your essay to look like in some form. That may be a traditional outline, or it may be just a matter of breaking the essay into pieces and working on it one section at a time.
U.S. News & World Report says, “If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence … an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.” You should also plan to write multiple drafts. Going with your instincts is good, especially because you are the subject of the essay, but you owe it to yourself to evaluate your drafts and rewrite them, even if it’s just to prove to yourself the first round was best. Build time into your plan for that process.
What should be included in a college essay?
Answer the question—this sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget. Because personal essays are about you, you may find yourself on a roll re-living your memories. Your personal reflections are the key to keeping the reader invested, but don’t let them carry you away. Stay focused on the essay prompt—for example, a question about an experience outside the classroom that shaped who you are. Make what you write about what you learned from the experience, not the exact details or context of the story. Remember this is more of a written job interview than a first date in paragraph form.
The genuine article only—everything is significant when it comes to telling your own story. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve seen, and this is not a time where a reader is judging your list of achievements. The most important factor of your college admissions essay is that you’re writing about what’s truly important to you. Have confidence in your own choices—what music is special to you, the authors you most value, the activities you participate in. Your enthusiasm for wood carving, slam poetry, Coen Brothers movies, or whatever, is what will jump off the page. You can’t make up that passion, and you shouldn’t try.
Word order means more than word choice—you need to check, double-check, sit for a while and check again to make sure your admissions essay is as polished as possible. Basic grammar is really, really, important; it won’t get you into a school on its own, but without it, you could cost yourself a spot. Making sure you have the right punctuation in the right place and using active voice over passive is vital. That said, make sure your good grammar doesn’t keep the essay from sounding like you. Don’t push to use fancier language or longer sentences than you normally would. Use the simplest word you need to get a point across—every time. Sell yourself as you really are, so that reading your writing and having a conversation with you both feel like meeting the same person.
What should you not do in a college essay?
Do not lie—not only do we mean not exaggerating stories about yourself. We mean don’t fudge the details. If you don’t have a black belt in Muay Thai kickboxing, don’t say you do in your essay. As compelling as someone else’s life story may be, it’s not for you to use. You can quote someone in your writing, and if there are quotes that are meaningful to you, you should. But don’t go overboard. Everything you write should be true, with evidence to back it up, and the vast majority of what you write should be your own words. Do you know how easy it is to find out the truth about other people from their social media profiles? An admissions officers can fact check you just as easily.
It’s no joke—you’d be right to think that after working their way through a big pile of essays, the people reading yours could use a good laugh. That said, humor is tough in this kind of essay. You know next to nothing about who will read it, let alone their senses of humor. As the Princeton Review warns, “What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different.” Even if you are highly confident in your humor, joking too much in this situation may give the wrong impression. You don’t want a college to think you are too focused on education and that you can’t have fun. But they also need to know you will be taking your education seriously. One simple joke at the start or end of your essay is more than enough. Beyond that, keep things clean and businesslike.
Same old, same old—remember that your reader will have your transcripts and the rest of your application to tell them what your grades are as well as the list of clubs, sports teams, musical groups and volunteer organizations you belong to. Try very hard not to dump your entire life story or all your finer points into the essay. Focus on singular moments or activities—pick the ones that stand out. And be specific. According to College Board, “Don’t simply state a fact to get an idea across, such as ‘I like to surround myself with people with a variety of backgrounds and interests.’ Do include specific details, examples, reasons and so on to develop your ideas.” Pick what’s best and most important about you and leave the rest out of the essay.
At the same time, don’t go against what you’ve written on the rest of your application. Keep the details straight, and if there’s something you want to reveal in the essay, just be sure it’s about your thoughts and feelings, not an important fact you left out elsewhere.
How do I make my college essay stand out?
Think differently—we mentioned above that a college admissions officers appreciates anything that will break up the boring process of reading hundreds of these essays. While an inappropriate joke isn’t the best way to do it, it’s still worth doing. So once you’ve got the basics of what you want to say set in your mind, try delivering them from a different angle. Collegebasics.com suggests that, rather than answering an essay prompt directly, you answer it in the negative: tell the reader what you’re not going to do with the essay before telling them what you will do. If the question asks what your ambitions for the future are, instead answer with what you don’t aspire to, and what that says about you.
Collegebasics.com goes on to suggest write that you can make an admissions essay interesting by writing it like a piece of fiction or an autobiography. “Try starting with a question. Challenge the reader by speaking directly to him/her. (Or) put the reader in medias res, that is, in the middle of things. Place the reader in the middle of something happening or in the middle of a conversation.” So for example, if you want to tell the story of a piano recital, start with “So there I was, in front of a thousand people, and my hands were shaking so much I could barely touch the keys.” Then fill in how you got to that point and what it says about you. If what you write is logical, easy to follow, and phrased correctly, you can afford to experiment with your delivery. Your reader will appreciate your mixing things up.
Proofread again and again—it should go without saying, but too many people make the mistake. So we’re saying it twice. Always read what you’ve written carefully, and multiple times. It is very easy to miss simple mistakes while you’re during the writing process, so be sure to stop for a while so you can look at your essay with fresh eyes. But don’t just look for grammatical errors or misspellings. Read your essay out loud so you can hear how it sounds. If sentences are too long, don’t make sense, or just don’t sound interesting enough, cut them, rephrase them or take them out. Editing is just as important as writing, and it is the only proven way to get the best product. Along with reading your essay out loud, try reading it backwards, starting with the last section first. As Lori Greene of Collegeexpress.com explains, “This may sound a bit silly, but when reading in sequential order, your brain has a tendency to piece together missing information, or fill in the blanks, for you. Reading each sentence on its own and backwards can help you realize not only typos and mistakes in grammar, but that you may have forgotten an article here and there, such as ‘a’ or ‘the.’”
Seek professional (or at least qualified) help—the problem with spending so much time on what can be a relatively short essay is that you look at it so much it starts to lose its meaning for you. So for the same reason you should read your work out loud or backwards, you have to get another pair of eyes and ears working on it, as well. A fresh perspective can make all the difference and keep you from settling for something terrible. A good friend, parent, or better yet, a teacher can read what you’ve written and give you a reality check. Encourage them to be constructive—it’s okay if they tell you what you’ve come up with is no good, as long as they can offer some feedback to help make it better. Ask them to judge whether the writing really sounds like you are talking. And don’t let them get away with saying your essay is just “good,” either. Don’t leave them alone until they’ve told you at least one thing you can improve, or at least specific aspects they liked.
For more information on how to apply for college and make your application look as good as possible, visit northcentralcollege.edu/apply.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.