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10 College Application Essay Dos and Don’ts

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IvyWise counselors Rachel and Zach share their top tips on how to brainstorm and write college application essays, and what admissions officers are looking for when they read them on the Just Admit It! college admissions podcast, giving listeners expert insight from former admissions officers.

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Writing college application essays is often the most stressful part of the admissions process for students, and as a result many tend to put them off until the last minute.

Delaying your work on college application essays isn’t the best move, particularly because the National Association for College Admission Counseling classifies application essays as the most important “soft” factor, or non-quantitative elements, that colleges consider when making admissions decisions, right behind “hard” factors, or quantitative components, like grades, curriculum, and test scores. And in a year where more colleges than ever are test-optional, soft factors like the essay will carry even more weight in the admissions process this fall.

However, if you’re behind on your college admissions essays, don’t panic. There are a number of steps that students can take to put together the most accurate and compelling personal statements and school-specific supplements that will help their chances of gaining admission to their top-choice colleges.

Here are some college application essay dos and don’ts for students to keep in mind as they complete their applications before Jan. 1 deadlines.

DON’T use the personal statement essay to repeat your activities list.

This can’t be stressed enough. The personal statement is your opportunity to reveal something about yourself that can’t be found anywhere else in your application — use it! Many students use this essay to expound upon activities or interests that are already heavily demonstrated in their application through courses, the activity list, and more. Instead of reinforcing a top activity or interest, write about something that reveals another dimension of your life or personality. If your top activity is swimming, don’t write about the big championship meet. Find something else that reveals something new and that shows you put a lot of thought into your essay. If your study of AP biology conflicts with your religious views, write about that and how you reconciled the two. Dig deep to find a topic that’s meaningful.

DO show a slice of your life.

When developing a topic that reveals something new, find a way to frame the story or idea that shows a slice of your life or the event. Be descriptive and give details that appeal to the senses – taste, touch, smell, etc. When writing about a meaningful experience or event, you don’t have to give a long timeline of events. Instead, give the reader the piece of the puzzle that conveys your message. Particularly when you’re feeling stressed for time, it can be helpful to remember that your job isn’t necessarily to tell a full-length story; it’s to focus on something smaller that demonstrates who you are and what you stand for.

DON’T copy and paste.

With upwards of 25 or more essays to write for a balanced college list of 10-12 schools, it’s tempting for students to repurpose essays across applications if the prompts are similar, especially when working down to the wire. While students can use the same main essay on the Common App for multiple schools, we always recommend that students tailor their supplemental essays to the individual colleges. Telling Caltech why you want to attend MIT is a quick way to end up in the “no” pile.

At the end of the day, attempting to repurpose essays isn’t the time-efficient solution either. While it might seem like a quick-fix, you’ll likely spend more time trying to rework an existing piece than you would if you started from scratch. Instead, give each essay a fresh start and set aside time to give every prompt your all.

DO show your knowledge of the college.

When tailoring responses to individual college prompts, it’s important to use specific details you’ve learned through visiting and research. Not only does this show colleges that you’ve have done your homework, but it also demonstrates your interest in the college – and colleges want to admit students who are likely to enroll. Show your knowledge of the college by mentioning specific courses, professors, places of interest, and more. Show how you fit into the campus culture and how you will impact the community through specific examples.

DON’T say what you think the admissions office wants to hear.

So many students think that they “know” what colleges want from an applicant, and this can have a big influence over their essays. Students will overuse the thesaurus and write about strange topics in an effort to impress and stand out. Instead of writing what you think the admissions office wants to read, write about what you want them to know.

Again, the essay is a great space to reveal something new about you, so stand out by being authentic and showing another side of yourself. For students who feel like they’re pressed for time, being genuine is likely also your most efficient strategy. Forget about trying to concoct a version of yourself that you think the admissions office wants to see and let your authentic personality shine through.

DO use your voice.

Using lofty language and complex sentence structure can make you sound sophisticated, but is that really how you speak? Don’t let your voice get lost in the pursuit to impress readers. Instead, write like you speak – keeping in mind that proper grammar and spelling is still important.

DON’T rely only on spellcheck.

Spellcheck won’t catch every spelling or grammatical error! Take the time to read over all your essays carefully and keep an eye out for things like “out” when you meant to say “our” and other common typos. Especially when you’re short on time, it can be easy to overlook spelling and grammar, but it’s always worth the few extra minutes to make sure you have error-free content. To be extra safe, have a parent or counselor read over the essay, too, to catch any errors you might have missed. Spelling and grammar errors can take away from an otherwise stellar essay – so be mindful.

DO double check that you’ve addressed the prompt.

This is one of the most common mistakes that students make. In the pursuit to write the perfect essay, many forget to connect it to the original prompt. While the Common Application prompts for the main essay are general enough to allow students to write about whatever they choose, it still needs to be clear how that essay addresses the prompt. The same applies to school-specific essays. Check and double check that a clear connection is made between the topic of your essay and the question the prompt is asking.

DON’T panic.

Working down to the wire can undoubtedly be stressful. Instead of beating yourself up for not starting sooner or worrying that you won’t be able to finish everything on time, focus on what you can control. Put all of your energy toward your application essays and devote as much time to writing and editing as possible. Keep tabs on every admissions deadline and prioritize what you will work on first accordingly. Create a strategy for completing every essay and stay accountable to the timeline you’ve created.

DO seek feedback when you can.

While it’s imperative that students write their own essays and use their authentic voice, every writer can benefit from a second set of eyes. Your college counselor can provide valuable insight into how to improve your college application essays, so seek feedback on your drafts as soon as possible. School-based counselors have a lot of students to advise and are very busy, so don’t wait!

Essays are an important component in the college application process. While the essay alone won’t gain you admission to your top-choice college, a poorly written one can send you to the “no” pile pretty quickly. Consequently, it’s important to give every essay your all and seek guidance when you need it – especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed leading up to critical deadlines.

If you need additional help with your college application essays, IvyWise offers a number of services designed to help high school seniors with their college applications. Contact us today for more information on our programs for seniors!

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