College Application Essay Do’s and Don’ts

The school year may be winding down, but now’s the time high school juniors should be gearing up to begin the college application process. Along with grades and standardized test scores, the personal essay is an important piece.

Over 2 million students apply to college every year. That’s a lot of essays. How do you make yours a stunner and not a sleeper?

First, it’s important to understand why you are writing a personal essay. Admission committees are looking for a deeper understanding of who their students are. Your essay should highlight something about your character, your personality, your heart. The goal of the application essay is to answer two questions–will this student be of value to our campus and can they write?

A list of accomplishments makes for a dull essay that comes across as boastful and will bore your reader to tears. The essay is not the place to “impress.” It’s the place for you to shine a light on the unique you.

Contrary to what you may think, the essay is also not the place to show off your copious vocabulary. Stick to a conversational tone using words and phrases that reflect how you speak everyday. Avoid slang, cliches and SAT words. They’ll make your writing sound forced and flat.

Tell a story, but keep the spotlight on you. Mention grandma, your coach, the child you’re tutoring. But make sure the focus is how those people affected you, the lesson you learned from them or the way an encounter changed your life.

Don’t panic if you haven’t cured cancer or negotiated peace in the Middle East. You do have something to write about. In fact, the smaller the story, the more impactful it can be. Spend a lot of time developing your topic. Look around your room. Read your journal. Pay attention to how you spend your free time. You’ll find your story somewhere in there.

Ask yourself:

Is this subject important to me? You want your essay to be about something that excites you. How do you think your reader will feel if even you are bored by your topic? If the words flow easily, that’s a good indication that you’ve hit on an idea that’s near to your heart.

Is it covered elsewhere in the application? Here’s a chance to express something about you that is not part of your transcript or extracurriculars. You are more than just a list of grades and test scores. Tell them about it.

Are you the only one who could have written it? Essays are about cores values, vulnerability and “aha” moments. Only you know what those look and feel like and the impact they’ve had.

Did you maintain the attention of your audience? Your words should be carefully crafted over a series of revisions. Read the essay out loud. How does it sound? Is anything confusing, boring or repetitive? Have you made meaningful connections that are somewhat surprising or is your reader able to predict where you’re going from the first paragraph?

It is important that you start the essay writing process early. You don’t want to rush this or cram it in between school, practice and homework. You really want your essay to shine and be a positive reflection of who you are. Spring of junior year and the summer leading into senior year is the ideal time. Colleges generally reveal their supplemental essay topics at the beginning of August. Take advantage of the extra free time the summer provides to get your essays done. You’ll be glad you did once school starts up again!

Carrie Tobias is a Wilton mom and the owner of Essay Owl, a college application essay editing service. She offers an interactive group brainstorming workshop to help students find the perfect essay topic.