7 College Application Essay Do’s & Don’ts
Updated: Apr 28
College application essays need to tell a story to immerse the reader in a narrative that they don’t want to end. Unfortunately, most college admissions officers often read many strung-together paragraphs with no structure, climax, or transformative learning moment for the reader to enjoy.
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Even though there are a huge number of resources available on the perfect college admission essay, applicants can fall victim to writing incoherent themes, using irrelevant or cliché anecdotes, ending with a weak conclusion, and having basic grammar and punctuation errors.
At Solomon, our strategic positioning methodology provides excellent content for college application essays and gives applicants a comprehensive analysis of their various strengths and weaknesses to highlight or avoid.
As we discuss in another recent post on how long college application essays should be – even during these unprecedented times, there is a strong emphasis in college admissions on crafting a unique, positive, and inspiring personal essay.
Most colleges require applicants to submit a one-page personal statement – with word counts ranging from 500 to 750 words (or the associated character counts).
Application submission platforms like the Common Application and the Coalition Application allow you to utilize one personal statement or essay for those colleges using that system – it’s a good idea to note which colleges have their own application and unique personal college essay (like Georgetown) versus schools that participate in the Common or Coalition Applications.
Here we are making a distinction between the personal statement and other required supplemental college application essays, which are specific responses to the “why” that college is a match for your strengths and interests.
Solomon Admissions Consultants have compiled seven (7) of the top college application essay “Do’s & Don’ts” from their collective experience in helping students draft, revise outstanding essay submissions – be careful and avoid essay traps by reading our list of tips below before beginning to draft your exceptional personal statement.
1. Pick A Prompt And Stick To It
Answer the question asked in the prompt and use structure to create a strong narrative throughout your essay.
2. Share Challenging Personal Experiences
But don’t feel pressured to end with a solution or happy ending. Your writing should provide a full and descriptive context where the reader learns about you are and brought you this point in your life – weaving together your experiences and how they have helped you develop as a student, leader, community member. You can also speak to what has inspired your journey and future plans.
3. Don’t Get Off Topic
See Tip #1 and make sure the story you are telling is actually your story to tell. Reflect and summarize your potential ideas frequently for the best topics.
4. Tell A Good Story With As Many Details As Possible
Show your impact and personal qualities with a captivating narrative rather than telling the committee how great you are. Even though you need details, skip the "moral of the story conclusions."
Admissions readers don’t want to be told directly what the life lesson was. If your essay is strong, the conclusion is nuanced. The same strategy applies to your hook – just dive in.
5. Read Your Essay Aloud
When you read aloud, you find places where our brains remove words without us noticing – something admissions officers will notice and then reject your application. Be careful, though, because sometimes what is acceptable in spoken language can be off in writing.
Original writing takes time so give yourself plenty of time before the deadlines. Fresh ideas don’t spring up at the last minute.
6. Use An Informal Tone and Keep It As Simple As Possible
In other words, write like you speak.
Use voice memos or just start talking to brainstorm topics. Inspiration can come at the most inconvenient times, so using technology to capture your ideas can be a great place to start.
7. Don’t Forget To Proofread
Give yourself enough time to revise and edit your college essay thoroughly. Grammar and spelling mistakes just aren’t acceptable in highly selective college admissions. When doing final edits, remember not to bury your lead – remember that your beginning hook must capture the reader’s attention.
Please pay attention to verb tense and keep it active. Use transitions within and between paragraphs, so that you don’t have to waste words explaining your story over again. If your outline concepts flow, the transitions should too.
Finally, have trusted advisors, siblings, parents, or even peers read your essays before your final submission. Solomon admissions consultants help our clients’ voices to shine through, rather than obscuring them.
College Essay Topics That Stand Out
Are things that you care about. Topics that have meaning will flow for you and be more natural in your tone.
Are real and show your emotions. Never forget that in the end, this is your essay. College application essays can be insightful and exciting to finish. You can be proud of all you have accomplished and what you have yet to offer colleges. Your essay should resonate with your unique voice.
Are positive. For example, instead of writing about how physics has been your greatest weakness – your personal kryptonite, describe it as a challenge that taught you the value of self-discipline and effective time management. If your grades have suffered due to a death in the family, serious illness, or other extenuating circumstances, do not use this for a personal statement topic. Save this explanation for a special essay.
Engage the reader with all the senses (feelings, smells, sounds, sights). This is where literary skills and a mastery of language comes into play. If you have writer’s block, try warming up by reading your favorite book’s first and last paragraphs for inspiration.
Don’t just repeat your resume or activities list. If you’ve never experienced any of the life experiences asked in the prompt, first of all, don’t lie. Admissions officers won’t believe your story if you’re not sincere. The anecdote you choose for your essay doesn’t have to fit every prompt perfectly – there are always prompts of your own choosing.
Essays About Community or Service Work
These types of topics can be difficult because it’s challenging to write about abstract concepts like community without painting a vivid picture. Choose community service examples or nonprofit philanthropic experiences that have a strong connection between your intended major and the skills or perspectives you’ve built as a result of the community engagement and service hours.
As with any college application essay, have another person read and comment on whether the essay expresses your community ideas in a way that can connect with others – especially the admissions officers.
In the end, the best college essays avoid clichés at all costs. Statements like these are the worst offenders:
I realized I had learned the value of hard work and appreciated the fact that I could accomplish anything if I set my mind to it.
Working in that atmosphere made me appreciate the value of diversity.
I soon recognized the importance of teamwork, with each member contributing something valuable.
That summer in [any city USA] truly broadened my horizons.
Don’t rely on superficial writing that tells instead of showing the reader your personal perspective with depth and insight. The college application essays that impress the most allow admissions officers to get to know you.
Readers are more likely to admit or advocate for applicants who immerse them in a story that they don’t want to end – showing them exactly how you fit their college’s priorities perfectly.