Regional College Access Center

Awesome application essays: tips from around the web

Here are some of our favorite tips from the College Board list of college essay "Dos and Don'ts".

DO:

  • Keep Your Focus Narrow and Personal: Remember, it's not about telling the committee what you've done—they can pick that up from your list of activities—instead, it's about showing them who you are.
  • Prove It: Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons.
  • Be Specific: Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.

DON'T:

  • Don't Tell Them What You Think They Want to Hear: Most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor.
  • Don't Write a Resume: Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application.
  • Don't Use 50 Words When Five Will Do: Eliminate unnecessary words.
  • Don't Forget to Proofread: Typos and spelling or grammatical errors can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad writing.

Essay tips: a roundup

Our site is not the only place to find help planning and writing your college essay! There are a ton of resources on the web that can help you. Here's a quick roundup of tips from some of the best.

About.com college admissions section

About.com can be a bit disorganized, but it's worth digging for some of the gems in their college admissions section. Here are a few you might find useful:

U.S. News & World Report

Within the world of college admissions, U.S. News & World Report is best known for their annual rankings of the "Best Colleges". However, their website is also home to several education-related blogs. These blogs feature posts about college essay writing from various perspectives, including those of professors, students and parents, and (most helpfully) admissions professionals.

Here's a fantastic suggestion from a Dean of Admissions quoted in that last blog post:

Before setting pencil to paper (or fingers to keys), try out your essay as an oral story to family or friends. Encourage clarifying questions and watch for facial and body language to identify where your essay may need work. Constructing your essay verbally at first allows you to become comfortable with your ideas without being distracted by the mechanics of writing.

—Seth Allen, Dean of Admission & Financial Aid, Grinnell College

Advice from specific colleges

Carleton College

The Carleton college admissions office has a list of 15 essay tips from their admissions staff. Since these are the people who read and evaluate your essays, they know what they're talking about! Some highlights:

  • View it as an opportunity. The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. You've already earned most of your grades; you've already made most of your impressions on teachers; and chances are, you've already found a set of activities you're interested in continuing. So when you write the essay, view it as something more than just a page to fill up with writing. View it as a chance to tell the admissions committee about who you are as a person.
  • Take the time to go beyond the obvious. Think about what most students might write in response to the question and then try something a little different.
  • Answer each school's essay individually. Recycled "utility essays" come across as impersonal and sanitized. The one exception is an essay written for and submitted to Common Application member schools.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. Nothing says "last-minute essay" like an "are" instead of "our" or a "their" instead of "they're."
Connecticut College

The Dean of Admissions for Connecticut College wrote a blog post for the New York Times offering her list of tips for students writing their college essays. Among her suggestions:

  • Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.
  • Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.

  • Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way overdone.
University of Virginia

The University of Virginia admissions website includes an essay from their Associate Dean of Admissions. He explains how bad essays are like fast food, and gives specific examples of what he considers "good," "bad" and "risky" application essay writing.

A risky essay can border on the offensive. ... [I]t is possible that a few readers might write off an applicant based upon questionable taste. That is the danger of taking a risk. People wonder if they will be penalized if they do take a risk in an application. They want to know, in other words, if there is any risk in taking a risk. Yes, there is. I can say, however, that my experience in the admissions field has led me to conclude the great majority of admissions officers are an open-minded lot and that to err on the side of the baroque might not be as bad as to stay in the comfort of the boring.

University of Arizona

The University of Arizona has a very long list of tips for writing scholarship essays. The advice is honest and extensive, and is just as valid for application essays. Finally, keep in mind this take on the personal statement essay required by the University of Arizona. The U of A English Department writes:

A Personal Statement is our best means of getting to know you and your best means of putting your academic performance and activities in the context of your life. There are no “wrong” answers. When you write your statement, tell us about those aspects of your life that are not evident from your academic record.