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Do’s and Don’ts for College Essays

High school student sitting at desk with laptop writing his college essay

By Matt Musico

Writing your college essay can be a huge hurdle to jump over in completing your college applications. It can also create a ton of stress because you want to put your best foot forward to the admissions officers who will read it. Before you sit down to start writing, keep the following tips in mind.

Do: Be Honest

Don’t: Try to Impress

Every single year, multiple students ask me what kind of topic would impress a college admissions office. And, every single year, my answer is the same: what will impress them is whatever story you’re most excited to tell.

Entering the college essay-writing process by choosing a topic you think will look impressive is not necessarily going to make it stand out in a pile of applications while they’re getting evaluated. What college admissions offices truly want to see is a slice of your personality. It’s one of the very few places in an application where you get to show who you are and what experiences have shaped your current mindset/trajectory in life.

It may be easier for students to share honest stories about themselves when they learn how admissions officers use a college essay during the evaluation process. The essay is an opportunity for admission officers to get a sense of how your personality would fit socially on their specific campus. Knowing what they do about the institution they work for; they use essays to gauge how well you’d assimilate and contribute to student life.

The easiest way for admissions officers to get an accurate picture of you is to show your true self – not what you think they want to read about.

Do: Own Your Story

Don’t: Speak in Clichés

You may have heard about common college essay clichés. Whether it’s how sports taught you about the importance of teamwork or how traveling to another country broadened your horizons, admissions counselors have seen them all, multiple times over.

During peak application season, application readers can view as many as 50 applications per day. If you want to ensure that your essay falls into the large pile of essay topics they’ve seen before, include a cliché or two while you’re trying too hard to impress.

The best way to make an essay unique is to tell your story in a way nobody else can. You can do this by including thoughtful details and personal insights, which include your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the specific examples you plan on writing about. This way, it’d be difficult for anyone else to tell the story the way you just did – even if they experienced the same exact thing.

A great way to find out whether you have enough detail in a story or not is to read it over and be honest. There’s nothing wrong with saying for example, that being an athlete taught you about the value of teamwork. But anybody can say such a thing. Add why and how you realized this to make your essay more personal. If you ask yourself, “Can anyone else tell this story the way I just told it?” and the answer is yes, then you need more detail.

If you’re unable to do that, you may have to find a different story to tell.

Do: Share New Information

Don’t: Turn It Into a Cover Letter

As I said before, there aren’t many places in a college application to showcase your personality. Outside of the essay, the only other opportunities are the descriptions of your extracurricular activities, and if a school asks for it, additional essay questions or writing supplements. With so few places to show off who you are, it’s important to take advantage by sharing new information with each chance you get.

This is not to say you shouldn’t write about activities you’ve mentioned elsewhere in your application. If being a baseball player or being in the theater club is truly important to you, it’s okay to write about those experiences in your essay. But remember that you’ve already mentioned it elsewhere in your application, so discussing it again means you’ll need to dig into new details about your experiences to show a reader why they’re so special to you (this is where owning your story comes in handy).

Keeping that in mind, your essay isn’t the place to list and discuss all your greatest accomplishments during the last three-plus years of high school. Other parts of your application should highlight the great things about you and what you can bring to a college campus. Your essay shouldn’t sound like a cover letter, trying to convince admissions officers why they should accept you.

There are three pillars of fit that admission counselors are mindful of when evaluating applications: academic, extracurricular, and social. By the time they get to your essay, they have a sense of the first two, but not the last one.

Do: Sound Like Yourself

Don’t: Use a Thesaurus to Sound Like Someone Else

A lot of the stress behind college essays for my students comes from the fact that it’s an unfamiliar assignment. Over the years, they’ve been told that their English papers need to have one introduction paragraph and one conclusion paragraph, to write formally (which can include avoiding contractions), and to stay away from using first-person language. None of that is required for a college admission essay. Instead, admissions officers encourage students to be themselves and use a conversational tone. What does that mean, though?

Your essay shouldn’t look like a text message conversation you’re having with a group of friends. To nail down this “conversational tone,” think of a high school teacher you like and respect. How would you speak to them? Use that tone in your essay (which typically ends up being friendly, yet respectful). You’re not trying to get a good grade on this essay. It’s supposed to be about you, which will help admissions officers get a sense of who you are. The only way for this to happen is to simply be you, and if your essay sounds like it was written by a teenager about to head off to college, that’s perfect because that’s exactly where you are in life right now. Don’t use a thesaurus to inject a bunch of fancy words because it will come off as unnatural if you typically don’t use them.

I’ve always viewed college applications in two different parts: the paper side and the human side. The paper side is where students should aim to look “impressive” since this includes your transcript, test scores (if submitted), and extracurricular activities. The human side is everything else, which includes letters of recommendation and your essay.

Admissions officers get a sense of your qualifications by looking at the paper side of your application. They get a sense of the person behind those qualifications by looking at the human side of your application. Use the essay to your advantage to show colleges the type of person they’d be getting on campus if they accept you.


Matt Musico is a freelance writer for CollegeData. He has worked in higher education for the better part of a decade. Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to CollegeData, 1st Financial Bank USA or any other person or entity. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this article are hereby expressly disclaimed. 

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