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Writing Your College Application Essay: Do’s & Don’ts

Last Updated: Jul 18, 2011 12:00:00 AM

Of all the tasks surrounding the college application, none takes more effort than writing the one or more required essays. Each year we highlight some suggestions for topics—and what to avoid. Again, it’s time to review some pointers.

First, though, let’s consider what this essay business is all about. Readers approach your writing as a window into your character. We’re not talking about character as in “humorous ha-ha” or “time-tested student with great record.” Rather, we mean the degree to which you demonstrate in your writing that you are alert, maturing and introspective, that you are developing a clear appreciation for how big the world is and how much you want to know about it.

So, readers are not interested in re-reading about your great deeds. Nor are they concerned with polemics about religion, politics or social issues. College admissions personnel want to taste a slice of your life, and from that slice get a flavor for who you are by how sensitively you interact with ideas and surroundings. As a former Dean of Admission at Princeton University so aptly stated, “The college application essay is an opportunity for us to unzip the top of your head so we can look inside and see what makes you tick!”

Your history of drug use? No. Life in the party lane? Uh-uh. Exposé of your couple of nights in jail? Nope. Travelogue about an adventure to Moab or Madrid? Not quite.

We often tell our students that experiences can and should evoke some self-reflection. To write about it against a well-depicted background has the chance to rivet the reader, who thinks, “Hmmm. This is the kind of student who is thoughtful, who has an angle. I think I’ll put this folder on the small pile.” And that’s where you want to be! On the small pile, the one with folders that pass the test of reader interest. There, the essays reveal a considerate human being, thoughtful and open to learning.

Next time we’ll write a few words about the “hook”—the all-important opening line or two that can draw in the reader. Stay tuned!

Topics: Essays College Application


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