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Do's and Don'ts for College Essays

By Leigh Goessl,
Staff Writer

Choose an essay topic that reflects your personality. Ideally the topic will be one you know well and have an interest in.

The essay is one of the documents that pulls together a comprehensive college admissions packet. This piece of writing is an opportunity to dazzle and show what you know. The task may seem like an overwhelming one at first, but breaking it down can make it more manageable. One of the first things to do is gain a grasp of some do's and don'ts for college essays. By following some general guidelines, you can write an interesting essay and help your application stand out.

DO: Write About Something You Know

It is important to consider the topic you plan to cover. Choose an essay topic that reflects your personality. Ideally the topic will be one you know well and have an interest in. Writing about topics that interest you helps your writing stand out because your passion shines and allows the college to learn something about you.

Nancy Meislahn, dean of admissions and financial aid, Wesleyan University, suggests in a U.S. News piece, "Focus less on finding the perfect topic than on thinking long and hard about what you want a reader to know about you at the end of the essay. Let the topic grow out of that self reflection”

Admissions officers are able to tell the difference between an essay that was pulled together for the sake of doing the task verses one that took thought to compose.

DO: Be Succinct

It is important your essay be detailed enough to create an interesting read, however it is also important to be concise. Admissions officers often read hundreds of essays from applicants.  Choose your words wisely to make each word count. This way your focus remains on the point of the essay without wandering off topic. Be engaging and interesting, while simultaneously writing direct to the point.

DO: Proofread

Editorial accuracy shows care in your work and attention to detail. Proofread your essay rather than relying on spell-check, as some mistakes are likely not to be caught. Read your essay more than once, and read it aloud to another person, as this can help pick out any inadvertent mistakes.

DON’T: Wait Until the Last Minute

Start thinking about your topic when you begin the college application process. Your essay is a chance to stand out among hundreds of applicants, so don't wait until the deadline approaches to throw it together hastily. The effort you put into your essay will be reflected in the overall quality. Don't wait until last minute and miss this chance to dazzle them.

DON’T: Use 'Chat Speak'

When crafting your essay avoid using any acronyms or abbreviations that are used in social media and/or text communications. Use proper words and avoid any type of slang.

DON’T: Focus on Controversial Topics

While controversial topics are engaging, the college essay isn't the best time to air your views. Avoid discussing divisive topics unless the essay specifically asks you to do so. In a New York Times report, Martha C. Merrill, the dean of admission and financial aid of Connecticut College, provides a tip. "Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible."

A college essay is a way for your selected school to gain personal insight into who you are and how you'd fit into the university's culture. Showing them who you are, in your own writing voice, can go a long way in making your application stand out, but remember to avoid the pitfalls.

Last edited: April 20, 2012, 5:00 pm EST
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