As a professional application-essay coach, I regularly encounter students with
well-intentioned but misguided strategies for their college-application essays. And how students approach this task often determines acceptance or rejection. So here are The 7 Biggest No-No's to bypass when working on your essays:
- Write your personal statement and all of your supplementary essays in one day. The application essays take awhile to write well, so give yourself plenty of time. Sketch out a roadmap of all the steps, from an initial brainstorming through the final editing. Then concentrate on taking just one step at a time. Pro tip: Schedule appointments into your calendar for when you'll work on your essays -- and stick to those appointments! Even if you put in only a short session on a particular day, you've successfully built momentum.
Keep your phone nearby, the TV on, and social-media tabs open on your computer. As enticing as those technologies can be, you'll benefit from creating an environment that eliminates obstacles to writing your application essays. Attempt to stay fully present with your thoughts, since this project calls for focus and introspection. Pro tip: Try working on your essays first thing Saturday or Sunday morning. Those are usually quiet times, and you won't feel you're missing out on other activities.
Write about what you think the admissions committees want to hear. Don't try to predict what you think the colleges want you to say in your essays. And avoid posturing, since an idealized description of yourself is unlikely to convince admissions officers. Instead, see the essay-writing process as an important and rewarding opportunity to get to the heart of what makes you unique. Pro tip: Come up with an honest assessment of who you are, imperfections and all.
Try to sound like a writer. Resist any urge to assume that "writerly" voice -- you know the one! -- when you create your personal statement and supplementary essays. Pro tip: Aim to write the way you'd speak to a grandparent: no slang or inappropriate language, but still in a conversational voice, and in wording that makes your ideas easily understandable.
Pack a lot of ideas into each essay. Unfortunately, strict word counts don't afford you the luxury of exploring every theme that's important to you. Essays that try to jam in as many ideas as possible end up being really disjointed. Instead, keep each essay tightly focused -- with one clear idea about yourself that the admissions officers will take away. Pro tip: Even though it's unwise to mention numerous topics in any one essay, you can envision the whole set of essays -- your personal statement and supplements -- as an opportunity to cover a range of your significant stories and thoughts.
Write your essays as if they were papers for school. Writing assignments for school often deal with abstract concepts. The college-application essays are very different. They need to be about you. Your objective is to show the admissions committees which parts of your character are most fundamental. Be sure you keep your discussions anchored to particular aspects of your experiences, values, and passions. Pro tip: Even if it feels weird at first, use the word "I" at least once or twice per paragraph.
Get brainstorming and writing assistance from your parents. Parents, even the smartest and most helpful, are just about the worst people to advise you on your application essays. Mom and Dad are just too emotionally involved. So it's better for everyone if you offer a polite "Thanks, but no thanks" to any offer of help from them. Pro tip: If you feel you could use a hand with your essays, look to find someone who's not a close relative or a teacher -- ideally, a person you feel comfortable with and who's wise and compassionate and recognizes a good story! Or you can turn to a professional coach for guidance on some or all of the process.
Yes, applying to college is a high-stakes game, and you want to avoid false moves. But if you breathe deeply and follow the above guidelines, writing the application essays can offer you interesting insights and your best shot at your dream school.