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Dos and Don'ts in Writing College Application Essays

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College Essays Can Give a Glimpse into Your Soul

While student grades and test scores are clearly top factors in admissions office decisions, application essays often play a pivotal role. Like nothing else, essays give admissions readers a real sense for who you are as a person and student. Some say they are a "glimpse into your soul."

Most colleges require at least one essay as a part of their applications; some require two, three or even more. Ranging in length from just a few words to one, two, or three pages of content, essay questions in any free-response section of the college application should be considered an opportunity to make a good impression.

At the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) yearly conference, college admissions deans have admitted repeatedly that poorly written essays can "do in" a student with top grades and test scores... and that great essays can sometimes turn the tide toward acceptance for a student with less-than-stellar grades and test scores.

These same deans have offered sage advice about the dos and don'ts of writing college essays.

DO

1. Write revealing, concise essays that inform, enlighten and amuse.

2. Present yourself as genuinely humble, modest, perhaps even self-effacing.

3. Be yourself.

4. Answer each and every aspect of the essay question as best you can AND within the character/word limit provided.

5. Come across as mature, positive, reflective, intelligent, down-to-earth, curious, persistent, confident, original, creative, hard-working and thoughtful.

6. Demonstrate evidence of your having real knowledge about a college and its many resources, including courses, programs, activities and students.

7. Write about anything that is counterintuitive about yourself, e.g., you are a football player who is totally into poetry, a young woman who is a computer or physics geek, a macho guy who wants to be an elementary school teacher.

8. Compose an essay, give it to others to read and edit, and then do a final edit before you declare that it is done.

9. Use a variety of words to describe something or someone, e.g., Charley, my friend, my buddy, my schoolmate, he, him.

10. Explain what needs to be explained, as in an illness, a learning disability, a suspension, a one-time bad grade, a family tragedy, a major challenge you have had.

DON'T

1. Write too much, ramble on, thinking that more (words) is better. It is not.

2. Brag, boast, toot your own horn, or come across as arrogant.

3. Write what you think college admissions people want instead of what you really think.

4. Go off writing about what you want to say rather than what the question asks AND ignore the specified character/word counts.

5. Come across as immature, negative, superficial, shallow, a phony, glib, a slacker, insecure, whiney, judgmental or disrespectful.

6. Give the impression that you know little about a college by writing trite, inaccurate or inconsequential things about it.

7. Make something up about yourself just to impress the admissions readers.

8. Write an essay and consider it done without looking for punctuation or grammatical errors and having it edited by at least one person.

9. Use the same words over and over, e.g., my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.

10. Make excuses for anything, including a bad grade, an infringement of rules, a suspension, whatever.

Application essays are a wonderful opportunity for you to show admissions offices who you really are, in what ways you think, how well you perform, and even your sense of humor.

If you want more advice about writing, take a look at the July 28, 2012 New York Times Book Review section for "How to Write" by Colson Whitehead.

Go to College Countdown to learn how my book, adMission Possible (Sourcebooks), can help you "dare to be yourself," write compelling college application essays and get accepted to college.