Dos and Don’ts for your admission essay

Some simple suggestions to round out my series on your admissions essay:

Write multiple drafts, get help with reviewing your document, and proofread. Allow TIME for revisions and reflection.
Be especially careful of how your document cuts and pastes into online applications – with many you may have a perfect essay transformed into (in technical terms) gobbleygook.
Keep the length UNDER the listed maximum. There are no points in this game for volume.
Use all the classic techniques of good writing: well organized, strong opening statement, strong conclusion.

Slip in any “isms” (racisms, agism, etc).
“List” – I get a slew of essays each year that try to include everything the applicant has ever done. Boring, and you have other places to list your involvement, etc. Use the essay to tell the reader more than a list.
“Blame” – I know that it’s different for YOU, that it really is (insert sibling/teacher/cab driver that wronged you name here) that done you wrong, but this is not the time or the place for venting.

Also bear in mind the great debate of college essays. Many many many of my esteemed colleagues will tell you to “be distinctive,” “don’t write what everyone else does,” “Skip writing about your trip overseas – everybody does that.” Two big problems – it’s REALLY hard to be distinctive when we read THOUSANDS of essays – are you just supposed to MAKE UP some kind of great adventure? More importantly, what you find distinctive may not be all that great for that particular reader. Maybe that reader LOVES travel – maybe he/she loves the places to which YOU traveled! Maybe they truly hate people that excel at yodeling while on a unicycle – however unique that may be.

Finally, don’t OVER estimate the importance of the essay. I am SO tired of reading pieces from “experts” that claim certain things on an essay “got a student admitted.” Most of the time it’s not about the essay – it’s about the academic record, and, to a lesser extent, test scores. And if it is an essay, you’ll never KNOW if it was the essay. So when your buddy says, “Wow, I got into Mason because they loved my essay written in Haiku,” be skeptical. Be very skeptical. Be seeing you.


14 Responses

  1. We often talk with students about the importance of the essay because it’s one of the few things they can control at the end of the process. Do you find this to be true? Are there other places you would prefer to see students work when it comes to polishing their applications?

  2. It’s absolutely true that its one of the few things applicants can control – unfortunately that doesn’t make it more important, just more controllable. I tell applicants it CAN make a difference, MIGHT make a difference, and they should certainly treat the essay like it will make a difference – but don’t fall for the belief that the essay is what’s driving the decision. That kind of thinking leads students to replicate (to one degree or another) “winning” essays – despite the lack of evidence that those essays had anything to do with an admission decision.

  3. Agreed!

    I think it’s amusing when students tell us how their friend did “x” to get into college. One piece of evidence doesn’t tell us much about their overall application. 🙂

  4. How much does the essay count in terms of getting accepted into gmu

  5. OK, I’m dying to know. Tell you are kidding.

    No one has really written their essay in haiku, have they?

  6. To add to your tip of “don’t add isms”, also avoid writing like you are texting a friend or using slang terms that you’re reader might be too old to understand. When I read through our scholarship applications over at myUsearch, one student used “lol” in their essay and another one said “I was totally going Defcon 4”. Maybe I’m old, but I don’t even know what Defcon 4 means. Using these terms makes you look immature and will just annoy your reader.

  7. Hot damn. A voluntary trip as part of a Red Cross disaster relief team would not work for you. I spent lots of my own money on therapy to deal with an abusive past, so I’m okay there. So I know what you want…..I sc***ed the hottest kid in my high school before I was even a Jr. I so bet that would be distinctive and unique and memorable.

    And I am sensing you would respect me and not be bored.

  8. I wrote an essay for the common app about how the Dude from the Big Lebowski has influenced me. I think it is very well written, but I am a little concerned as to what admission officers might think about it. If you could get back to me so that I could share the essay with you, then I would greatly appreciate it.

  9. I would enjoy it IMMENSELY. Here’s the facts – there is a vast mix of admissions officers and many of the old conservative codgers probably haven’t seen the movie and won’t understand the reference. You might as well cite Harold and Kumar. On the other hand, a good essay is a good essay, and do you really want to go to a college where the admissions office doesn’t appreciate the importance of the Dude?

  10. If you are up for reading another essay, I would love an admissions perspective on my (in-progress) essay. I homeschool, and don’t know anyone knowledgeable about college admissions who could look it over. I totally understand if you can’t or don’t want to, but if you would, I would appreciate it immensely.

  11. Maizy,
    Much as I’d like to, I think that may open a Pandora’s box of essays, and I’m not sure my advice on one essay would be all that helpful if I’m not the one who will be reading your application.

    that beind said, this seems to be a fascinating idea – would anyone be interested in posting their essays online and having others critique them? This raises, of of course, fears of plagarism, etc but I think the risk is fairly small and the group benefit might be quite useful. I’ll also raise the idea with my friends at Monster .com/ to see what they think

  12. I have really found your post to be informative and this has compelled me to visit your blog over and over again. I’d like to thank you for your efforts in spreading academic information. Regards.

  13. these are some good tips, but if you still need help and are looking for advice and information on how to write strong college admissions essays, check out my informative blog:

    good luck!

    • I posted this self promotion as the site does seem helpful – as would any source that improves your writing and diminishes your stress. Just bear in mind that there is no expert who knows for sure what will “work”.

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