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The dos and don'ts of College Application Essays

Advice on Application Essays from Admissions Experts

Chris Peterson , Assistant Director at MIT Admissions

  • You are more interesting than anyone you can pretend to be; indeed, you are compelling and interesting enough as you are (you do not need to be more, or different, than what you are).
  • You should learn something new about yourself in every essay you write (otherwise, you’re probably not being introspective enough).
  • When trying to decide what to write about, pretend a friend you hadn’t spoken to in awhile had asked the question, not a college (you’ll get less performance anxiety and write more unselfconsciously).
  • After you draft your essay, give it to a good friend, and ask them if it sounds like you; if it doesn’t, rewrite it until it does (because if your friends can’t see you in your words, how can we?).

Here are three kinds of essays that college experts say can hurt your chances of getting into the school of your dreams.

Cliche: ”There is an ongoing joke among college counselors about essays that students shouldn't write because every student does," says Danny Ruderman, a college admissions expert."The 'study abroad essay' is very overused," he says. "The 'grandma essay,' which is when you write about your grandmother and how she's amazing, is nice, but I don't learn anything about you in the process.” Other overused topics include enduring an athletic injury or wanting to become a star, says Ruderman. "However, it's about how you approach it rather than the actual topic.”

Inconsistent:  Ben Kaplan, author of "How to Go to College Almost for Free," says one of the biggest mistakes that students can make is to not tell a cohesive story. He calls this the "combo meal essay.” "'The multi-topic combo meal' is the essay that goes like this: 'I did this as a volunteer but I'm also really into science but then also I did this,'" he says. Instead, take a topic or a theme and really develop it and show something credible and meaningful about you.

Impersonal: Grace Kim, Stanford Admission Officer, stresses that writing an impersonal essay is a huge mistake. "We want it to be so personal to the student that you couldn't put anyone else's name on that essay and have it still be true about that other student," she says."The best essays are the ones where you can very clearly tell what their values are, what their personalities are like, perhaps what their sense of humor is and just what matters to them.”

—Erica Curtis, Former Admissions Evaluator, Brown University

"As an admissions evaluator at Brown, we really had to keep up a rigorous reading pace with the regular decision applicant pool. We were expected to read 5 applications per hour, which equates to twelve minutes per application. In those twelve minutes, I reviewed the application, standardized test scores, the transcript, the personal statement, and multiple supplemental essays—all while taking notes and making a decision on the admissibility of the applicant."

Take a minute (or twelve) to think about this. Knowing that admissions officers don't have a lot of time to read your materials, you should construct your own application accordingly. Don't extend your personal statement into the additional information section. Don't attach a resume if this information already exists in the activities list. Don't send the school four additional letters of recommendation. These schools, frankly, don't have the time to read them.

—Anonymous, Former Admissions Reader, Stanford University

Your application could be good — but it should be great.

"At Stanford, when reading applications, we did use one acronym in particular—SP ("standard positive"), which indicated that the student was solid and had an overall positive application, but unfortunately was just standard."In thinking about the sheer amount of applications that admissions officers read, consider how you'll stand out in the pile. You don't want to be just "standard". You want to be different, memorable, and (to use another Stanford admissions term) angular.

—Natalia Ostrowski, Former Assistant Director of Admissions, University of Chicago

Even if you're an outstanding candidate, you might not get in.

"Before a student gets her admissions decision, she can go from admit to defer/waitlist or vice versa. Until the Dean of Admissions starts to shape the class, nothing is final. Sometimes admissions officers get lucky and can add back in one or two of their favorite students (who made it through committee, but for one reason or another were moved to "defer" or "waitlist" along the way). Admissions officers really care about the students for whom they advocate, but often it comes down to the needs of the school and the desire to have a well-rounded incoming class.”

--Brent Benner, Director of Enrollment, University of Tampa

People often ask me about the value of the application essay. “You don’t actually read all of them, do you?” I assure you, at my university and in admissions offices across the country, we do.

I can tell a lot about a person from his or her application essay; it’s the most current snapshot of who you are as a person. Think about it: Most of the items you submit to the colleges or universities you’re applying to showcase talents that you have developed over a long period of time. Your high school transcript contains at least three years of grades, showing evidence of hard work in a variety of subjects. Your clubs, organizations, sports, community service, and other accomplishments reflect years of participation and dedication to fields outside the classroom. Even your good old SAT or ACT scores reflect the accumulation of vocabulary, mathematics, and reading comprehension talents acquired throughout your life. The essay, however, is who you are right now.

I’m going to be completely honest with you: Your application essay cannot overshadow years of poor grades and test scores, and in this case, your essay may never find itself in front of the admissions committee. At the same time, you shouldn’t downplay the importance of the essay either. Keep in mind essays are a major separating factor in sorting the mediocre students from those who have gone (and most likely will continue to go) above and beyond.