College Essay Do And Don Ts

Well, it’s official. The numbers are in from America’s top colleges and universities, and this past application was one for the record books: more applications and record low admit rates. Here are some of the latest stats:

  • UCLA received an eye-popping 102,000 applications.
  • Cornell University received got more than 47,000 applications, but only accepted 12.5 percent of them.
  • The University of Pennsylvania reported receiving more than 40,000 applications, but only admitted about 9 percent, also a record.
  • Princeton University also saw a cycle for the record books: It only accepted about 6 percent of its 31,000 applicants.

These numbers are NOT meant to discourage you. College admissions has always been competitive and remains competitive. What it means is that you continue to strive for your best, put your best foot forward, and put together the strongest application possible.

While your test scores and GPA give you academic cred with college admissions officers, it’s your college application essay that really helps you stand out among other applicants. Unlike a list of numbers, it answers the question they really want to know—what makes you you?

 

For some applicants, writing your college admissions essay can be the most challenging part of the application process. But it doesn’t have to be. At Kaplan, we encourage students to see at is as an opportunity, not a roadblock. By the time you apply your senior year, your GPA is already baked in and you might not be taking the SAT or ACT again, so this is the last piece of the application that’s entirely in your hands.

But where do you start? What do you write about? When students can tell a sincere and persuasive story, colleges get a better sense that these prospective students can bring unique experiences to the college environment.

Director of College Admissions at Kaplan Cailin Papszycki says: “The key is to inspire using a personal story that captures this quality. For example, did you overcome extreme shyness by shining in the school musical production? Did a family crisis change your outlook on life and make you a better child or sibling?”

But don’t just tell a story, cautions another expert. “Stories and anecdotes are an integral part of showing your reader who you are, but a good rule of thumb is to make these no more than 40% of your word count and leave the rest of your words for reflection and analysis.”

 

Tips for Stellar Admission Essays

Most universities require at least one essay as part of your college application, but many also require two or more essays of various lengths. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you start off on the right foot and avoid common college application essay mistakes:

DO revise often and early. Your college application essay should go through multiple stages of revisions. We’re not talking about a quick proofread; you should ask parents, teachers, and even your peers to read through your essay drafts and give you substantial critical advice.

DO use the first person. Avoid generic third person pronouns like “one” or “students.” This essay is about you!

DO say what you mean, and mean what you say. Be authentic, but not too boastful or self-deprecating. Be specific, clear, and concise. Using a thesaurus can help you find the exact word you want to convey a feeling or emotion.

DO start writing your essay early. Writing your college essay is not a task that you should put off until the last minute. In fact, you can give yourself a huge advantage by starting today.

DON’T expect your first draft to be perfect. Getting started is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Your first draft isn’t your final draft! Get past the first step; then go back and finesse the rhythm, pacing, and momentum.

DON’T rehash your resume or your LinkedIn profile. The college admissions committee has already seen a list of your extracurricular activities, volunteer work, honors, and awards you’ve received elsewhere in your college application. The essay portion should portray you as a mature, thoughtful individual, so find a personal story that reflects these qualities.

DON’T rely on famous quotes to do the heavy lifting. If you have a quote that particularly speaks to you, tell the readers why those words are so meaningful—don’t just regurgitate. In the same vein, avoid overly used clichés, maxims, and other common phrases. If you’ve heard it before, chances are the college admissions officers have heard it hundreds of times more than that.

DON’T make your essay read like the dictionary. Vocabulary words definitely belong in your SAT essay, but you want to sound like yourself and convey your own voice in your college application essay. If you wouldn’t ordinarily describe sharing meals with your family as a “salubrious assemblage of kin” your college essay is NOT the place to start. It will come across as disingenuous to admissions officers.

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Too often are college application essays neglected for their role in the admission process, while all of the focus is put on the student’s grades and tests scores. But your application essay can actually play a pivotal role as it gives the admission board a sense of who you are, reveals why you’re motivated and what sets you aside from all the other top scorers and exemplary students.

You should consider your application as a chance to present yourself and the elements that make you truly unique. While most colleges require only one essay, depending on your aspirations you might find yourself applying for a college which requires two or even more essays.

Don’t stress, because here is the list of dos and don’ts of the application essay writing that can make all the difference. Let’s do it.

Focus on Your Strengths

Naturally, you would want to point out your crowning traits, what makes you such a valuable “specimen”. The personal statement is a chance for the reader to get to know your personality, so make sure to share personal stories and anecdotes that portray your strengths. Did you have someone at your school to whom you helped study for their exam? Did you help the needy in your neighborhood? Those are the kind of stories people want to hear in order to be able to see you as a compassionate, empathetic and genuine person.

Never Show Mediocrity

There are too many average people in this world, and you are not one of them. By all means, do your best to state that. This doesn’t mean you should brag and come off as presumptuous in your essay, no; you need to be walking a fine line between stating your worth and showing humility and respect.

Rather than falling into the trap of resorting to clichés and generic stories heard thousands of times, you should focus on writing a detailed and concise story full of rewarding experiences, portraying your values and personality. This will set you apart from others.

Always Show Wisdom

Your story should be compelling, which means it should include your worldviews, highlighted in the details of your experience, showing a depth of character. People have a tendency of falling prey to the allure of good storytelling without actually emphasizing the key moments that shaped their beliefs, thus negating the main point of the entire statement.

Admission officers who will read your application essay might enjoy the anecdote, but the statement will prove itself worthless in the actual admission process. So make sure your story has a contemplative tone, while a good storytelling could serve as icing on the cake.

Start Writing Your Essay Early

Even if you’re one of the “panic creatives” who are used to doing everything at the eleventh hour, you should do your best to start writing the essay early. This will not only give you time to pick out the approach and the stories you’re doing to tell, but more importantly, it will give you time to edit and improve it.

Too many people start writing their application essays days before submission, completely ruining the possibility of improving and polishing the essay, when they’ve had the time to read it carefully once again and sleep on it. The pressure of a restrictive deadline will only allow for errors to be made, key points to be missed and ultimately, the essay will be pegged as a subpar submission, thrown into the “average” column.

Therefore, make sure to give yourself plenty of time, as most topics and questions for university admissions are made public in June or July, so don’t wait until you’re done with your finals to start writing. Also, don’t be afraid to re-read the essay time and time again. Not only will you gain fresh insight and realize what other approaches you could use, but you will be able to check your essay for any grammar or spelling mistakes as well.

Let Everyone See Your Work

No matter how deep and personal your story may be, if the admissions reader can see it, so can your family and closest friends. It’s very important that you let someone who knows you well take a look at your application essay. This way, you’ll get useful feedback and an objective opinion and advice on the tone, style, and vocabulary. And the most important part, whether the unique points you are trying to convey do stand out in your story.

Don’t Forget to Be Yourself

With all of this talk of portraying a certain image, it becomes all too easy to forget what you’re actually all about, and instead, focus on what you would actually want to become someday. This is the wrong approach that will present something very different from your actual personality, and people will see through it.

This could lead to big problems when your interview comes along, so make sure to never forget who you are at this moment, and emphasize what you would like to become by attending that specific college. It will give the readers an incentive to help you achieve your goals, and will also play with their own vanity and pride, by accentuating the values you recognize in their particular school.

Writing your application essay should not be easy, but it should be fun and fulfilling. Hopefully, with these tips and guidelines, you will manage to write your application essay in no time!


Emma Miller is a marketer and a writer from Sydney. Her focus is digital marketing, social media, start-ups and latest trends. She’s a contributor at Bizzmark blog and a mother of two.


All views and opinions of guest authors are theirs alone and are not representative of the views of Petersons.com or its parent company Nelnet.

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