8 Do’s and Don’ts For Crafting Your College Essay
Contrary to what you might think, you essay is not a place to prove your worthiness to attend college. Instead, it’s a place to convey your personality, demonstrate who you are, and explore what you can bring to campus.
Not sure what to say? Here are 8 dos and don’ts for writing your college essay.
Don’t: Regurgitate your resume.
Do: Find a hook.
Colleges have your transcript, SAT/ACT scores, recs, and extracurriculars to understand the academic side of you. Your essay is a place to show them what you’re really like—your personality, passions, and what you’ll bring to campus. It’s a place to demonstrate that you have a fit—meaning you would fit in with the student body and contribute to the campus—with the school.
Use a hook—a compelling anecdote, an example, a question—at the beginning of your essay to draw your reader in. (Read How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay to help you come up with an idea.) This is a chance to demonstrate what your personality is like and give them an idea of your voice.
Don’t: Turn use overused metaphors.
Do: Use rhetorical devices.
A personalized metaphor can be a great way to capture your experiences and views through the lens of a single experience. For instance, you might discuss a time you volunteered at a hospital in a third-world country to capture how you believe in helping others. For tips on developing your own metaphor, check out How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your Applications.
However, be wary of using common or cliche experiences as metaphors for something more global. Topics like sports injury and pet death are so common that adcoms’ eyes will glaze over the second they see them. Plus, these topics don’t really capture bigger-picture trials and may make you seem unworldly. While there may be a place to talk about them—for instance, if you had to quit an activity because of a sports injury, you may want to explain in the additional information section—, it’s better to develop a more original topic for your essay.
However, how you say it is more important than what you say. That’s why you should use rhetorical devices—symbols, imagery, metaphors, anecdotes, and other compelling language—to describe your experience and make it seem real to adcoms.
Don’t: Assume you have nothing to say.
You don’t have to have started your own business to tell a compelling story. Remember: how you say it is more important than what you say.
To get started, try some brainstorming exercises. For instance, you might make lists of beliefs, character flaws, personal anecdotes or whatever else pops into your head.
My brother wrote his essay about failing his driving test. Somehow, he managed to turn what could have been a mundane, if disappointing, experience into a hilarious and even poignant story. (He ended up going to Cornell, so it worked.) All of this to say, you can turn even the most common, everyday experience into a reflection on something larger.
Don’t: Shy away from challenges or difficulties you’ve faced.
Do: Choose the most appropriate forum to discuss them.
If you’ve taken time off or personal issues have impacted your grades and schoolwork, you should explain it in your application. However, take care to do it in the right section and in a way that portrays you in the most positive light possible. Overcoming obstacles can certainly be positive, but you don’t want colleges to regard you as a liability, such as if you’ve had significant psychological issues they won’t be able to address.
Essays are a good forum for discussing obstacles you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them, but if you choose this kind of topic, make sure it helps colleges understand your personality better. You don’t want to be defensive in your essay; don’t gripe about a conflict with a teacher, for instance. Some issues may be better left to the additional information section.
The purpose of your essay is to paint a picture of who you are. Adcoms will get an idea of your academic and extracurricular achievements from other sections of your application. The essay is where you demonstrate your character, what you will bring to campus, and new insights and perspectives you can offer. To write a compelling essay, convey your ideas through powerful language, and use a topic about which you can write passionately.
For more tips on writing your college essay, read:
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
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