Writing college application essays is one of the most intimidating parts of the admissions process. They’re also one of the most important components of your application.
Your essays are your best chance to address admissions officers directly. Essays help you stand out from thousands of other applicants, showcasing your unique story and “pitch” to the college of your dreams. We’ve compiled a few dos and don’ts to help you craft a killer college essay:
What to Do
1. Tell a story about something you care about. When we talk about what we love, our passion and uniqueness comes out and readers connect with who you are at your best.
2. Dig for that topic. Brainstorming and finding your best idea are some of the most important parts of the essay process. A sterling topic inspires you to speak with honesty and enthusiasm - but it doesn’t have to be a blockbuster in which you discover the 10th planet. Often, the small, nerdy topics can inspire your best writing, like shopping at Costco. We at Ivy have many writing prompts and worksheets to help you!
3. Bare your soul... judiciously. Some of the most powerful college essays are about a personal crisis, family hardship, illness or depression. If you choose a deeply personal subject, make sure you give the reader the sense that you've come through it and are better or stronger for it. But if that isn't the case, it may not be your best material—schools want to know that you will come to college well prepared and ready to give it your all.
4. Make sure the essay is about you, not someone else. For example, sometimes students write about someone they care about and end up writing more about that person than themselves. In this case, focus on how that person inspired your own values, goals, and strengths. Remember: colleges read your essays to learn about you; you are the star of your essay!
5. Find your own style. Some college essays have dialogue; some have none. Some are narrative-driven; some are contemplation-driven. Some tie into academic interests, and some illuminate a unique aspect of your life and background. There is no right style. A note about “creative” essays, such as an essay made entirely of dialogue, or written from the perspective of your dog. Some schools love students who show such daring and originality and others are more traditional and might look sideways at it. Reach out to admissions coaches and counselors for guidance on what your dream school is looking for.
6. Show don’t tell. Admissions readers want a vivid image of you. If you pick up your favorite novels, you’ll notice scenes and sharp, specific details that pull you in. Write in sensory details (what you see, hear, feel, smell, etc.) and avoid generalities and summary—shape moments that will stick in your reader’s mind well after they’ve read your essay!
7. Get feedback from people you trust. Strong writing takes helpers! However, choose your advisers carefully, especially when it comes to choosing your topic. Oftentimes parents think they know their kids better than their kids. This may be true, but what parents usually don’t know is the college admissions process. Share your essay with your college counselor, English teacher or one of our admissions coaches - folks who know about college admissions. Lastly, stick to your gut and make the final decision on your own.
8. Keep revising! We cannot stress this enough. Your essay might look great to you after just a first draft, but trust us—there’s always room for improvement. We tend to see a strong essay needs a minimum of four rounds of revisions before a final polish, which is why our College Essay Bootcamp and private coaching helps students develop and refine their essays leading up to a final, application-ready version. The secret to good writing is rewriting.
9. Go “big” on your story’s theme at the end and leave your reader with a meaningful note to take with them. Take the theme out of the confines of your narrative and look at it in other areas that excite you: at the level of your whole life, your family, your town, your country, the world. College is about next-level thinking. Show the readers you’re already doing some.
10. Proofread carefully for grammar and spelling. Once you’ve written, read and re-read your essay dozens of times, it’s going to feel impossible to catch your own grammatical or syntactical errors. That’s why it’s so important to have others proofread your essay, not just for spelling mistakes, but also for style and content. If possible, have an English teacher or dedicated tutor proof your essay.
What Not to Do
1. Don't list your accomplishments. While admissions officers want to hear about how great you are, accomplishments don’t reveal you (listing them may reveal cockiness or boastfulness). Thoughtfulness, introspection, and even vulnerability, reveal you. Besides, there is already a place on the application to list your accomplishments.
2. Don't try to cram too many themes or subjects into an essay. Keep it simple. Oftentimes, the best essays are the ones that manage to tell a straightforward but effective story on one theme. One is plenty!
3. Don't try to write something you think colleges will like. Readers can tell when writing is overly calculated or even worse—made up. Don’t try to write about something that didn’t really happen to you! Be authentic. Think about something that was meaningful to you and tell the story.
4. Don't tell your story to an admissions officer; tell your story to a smart friend. Many students freeze up and write in a stiff, overly formal way when they imagine an admissions officer reading it. When you speak to friends, it’s honest and authentic, even if delivered in simple language. This voice will always make for a better essay than anything overly verbose or academic.
5. Don't “go for laughs” because you heard it helps (which it can). Comedy, especially in writing, is very tricky and subjective. A dash of wit is very welcome (it shows authentic personality and intelligence), but writing a full-on humor essay can fall flat.
6. Don't write your essay at the last minute. If you’re having trouble getting started on your essay, make a list of topics, brainstorm with friends, write a terrible first draft. Good writing takes time to achieve, so get started as early as you can. It doesn’t matter if your essay is bad at first—the more time you have, the more you’ll be able to improve it.
7. Don't write about clichéd or common subjects, such as the death of a pet or winning the big game. Sometimes students have the misguided idea that schools expect a particular kind of essay—a tale of overcoming adversity, a valuable lesson learned, a meaningful exchange with a different cultures, etc. If it sounds too familiar, it’s a cliché.
8. Don't repeat yourself. Repetition in writing can work well if it’s intentional. You see this a lot in poetry, for example, to create rhythm and to linger on an idea or image. Because your college essay has a word limit, however, keep it as concise as possible. Unnecessary repetition is a tell-tale sign of sloppy writing, so make sure your essay is as tight as it can possibly be.
9. Don’t waste words. For example, instead of saying, “I remember when I was five,” simply say, “When I was five.” Be careful about unnecessary adverbs—words ending in -ly, like quickly or abruptly. Too many words like just, very, really, etc. can weigh down your writing. Have a teacher or tutor edit your essay for wordiness if you’re having trouble with this.
10. Don’t underestimate the power of a killer essay. It bears repeating that the essays are a major factor in college admissions. They separate one student from others with similar applications for better or worse. The more colleges connect with you on the page, the more they fight to admit you.