Great college essays aren’t built on a formula, but there are a handful of things that every strong essay has and a bigger handful of things that it most certainly does not. For rising Seniors getting ready to write their essay, it’s crucial that they know what to emphasize and what to avoid. When it comes to the college application process, there’s little worse than realizing that the essay you’ve spent months on is a dud. Well, not getting into your dream school is worse, but fixing your essay before it’s too late is a way to avoid that happening.
Here are our 24 Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a College Essay. Read them, recite them, print this and tape it to your wall. We don’t write these posts just because we like ranting about college — we do it because we want to give you the tools you need to succeed.
DON'T write anything you’ve heard of
Did you read a stellar college essay that your English teacher handed out and are now considering copying the topic? STOP. Did you see the top college essays about money published in the NYTimes (not linking because we didn’t love all of them) and are now thinking that you too should write about how you volunteered preparing tax returns for senior citizens? STOP. If you’ve ever heard of an essay and thought “that’s a good idea,” please immediately banish it from your mind. Your essay is yours, nobody else's, and starting by borrowing isn’t going to get you to a piece that can stand firmly on its own. Here are some prompts to help you come up with a idea that is all yours...
DON'T write about something that you know will appear somewhere else in your college app
You have 650 words with which to show an admissions officer who you are, but your essay isn’t the only thing they will see. Depending on the school, they will see score reports, transcripts, recommendations, supplements, and even additional full-length essays if the school is particularly cruel (jk, we like these, but, yes, they are annoying). The point is, the essay isn’t a grab bag you need to cram everything into, and it also isn’t a place to further emphasize something that you’ll be mentioning in a supplement. It’s a place to be entirely unapologetically you in a way that they won’t be getting anywhere else.
DON'T write about something that shows status
So you went to Ibiza for Spring Break? Cool. Awesome. Amazing. Also, no one wants to hear about it. We’re not asking you to hide affluence or privilege, but let’s not play it up unnecessarily. Not only is bragging a bad look, but you don’t want to make the person reading your admissions essay jealous. Remember, when you’re on winter break skiing at Aspen, they are slogging through piles of essays. Hopefully, they like their job, but they’d still rather be on the slopes.
DON'T make the theme travel or sports
The travel problem links into privilege, but that’s not the whole picture. Travel is, by its very nature, different from your day-to-day life. Admissions officers want to know you as you are, not as you are when you’re cruising around the world. Same goes for sports. While we love that you love soccer, unless you are being recruited (and no, expressing interest in joining a club team doesn’t count), your life on the field won’t be your life after high school graduation. Telling the story of when you scored the championship-winning goal is cool, but it’s not the same as showing colleges who you are. They also know you play soccer from your activities section.
DO write about food
I eat. College admissions officials eat. Presumably, you eat as well. Food is a universal experience that is interwoven with countless memories and emotions. When you write about gnocchi dripping in browned butter with sage, the reader might not share that precise experience, but they certainly had one that is analogous to it. By writing about food, you can share your family, your heritage, and yourself, while giving the reader a seat at the table.
DON'T ask your parents for help
Nothing against your parents, but please don’t ask them for help. Unless they are a professional writer, you have probably done more creative writing in the last six months than they have in the previous six years. In addition to your superior expertise, they are probably completely over-invested in your essay. It’s possible that they care almost as much as you do, or as much as you do, or maybe even (and this is scary) more than you do. Even if your parents are professional writers, the combination of not being an expert in college admissions and being totally over-invested does not make for a positive experience. The bottom line: leave them out.
DO write about morning routines
You wake up at 6:30, you’re out the door at 7:15 to make a 7:45 first bell. Sure, that sounds boring, but there is so much that goes on in the in-betweens. Maybe you are super particular about your cereal to milk ratio after spending months testing different combinations. Perhaps you share a bedroom with a sibling so have had to orchestrate a precise routine. The small things are interesting, even if they seem average to you.
DO write about relationships and relationship dynamics
We’re not talking about your high school boyfriend. Please don't write about your boyfriend. When we say ‘relationships’ we mean loved ones, friends, friend groups, teams (the nerdier the better), cousins, aunts, uncles, and your parents. Don’t write about them, though, write about your relationship to them. Write about connection. One of our best essays about 2018 tackled complex relationships...
DO write about bedtime routines
Nothing salacious here, but see #6 for details. Write about your favorite brand of Listerine, why you brush your hair 100 times, or what it is about having your dad turn off the light instead of doing it yourself that is so special to you.
DO write about a connection to inanimate objects
If you’re so obsessed with stuffed animals that you’ll be bringing a few garbage bags full to college, you may want to keep that to yourself. However, if there is something (or somethings) that you collect, or a piece you inherited, or those old t-shirts your mom designed in college then forgot about for two decades until you pulled them out of a musty duffel bag — write about them. Even Furbies are fair game.
DO write about rituals
We all observe rituals. For some, they are religious, but every family and community has things that started as habits, became traditions, and have ascended to the level of ritual. If your family eats dinner together every single night, tablecloth, candles, and all, that’s interesting. If your community comes together for an annual square dance, that’s interesting. If you and your friend have communicated via walkie-talkie every day after school, doing your homework in tandem despite the street separating your houses, that’s interesting.
DO bring the reader into your home
This isn’t an episode of Cribs (the defunct MTV celebrity home show that we now feel old for using as a reference). Don’t write about your massive pool, bedroom-sized closest, or immaculate kitchen. Show the reader what life is really like: the cracks in the faux-leather couch, the one pan that will never get perfectly clean because you made scrambled eggs in it once and burnt them beyond recognition, or the place on the wall where your mom measured your height alongside the fading marks from when she was a child standing against that same wall.
DO write about dinner time
See #10 and #5. Food is fascinating, family is fascinating, and there is a reason that dinner scenes are used in films as a way of developing characters. People emerge over dinner. When we have a mouth full of food, who we are really shows through. One of our best essays of 2018 took place at the dinner table...
DON'T write about your grandma
We love our grandparents, you love your grandparents, but you shouldn’t write about your grandparents (or ours for that matter). We don’t have anything against them; it’s just too easy for an essay that involves grandparents to become about them instead of being about you. And please remember that you're applying to college, not grandpa.
DO break form
One thing that we are always telling our students is to HAVE FUN with the essay. That doesn’t mean it has to be funny or playful. What we mean is that we want our students to free themselves from the confines of the five paragraph essay form. Throw it out of the window and consider trying something entirely different. Write a scene, write a poem, write your story as a series of vignettes. Think of it as a story, not just an essay. Afterall, you are telling a piece of your story, not proving some thesis or dismantling a few sentences of a book you wish you hadn’t been assigned. Break form, have fun. One of our favorite essays of 2018 played with form (and is a rare example of a successfully executed semi-grandparent essay)...
DO use dialogue as a way of showing depth and vulnerability in advancing a plot line
There is a reason that the demise of in-person conversations and the rise in texting and email are hurting human connection. Hearing someone’s voice is the most powerful way of connecting with them. Reading dialogue is a way to help the reader hear you. Now, we’re the first to admit that writing dialogue is really really hard. Sometimes it can be excruciating, but if you like plays and are willing to put in the work, writing dialogue can be the tool that bumps your essay to the next level.
DO have a beginning, middle, and end
We’ve told you to play with form (#15), and we’ll tell you that school essays are a no-go (#18) and that scenes are a must (#22), but the biggest piece of wisdom that we can pass on when it comes to your essays form is that your piece must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That doesn’t mean an intro, a body, and a conclusion. It means you must have a story. Weave a tale and show, don’t tell.
DON'T write a school essay
If you are thinking that you will repurpose an essay you wrote for English class as your college essay—STOP. The topic might be great, the writing might be gold medal-worthy, but it’s a school essay, and a school essay isn’t the same as a college essay. If you try to turn a school essay into a college essay, it will be a weird zombie combo that doesn’t succeed at either. Another reason not to write a school essay? Your college essay isn’t about trying to sound smart.
DO a minimum of 4 substantially different drafts
We know, we know, you want to get this done, but the college application process is just that, a process. This is not a one and done experience. The first draft of anything is, by definition, not all that spectacular. The second is a step in the right direction. The third should be a totally different take on the same subject. The fourth should feel entirely new. It is from the ashes of the drafts that a stunningly beautiful essay will rise. Yes, that is a phoenix metaphor.
DO brainstorm before you put pencil to paper
A significant part of writing happens before you start writing, typing, outlining, or otherwise transferring words to paper. Give yourself the time to actively think about what you want to say before you start saying it. It will make the writing part so much easier, we promise. Once you’re ready to start, here are some tips...
Really don’t ask your parents for help (but put in a very diff spot) - they don’t know college admissions, and even if they are a writer, they probably don’t know college essays.
We’ve said it already, but this is really important. Please don’t ask your parents for help. Please, please don't ask them. We have had to do triage on so many essays because parents got their hands on them. Parents: keep your hands off!
DO build scenes and descriptions
Whatever form your essay takes and whatever topic you choose, you need to have scenes, and you need to have deeply descriptive sentences. Ready to take a stab at it? Read this first...
DO write an ending, not a conclusion.
Building on the idea of not writing a school essay, having a story arc, and breaking away from form, your essay still does need to have an ending. What it doesn’t need is a conclusion. Conclusions wrap things up with a bow. You are a human, not a present. Your essay needs to end, but it doesn’t need to be neat.
DON'T try to knock someone out with the first sentence
Did your English teacher ever tell you that you needed to hook the reader with the first sentence? Maybe they said that that first sentence is the most important one in the entire piece? Strong first sentences can be great, but the effort to make one land can often result in a beginning that is more bark than bite. Sometimes a hook makes sense, but you don’t need to knock them out to lure them in.
Feeling overwhelmed? We can help.