“College Application Essays: Do’s & Don’ts”

By Peter Van Buskirk 

At this time of year, I am often asked to react to dozens of college essays. Happily, the students in question see the opportunity to make an impact with the written word and are eager to put forth their best efforts. Unfortunately, many essays that are presumably in “final form” when they reach me are really not ready for “prime time.” The concepts are generally well conceived, but the presentation—from a technical perspective—reveals that much work can still be done to make a good essay great.

With that thought in mind, I would like to share the following editorial suggestions as they relate to the essay drafting process.

  1. Don’t try to pack everything you’ve done into your essay. Be careful to avoid the redundancy of reciting activities and/or accomplishments that will be found in other parts of your application. Quite frankly, resume narratives are dull and useless. Similarly, if your essay reads like a vacation travelogue, you have most likely “missed the boat.” Rather, take an expansive approach to a particular aspect of the topic at hand. If you can, focus on a revelation that changed your perspective. In doing so, you give the reader insight into a part of your life experience that won’t appear anywhere else on the application.
  2. In response to the “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt, don’t restate the obvious about the college or university in question. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world famous professors” in their “top ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities. Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution.
  3. Be measured and concise in your presentation. While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, “punchy” sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.
  4. Allow paragraphs to be your friends! An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word “blocks” can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. And remember—a one line, one sentence paragraph can be just as impactful as a 3-4 sentence paragraph.
  5. Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. You don’t need to remind the reader at the start of each sentence. Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts.
  6. Speaking of unnecessary words, check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.
  7. Avoid dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about).  Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!
  8. Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points. The strategic use of dashes (double hyphen) and exclamation marks as well as italics and bold type characteristics can add emphasis. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. Be careful about using semi-colons, though, as they often set apart independent thoughts that should be punctuated as sentences.
  9. Don’t restate the essay prompt. Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.
  10. Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe.” They convey a lack of conviction. Generally speaking, you should try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your presentation.
  11. Make sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.
  12. Whenever possible, write in the active voice.
  13. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs. There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the “bouquet.” Don’t overdo them.
  14. Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously! The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!
  15. Don’t worry about the word count until you have developed a complete draft. Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back in order to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them.
  16. Finally, don’t assume that because a teacher or college advisor has “signed off” on an essay that it is finished. In all likelihood, that person is simply acknowledging that you are on the right track—that the essay is a good representation of the messages you want to convey. Taking it to the next level—making a good essay “great”—is your job!




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