Application Essay Dos And Don’ts From A College Advisor

As one admissions official put it, “The most important thing in the essay is not the ‘what,’ but the ‘why.’ We have the ‘what’ from your list of extracurriculars, scores, and awards. We now want to know the ‘why,’ the motivations that drive you.”


Your essays can bring your application to life for admissions officers. Be aware of what to do and what to avoid when developing and writing your statements.

Most students do not realize how many college essays they will be required to write. There can be two to six essays for each school, and depending on the number of colleges a student applies to, this can add up to quite a bit of writing.

Beginning the essay writing process early is critical to relieving the stress that naturally goes along with completing college applications. Writing is a lengthy process, and students may not realize all the steps that crafting an effective essay entails: brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and rewriting.

As one admissions official put it, “The most important thing in the essay is not the ‘what,’ but the ‘why.’ We have the ‘what’ from your list of extracurriculars, scores, and awards. We now want to know the ‘why,’ the motivations that drive you.”

Here is what you should (and shouldn’t) do to infuse your essay with the “why.”


Do make an outline.

Taking time to plan out your essay before you sit down to write will minimize the time you spend staring at that blinking cursor. Brainstorm a few ideas of stories that say something about you, and write a brief, step-by-step outline of what you are planning to say in each paragraph. This will help your essay feel cohesive and keep your writing on track.

Do write honestly and openly.

This essay is an opportunity for you to truly give the admissions officers a sense of who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Use the opportunity to genuinely reveal yourself, instead of writing what you believe they want to hear.

Do use lots of details.

Give your essay texture by including lots of specific details that put your reader in your shoes. Think of the five senses: What were you seeing in that moment? Smelling? Tasting? Feeling? Hearing?

Do write in your own words.

Trying to sound impressive by using thesaurus words will, unfortunately, backfire. Using fancy vocabulary that you aren’t comfortable with will stand out in your essay and draw attention away from what you are really trying to say.

Do make sure that the grammar is perfect.

Editing should be as much a part of your writing process as typing up the words you want to say. Read the essay aloud to yourself and correct any sentences you stumble over as you read. Show the essay to trusted teachers or adults in your life and ask for their feedback.

Be sure that your grammar is impeccable and that there are no careless mistakes (like accidentally using the name of a different school!).


Don’t write about inappropriate subjects.

Stay away from writing about sex, drugs, or violence. Instead of coming off as edgy, these topics often raise red flags with admissions officers. Opt for a story that you would be proud to share with anyone who crossed your path.

Don’t cast yourself in a negative light.

There are wise ways to discuss failures or struggles in your path. If you are including a story about a difficult experience, be sure that the story conveys how you learned something new and grew positively from it.

Likewise, pay close attention to your tone. Does your essay sound naïve or patronizing? Or do you come off as self-aware and humble?

Don’t write about global issues that have little impact on your life.

Unless the global issue you’re addressing has directly affected your life or you have done something truly meaningful to change factors that have contributed to it, it is best to stay away from topics that are not closely tied to your experience.

Don’t write about yourself in the third person.

As a best practice, write your essay in the first person. After all, the essay is about you, so make sure it stays close to your personal perspective.

Writing a short piece that has to capture who you are can feel daunting, but by following these best practices and giving yourself plenty of time to craft your essay, you can write a stand-out piece.

Related Topics: 

Why The “Why This College?” Question Matters – And How To Answer It

Lessons From The Essays Of Yale Quadruplets

Writing Your Common Application Essay

7 Things Every College Student Should Do To Succeed

Noodle Pros Essay Specialists