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10 Essential Do’s and Don’ts for College Essays

College application essay writing is unlike any other form of writing. Few students or adults have experience with this type of writing, so it is important to understand how it is different. When writing your college application or scholarship essays, there are some important basics that everyone should know. Here are some of the essentials.


1. Do some self-reflection

This is different than brainstorming. Any good college essay begins with a student having a good understanding of who they really are. Students should be cognizant of their strengths, as well as those aspects of their personalities that could use some improvement. It’s also important to think about your own values and priorities.

2. Answer the question

Sometimes students will try to show that they are clever by being indirect. What students should realize is that colleges ask particular questions, because they want to know the answer to those questions. Make sure you answer the question that colleges ask.

3. Tell your reader about something new

Your essay should not simply repeat things found elsewhere in your application. This is your opportunity to have the reader learn something else about you and give context to the application as a whole. Simply restating your qualifications will not enhance your overall application and likely make your essay duller.

4. Show instead of tell

In other words, make your essay interesting. If you can tell a story that demonstrates the message you are trying to relay, you are more likely to engage the reader.

5. Make the work your own

Not only does the Common Application require that you verify the work is your own, colleges want to learn about you and not someone else. When receiving input from others about your essay, make sure to do the actual writing yourself and keep the voice your own. Too much input from others can be counterproductive.


1. Use inappropriate language

Sometimes students will use swear words or other crass language as an attention-getter. Don’t do it. It is offensive and a poor reflection on your ability to use language well. Except in rare circumstances, essay language should be more formal. Remember your audience. Adults, not your peers, will be reading your essay.

2. Make general statements

Your essay should include specifics whenever possible. Do not use statements like, “I want to live at a college with a beautiful campus like yours.” This could apply to almost any student or any school. Just as students have unique personalities, colleges have unique qualities as well. Show what you are aware of both.

3. Focus on the negative

Many essay topics will ask you to reflect about a negative experience. That doesn’t mean your focus should be on the negative, rather the focus should be on what you learned from the experience.

4. Use flowery language

Do not try to use extra flowery language or extreme vocabulary. Any attempt to unnaturally elevate your language will result in a stilted tone. Instead, use language that represents who you really are. This is not the time for an attempt at sesquipedalian loquaciousness.

5. Imitate someone else’s style

In an effort to write the perfect essay, some students will try to imitate examples from the style used by students who were admitted to prestigious schools. While reviewing examples can be helpful, remember to write with your own unique style. You are more likely to write a better essay when you are staying true to yourself.

If you follow these tips, you’ll be well on your way to an essay that properly represents who you are and what colleges want to know. Watch this blog site for more tips!



Cheryl Chamberlain

Principal Consultant,
Chamberlain College Consulting

I've posted some resources on this site to help students and families, but there's SO much to know. If you have gotten to the point you need professional help, I'm here for you!


You can use the button below to send me an email and let's find a time to talk.

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