Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, getting college essay help: important do's and don’ts.

author image

College Essays


If you grow up to be a professional writer, everything you write will first go through an editor before being published. This is because the process of writing is really a process of re-writing —of rethinking and reexamining your work, usually with the help of someone else. So what does this mean for your student writing? And in particular, what does it mean for very important, but nonprofessional writing like your college essay? Should you ask your parents to look at your essay? Pay for an essay service?

If you are wondering what kind of help you can, and should, get with your personal statement, you've come to the right place! In this article, I'll talk about what kind of writing help is useful, ethical, and even expected for your college admission essay . I'll also point out who would make a good editor, what the differences between editing and proofreading are, what to expect from a good editor, and how to spot and stay away from a bad one.

Table of Contents

What Kind of Help for Your Essay Can You Get?

What's Good Editing?

What should an editor do for you, what kind of editing should you avoid, proofreading, what's good proofreading, what kind of proofreading should you avoid.

What Do Colleges Think Of You Getting Help With Your Essay?

Who Can/Should Help You?

Advice for editors.

Should You Pay Money For Essay Editing?

The Bottom Line

What's next, what kind of help with your essay can you get.

Rather than talking in general terms about "help," let's first clarify the two different ways that someone else can improve your writing . There is editing, which is the more intensive kind of assistance that you can use throughout the whole process. And then there's proofreading, which is the last step of really polishing your final product.

Let me go into some more detail about editing and proofreading, and then explain how good editors and proofreaders can help you."

Editing is helping the author (in this case, you) go from a rough draft to a finished work . Editing is the process of asking questions about what you're saying, how you're saying it, and how you're organizing your ideas. But not all editing is good editing . In fact, it's very easy for an editor to cross the line from supportive to overbearing and over-involved.

Ability to clarify assignments. A good editor is usually a good writer, and certainly has to be a good reader. For example, in this case, a good editor should make sure you understand the actual essay prompt you're supposed to be answering.

Open-endedness. Good editing is all about asking questions about your ideas and work, but without providing answers. It's about letting you stick to your story and message, and doesn't alter your point of view.


Think of an editor as a great travel guide. It can show you the many different places your trip could take you. It should explain any parts of the trip that could derail your trip or confuse the traveler. But it never dictates your path, never forces you to go somewhere you don't want to go, and never ignores your interests so that the trip no longer seems like it's your own. So what should good editors do?

Help Brainstorm Topics

Sometimes it's easier to bounce thoughts off of someone else. This doesn't mean that your editor gets to come up with ideas, but they can certainly respond to the various topic options you've come up with. This way, you're less likely to write about the most boring of your ideas, or to write about something that isn't actually important to you.

If you're wondering how to come up with options for your editor to consider, check out our guide to brainstorming topics for your college essay .

Help Revise Your Drafts

Here, your editor can't upset the delicate balance of not intervening too much or too little. It's tricky, but a great way to think about it is to remember: editing is about asking questions, not giving answers .

Revision questions should point out:

  • Places where more detail or more description would help the reader connect with your essay
  • Places where structure and logic don't flow, losing the reader's attention
  • Places where there aren't transitions between paragraphs, confusing the reader
  • Moments where your narrative or the arguments you're making are unclear

But pointing to potential problems is not the same as actually rewriting—editors let authors fix the problems themselves.

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Bad editing is usually very heavy-handed editing. Instead of helping you find your best voice and ideas, a bad editor changes your writing into their own vision.

You may be dealing with a bad editor if they:

  • Add material (examples, descriptions) that doesn't come from you
  • Use a thesaurus to make your college essay sound "more mature"
  • Add meaning or insight to the essay that doesn't come from you
  • Tell you what to say and how to say it
  • Write sentences, phrases, and paragraphs for you
  • Change your voice in the essay so it no longer sounds like it was written by a teenager

Colleges can tell the difference between a 17-year-old's writing and a 50-year-old's writing. Not only that, they have access to your SAT or ACT Writing section, so they can compare your essay to something else you wrote. Writing that's a little more polished is great and expected. But a totally different voice and style will raise questions.

Where's the Line Between Helpful Editing and Unethical Over-Editing?

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether your college essay editor is doing the right thing. Here are some guidelines for staying on the ethical side of the line.

  • An editor should say that the opening paragraph is kind of boring, and explain what exactly is making it drag. But it's overstepping for an editor to tell you exactly how to change it.
  • An editor should point out where your prose is unclear or vague. But it's completely inappropriate for the editor to rewrite that section of your essay.
  • An editor should let you know that a section is light on detail or description. But giving you similes and metaphors to beef up that description is a no-go.


Proofreading (also called copy-editing) is checking for errors in the last draft of a written work. It happens at the end of the process and is meant as the final polishing touch. Proofreading is meticulous and detail-oriented, focusing on small corrections. It sands off all the surface rough spots that could alienate the reader.

Because proofreading is usually concerned with making fixes on the word or sentence level, this is the only process where someone else can actually add to or take away things from your essay . This is because what they are adding or taking away tends to be one or two misplaced letters.

Laser focus. Proofreading is all about the tiny details, so the ability to really concentrate on finding small slip-ups is a must.

Excellent grammar and spelling skills. Proofreaders need to dot every "i" and cross every "t." Good proofreaders should correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. They should put foreign words in italics and surround quotations with quotation marks. They should check that you used the correct college's name, and that you adhered to any formatting requirements (name and date at the top of the page, uniform font and size, uniform spacing).

Limited interference. A proofreader needs to make sure that you followed any word limits. But if cuts need to be made to shorten the essay, that's your job and not the proofreader's.


A bad proofreader either tries to turn into an editor, or just lacks the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job.

Some signs that you're working with a bad proofreader are:

  • If they suggest making major changes to the final draft of your essay. Proofreading happens when editing is already finished.
  • If they aren't particularly good at spelling, or don't know grammar, or aren't detail-oriented enough to find someone else's small mistakes.
  • If they start swapping out your words for fancier-sounding synonyms, or changing the voice and sound of your essay in other ways. A proofreader is there to check for errors, not to take the 17-year-old out of your writing.


What Do Colleges Think of Your Getting Help With Your Essay?

Admissions officers agree: light editing and proofreading are good—even required ! But they also want to make sure you're the one doing the work on your essay. They want essays with stories, voice, and themes that come from you. They want to see work that reflects your actual writing ability, and that focuses on what you find important.

On the Importance of Editing

Get feedback. Have a fresh pair of eyes give you some feedback. Don't allow someone else to rewrite your essay, but do take advantage of others' edits and opinions when they seem helpful. ( Bates College )

Read your essay aloud to someone. Reading the essay out loud offers a chance to hear how your essay sounds outside your head. This exercise reveals flaws in the essay's flow, highlights grammatical errors and helps you ensure that you are communicating the exact message you intended. ( Dickinson College )

On the Value of Proofreading

Share your essays with at least one or two people who know you well—such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend—and ask for feedback. Remember that you ultimately have control over your essays, and your essays should retain your own voice, but others may be able to catch mistakes that you missed and help suggest areas to cut if you are over the word limit. ( Yale University )

Proofread and then ask someone else to proofread for you. Although we want substance, we also want to be able to see that you can write a paper for our professors and avoid careless mistakes that would drive them crazy. ( Oberlin College )

On Watching Out for Too Much Outside Influence

Limit the number of people who review your essay. Too much input usually means your voice is lost in the writing style. ( Carleton College )

Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we're probably going to notice. ( Vanderbilt University )


Now let's talk about some potential people to approach for your college essay editing and proofreading needs. It's best to start close to home and slowly expand outward. Not only are your family and friends more invested in your success than strangers, but they also have a better handle on your interests and personality. This knowledge is key for judging whether your essay is expressing your true self.

Parents or Close Relatives

Your family may be full of potentially excellent editors! Parents are deeply committed to your well-being, and family members know you and your life well enough to offer details or incidents that can be included in your essay. On the other hand, the rewriting process necessarily involves criticism, which is sometimes hard to hear from someone very close to you.

A parent or close family member is a great choice for an editor if you can answer "yes" to the following questions. Is your parent or close relative a good writer or reader? Do you have a relationship where editing your essay won't create conflict? Are you able to constructively listen to criticism and suggestion from the parent?

One suggestion for defusing face-to-face discussions is to try working on the essay over email. Send your parent a draft, have them write you back some comments, and then you can pick which of their suggestions you want to use and which to discard.

Teachers or Tutors

A humanities teacher that you have a good relationship with is a great choice. I am purposefully saying humanities, and not just English, because teachers of Philosophy, History, Anthropology, and any other classes where you do a lot of writing, are all used to reviewing student work.

Moreover, any teacher or tutor that has been working with you for some time, knows you very well and can vet the essay to make sure it "sounds like you."

If your teacher or tutor has some experience with what college essays are supposed to be like, ask them to be your editor. If not, then ask whether they have time to proofread your final draft.

Guidance or College Counselor at Your School

The best thing about asking your counselor to edit your work is that this is their job. This means that they have a very good sense of what colleges are looking for in an application essay.

At the same time, school counselors tend to have relationships with admissions officers in many colleges, which again gives them insight into what works and which college is focused on what aspect of the application.

Unfortunately, in many schools the guidance counselor tends to be way overextended. If your ratio is 300 students to 1 college counselor, you're unlikely to get that person's undivided attention and focus. It is still useful to ask them for general advice about your potential topics, but don't expect them to be able to stay with your essay from first draft to final version.

Friends, Siblings, or Classmates

Although they most likely don't have much experience with what colleges are hoping to see, your peers are excellent sources for checking that your essay is you .

Friends and siblings are perfect for the read-aloud edit. Read your essay to them so they can listen for words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or phrases that just don't sound like you.

You can even trade essays and give helpful advice on each other's work.


If your editor hasn't worked with college admissions essays very much, no worries! Any astute and attentive reader can still greatly help with your process. But, as in all things, beginners do better with some preparation.

First, your editor should read our advice about how to write a college essay introduction , how to spot and fix a bad college essay , and get a sense of what other students have written by going through some admissions essays that worked .

Then, as they read your essay, they can work through the following series of questions that will help them to guide you.

Introduction Questions

  • Is the first sentence a killer opening line? Why or why not?
  • Does the introduction hook the reader? Does it have a colorful, detailed, and interesting narrative? Or does it propose a compelling or surprising idea?
  • Can you feel the author's voice in the introduction, or is the tone dry, dull, or overly formal? Show the places where the voice comes through.

Essay Body Questions

  • Does the essay have a through-line? Is it built around a central argument, thought, idea, or focus? Can you put this idea into your own words?
  • How is the essay organized? By logical progression? Chronologically? Do you feel order when you read it, or are there moments where you are confused or lose the thread of the essay?
  • Does the essay have both narratives about the author's life and explanations and insight into what these stories reveal about the author's character, personality, goals, or dreams? If not, which is missing?
  • Does the essay flow? Are there smooth transitions/clever links between paragraphs? Between the narrative and moments of insight?

Reader Response Questions

  • Does the writer's personality come through? Do we know what the speaker cares about? Do we get a sense of "who he or she is"?
  • Where did you feel most connected to the essay? Which parts of the essay gave you a "you are there" sensation by invoking your senses? What moments could you picture in your head well?
  • Where are the details and examples vague and not specific enough?
  • Did you get an "a-ha!" feeling anywhere in the essay? Is there a moment of insight that connected all the dots for you? Is there a good reveal or "twist" anywhere in the essay?
  • What are the strengths of this essay? What needs the most improvement?


Should You Pay Money for Essay Editing?

One alternative to asking someone you know to help you with your college essay is the paid editor route. There are two different ways to pay for essay help: a private essay coach or a less personal editing service , like the many proliferating on the internet.

My advice is to think of these options as a last resort rather than your go-to first choice. I'll first go through the reasons why. Then, if you do decide to go with a paid editor, I'll help you decide between a coach and a service.

When to Consider a Paid Editor

In general, I think hiring someone to work on your essay makes a lot of sense if none of the people I discussed above are a possibility for you.

If you can't ask your parents. For example, if your parents aren't good writers, or if English isn't their first language. Or if you think getting your parents to help is going create unnecessary extra conflict in your relationship with them (applying to college is stressful as it is!)

If you can't ask your teacher or tutor. Maybe you don't have a trusted teacher or tutor that has time to look over your essay with focus. Or, for instance, your favorite humanities teacher has very limited experience with college essays and so won't know what admissions officers want to see.

If you can't ask your guidance counselor. This could be because your guidance counselor is way overwhelmed with other students.

If you can't share your essay with those who know you. It might be that your essay is on a very personal topic that you're unwilling to share with parents, teachers, or peers. Just make sure it doesn't fall into one of the bad-idea topics in our article on bad college essays .

If the cost isn't a consideration. Many of these services are quite expensive, and private coaches even more so. If you have finite resources, I'd say that hiring an SAT or ACT tutor (whether it's PrepScholar or someone else) is better way to spend your money . This is because there's no guarantee that a slightly better essay will sufficiently elevate the rest of your application, but a significantly higher SAT score will definitely raise your applicant profile much more.

Should You Hire an Essay Coach?

On the plus side, essay coaches have read dozens or even hundreds of college essays, so they have experience with the format. Also, because you'll be working closely with a specific person, it's more personal than sending your essay to a service, which will know even less about you.

But, on the minus side, you'll still be bouncing ideas off of someone who doesn't know that much about you . In general, if you can adequately get the help from someone you know, there is no advantage to paying someone to help you.

If you do decide to hire a coach, ask your school counselor, or older students that have used the service for recommendations. If you can't afford the coach's fees, ask whether they can work on a sliding scale —many do. And finally, beware those who guarantee admission to your school of choice—essay coaches don't have any special magic that can back up those promises.

Should You Send Your Essay to a Service?

On the plus side, essay editing services provide a similar product to essay coaches, and they cost significantly less . If you have some assurance that you'll be working with a good editor, the lack of face-to-face interaction won't prevent great results.

On the minus side, however, it can be difficult to gauge the quality of the service before working with them . If they are churning through many application essays without getting to know the students they are helping, you could end up with an over-edited essay that sounds just like everyone else's. In the worst case scenario, an unscrupulous service could send you back a plagiarized essay.

Getting recommendations from friends or a school counselor for reputable services is key to avoiding heavy-handed editing that writes essays for you or does too much to change your essay. Including a badly-edited essay like this in your application could cause problems if there are inconsistencies. For example, in interviews it might be clear you didn't write the essay, or the skill of the essay might not be reflected in your schoolwork and test scores.

Should You Buy an Essay Written by Someone Else?

Let me elaborate. There are super sketchy places on the internet where you can simply buy a pre-written essay. Don't do this!

For one thing, you'll be lying on an official, signed document. All college applications make you sign a statement saying something like this:

I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented... I understand that I may be subject to a range of possible disciplinary actions, including admission revocation, expulsion, or revocation of course credit, grades, and degree, should the information I have certified be false. (From the Common Application )

For another thing, if your academic record doesn't match the essay's quality, the admissions officer will start thinking your whole application is riddled with lies.

Admission officers have full access to your writing portion of the SAT or ACT so that they can compare work that was done in proctored conditions with that done at home. They can tell if these were written by different people. Not only that, but there are now a number of search engines that faculty and admission officers can use to see if an essay contains strings of words that have appeared in other essays—you have no guarantee that the essay you bought wasn't also bought by 50 other students.


  • You should get college essay help with both editing and proofreading
  • A good editor will ask questions about your idea, logic, and structure, and will point out places where clarity is needed
  • A good editor will absolutely not answer these questions, give you their own ideas, or write the essay or parts of the essay for you
  • A good proofreader will find typos and check your formatting
  • All of them agree that getting light editing and proofreading is necessary
  • Parents, teachers, guidance or college counselor, and peers or siblings
  • If you can't ask any of those, you can pay for college essay help, but watch out for services or coaches who over-edit you work
  • Don't buy a pre-written essay! Colleges can tell, and it'll make your whole application sound false.

Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications and then explore our step-by-step guide to writing a great college essay .

Using the Common Application for your college applications? We have an excellent guide to the Common App essay prompts and useful advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you . Wondering how other people tackled these prompts? Then work through our roundup of over 130 real college essay examples published by colleges .

Stressed about whether to take the SAT again before submitting your application? Let us help you decide how many times to take this test . If you choose to go for it, we have the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

Student and Parent Forum

Our new student and parent forum, at , allow you to interact with your peers and the PrepScholar staff. See how other students and parents are navigating high school, college, and the college admissions process. Ask questions; get answers.

Join the Conversation

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!

Improve With Our Famous Guides

  • For All Students

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 160+ SAT Points

How to Get a Perfect 1600, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 800 on Each SAT Section:

Score 800 on SAT Math

Score 800 on SAT Reading

Score 800 on SAT Writing

Series: How to Get to 600 on Each SAT Section:

Score 600 on SAT Math

Score 600 on SAT Reading

Score 600 on SAT Writing

Free Complete Official SAT Practice Tests

What SAT Target Score Should You Be Aiming For?

15 Strategies to Improve Your SAT Essay

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 4+ ACT Points

How to Get a Perfect 36 ACT, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 36 on Each ACT Section:

36 on ACT English

36 on ACT Math

36 on ACT Reading

36 on ACT Science

Series: How to Get to 24 on Each ACT Section:

24 on ACT English

24 on ACT Math

24 on ACT Reading

24 on ACT Science

What ACT target score should you be aiming for?

ACT Vocabulary You Must Know

ACT Writing: 15 Tips to Raise Your Essay Score

How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

How to Get a Perfect 4.0 GPA

How to Write an Amazing College Essay

What Exactly Are Colleges Looking For?

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? A Comprehensive Guide

Should you retake your SAT or ACT?

When should you take the SAT or ACT?

Stay Informed

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Get the latest articles and test prep tips!

Looking for Graduate School Test Prep?

Check out our top-rated graduate blogs here:

GRE Online Prep Blog

GMAT Online Prep Blog

TOEFL Online Prep Blog

Holly R. "I am absolutely overjoyed and cannot thank you enough for helping me!”

Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

Tips for writing an effective college essay.

College admissions essays are an important part of your college application and gives you the chance to show colleges and universities your character and experiences. This guide will give you tips to write an effective college essay.

Want free help with your college essay?

UPchieve connects you with knowledgeable and friendly college advisors—online, 24/7, and completely free. Get 1:1 help brainstorming topics, outlining your essay, revising a draft, or editing grammar.


Writing a strong college admissions essay

Learn about the elements of a solid admissions essay.

Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes

Learn some of the most common mistakes made on college essays

Brainstorming tips for your college essay

Stuck on what to write your college essay about? Here are some exercises to help you get started.

How formal should the tone of your college essay be?

Learn how formal your college essay should be and get tips on how to bring out your natural voice.

Taking your college essay to the next level

Hear an admissions expert discuss the appropriate level of depth necessary in your college essay.

Student Stories


Student Story: Admissions essay about a formative experience

Get the perspective of a current college student on how he approached the admissions essay.

Student Story: Admissions essay about personal identity

Get the perspective of a current college student on how she approached the admissions essay.

Student Story: Admissions essay about community impact

Student story: admissions essay about a past mistake, how to write a college application essay, tips for writing an effective application essay, sample college essay 1 with feedback, sample college essay 2 with feedback.

This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at

What are your chances of acceptance?

Calculate for all schools, your chance of acceptance.

Duke University

Your chancing factors


dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

8 Do’s and Don’ts For Crafting Your College Essay

←5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays

6 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises →

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Contrary to what you might think, you essay is not a place to prove your worthiness to attend college. Instead, it’s a place to convey your personality, demonstrate who you are, and explore what you can bring to campus.

Not sure what to say? Here are 8 dos and don’ts for writing your college essay.

Don’t: Regurgitate your resume.

Do: find a hook..

Colleges have your transcript, SAT/ACT scores, recs, and extracurriculars to understand the academic side of you. Your essay is a place to show them what you’re really like—your personality, passions, and what you’ll bring to campus. It’s a place to demonstrate that you have a fit —meaning you would fit in with the student body and contribute to the campus—with the school.

Use a hook—a compelling anecdote, an example, a question—at the beginning of your essay to draw your reader in. (Read How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay to help you come up with an idea.) This is a chance to demonstrate what your personality is like and give them an idea of your voice.

Don’t: Turn use overused metaphors.

Do: use rhetorical devices..

A personalized metaphor can be a great way to capture your experiences and views through the lens of a single experience. For instance, you might discuss a time you volunteered at a hospital in a third-world country to capture how you believe in helping others. For tips on developing your own metaphor, check out How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your Applications .

However, be wary of using common or cliche experiences as metaphors for something more global. Topics like sports injury and pet death are so common that adcoms’ eyes will glaze over the second they see them. Plus, these topics don’t really capture bigger-picture trials and may make you seem unworldly. While there may be a place to talk about them—for instance, if you had to quit an activity because of a sports injury, you may want to explain in the additional information section—, it’s better to develop a more original topic for your essay.

However, how you say it is more important than what you say. That’s why you should use rhetorical devices —symbols, imagery, metaphors, anecdotes, and other compelling language—to describe your experience and make it seem real to adcoms.

Don’t: Assume you have nothing to say.

Do: brainstorm..

You don’t have to have started your own business to tell a compelling story . Remember: how you say it is more important than what you say.

To get started, try some brainstorming exercises . For instance, you might make lists of beliefs, character flaws, personal anecdotes or whatever else pops into your head.

My brother wrote his essay about failing his driving test. Somehow, he managed to turn what could have been a mundane, if disappointing, experience into a hilarious and even poignant story. (He ended up going to Cornell, so it worked.) All of this to say, you can turn even the most common, everyday experience into a reflection on something larger.

Don’t: Shy away from challenges or difficulties you’ve faced.

Do: choose the most appropriate forum to discuss them..

If you’ve taken time off or personal issues have impacted your grades and schoolwork, you should explain it in your application. However, take care to do it in the right section and in a way that portrays you in the most positive light possible. Overcoming obstacles can certainly be positive, but you don’t want colleges to regard you as a liability, such as if you’ve had significant psychological issues they won’t be able to address.

Essays are a good forum for discussing obstacles you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them, but if you choose this kind of topic, make sure it helps colleges understand your personality better. You don’t want to be defensive in your essay; don’t gripe about a conflict with a teacher, for instance. Some issues may be better left to the additional information section.

The Takeaway

The purpose of your essay is to paint a picture of who you are. Adcoms will get an idea of your academic and extracurricular achievements from other sections of your application. The essay is where you demonstrate your character, what you will bring to campus, and new insights and perspectives you can offer. To write a compelling essay, convey your ideas through powerful language, and use a topic about which you can write passionately.

For more tips on writing your college essay, read:

How to Write an Impressive College Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Ivy Tutors Network Logo

College Essay Dos and Don’ts

Universities now base over 50% of admissions on the application essays. We’ll help you crack the code.

Lisa Speransky

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 list of dos and don’ts to help you craft a killer college essay :

Woman Typing on computer

What not to do in your college essay

  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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, and 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.
  • 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 different cultures, etc. If it sounds too familiar, it’s a cliché.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

What to do in your college essay

  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.

  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, and the world. College is about next-level thinking. Show the readers you’re already doing some.
  • 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.

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Need help with your college essay?

Reach out! We have several essay writing tutors and our popular College Essay Bootcamp that can help you knock your essays out of the park and present the best of you to the college of your dreams.



Application essays now make up more than 50% of admissions criteria! Ready to write an outstanding college essay coached by one of our world-class tutors? Get the essay done.

Related Blog Posts

College Essay 101


College Essay DOs and DON’Ts

Ivy Divider

  • DO give yourself enough time . Some students work well under tight deadlines, but we always suggest you start the essay writing process early enough to spend ample time brainstorming, free-writing, drafting and perfecting. You will need distance and time away from various stages of your draft in order to gain the necessary perspective it takes to make improvements. While many a student has regretted starting their essay the week (or night!) before it was due, we don’t know anyone who complained about starting his/her essay too early.
  • DON’T plagiarize . This one should hopefully go without saying . Not only does plagiarism reflect poorly on your character, chances are copying someone else’s words verbatim (or close enough) will not result in an essay that is reflective of your distinctive personality traits and writing style. Believe in your own abilities and create work that is yours and yours alone.
  • DO be honest . You are awesome (yes, you). Many of your experiences, when discussed honestly and thoughtfully are absolutely worthy of inclusion in a personal statement. Even if you don’t have kooky, out-of-the-box stories to tell, sincerity counts for a lot in an essay that aims to say something about your personality and values. You don’t need to make things up or exaggerate your circumstances. You are enough. Also, liars get caught.
  • DON’T exceed length limit . Attention to detail! An arguably annoying, yet critically important skill that will be relevant in almost any task you tackle in the future. Start this next phase of your life right by paying attention to the length limit. Many applications help you with this detail by providing word-limiting boxes in which you will paste your beautifully written masterpieces. But for those that don’t — beware! Double and triple check these details before submission.
  • DO respond to the prompt . You may have that really great story you want to tell, but if no one’s asking for it, writing it won’t do you any good. That said, we find that a wide range of stories, with just a bit of tweaking, can be molded to fit within the boundaries of the Common Application personal statement prompts . Let us know if you need help adapting your chosen subject to the Common App questions. We’ve helped many a student in the story/prompt matching game. That’s what we’re here for!
  • DON’T use cliches or overuse idioms . Cliches in college essays get us all bent out of shape . Think you can’t crack the nut of the personal statement without using these over-worn phrases? We don’t buy it. Whenever you find yourself recording a phrase off this list , dig deeper. We know you have it in you! Also, tell your story simply and directly. If you don’t idioms in your everyday speech, don’t try to squeeze them into your essay.
  • DO take breaks . Breaks are essential for generating creativity and keeping yourself from getting burned out. Taking regular breaks will keep you on schedule , but don’t take too many! Too many breaks in a row stop being breaks and start being procrastination.
  • DON’T rely on spell check . Spell check catches a lot, but not everything. It won’t catch homophones (the famous your/you’re pair, for example) but admissions officers sure will. Plus, giving yourself the chance to proofread in-depth will also allow you yet another chance to make sure you like the way your essay flows.
  • DO write about things other than your accomplishments . An essay in resume form is not the best use of your essay space. You can list all the great things you’ve done in other places in the application. Use your essay for reflection, showcasing humor, talking about your passions — anything that isn’t already reflected on your activity sheet.
  • DON’T stress out . Stress helped cavemen flee lions, but it may hurt you more than help you when writing your essay. Take a deep breath. Know that one hundred percent of students we speak to, even if they are scared at first, complete their college admissions essays. And call us if you need us. We can help alleviate some of the stress of this process. Dare we even suggest that we make it fun?

About CEA HQ

View all posts by CEA HQ »

Give College Essay Academy a Try.

Written by CEA HQ

Category: Essay Tips


Want free stuff?

We thought so. Sign up for free instructional videos, guides, worksheets and more!

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

One-On-One Advising

Common App Essay Guide

Common App Essay Prompt Guide

Common App Essay Guide

Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide

YouTube Tutorials

  • YouTube Tutorials
  • Our Approach & Team
  • Undergraduate Testimonials
  • Postgraduate Testimonials
  • Where Our Students Get In
  • CEA Gives Back
  • Undergraduate Admissions
  • Graduate Admissions
  • Private School Admissions
  • International Student Admissions
  • Common App Essay Guide
  • Supplemental Essay Guides
  • Coalition App Guide
  • The CEA Podcast
  • Admissions Stats
  • Notification Trackers
  • Deadline Databases
  • College Essay Examples
  • Academy and Worksheets
  • Waitlist Guides
  • Get Started

Crafting a Compelling College Essay: Dos and Don’ts

Link Copied

Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share on LinkedIn

Crafting a Compelling College Essay: Dos and Don’ts

Way to essay excellence!

Applying to college is a very stressful process, and nothing skyrockets students’ stress levels like the college essay. The college essay is very stressful because, unlike grades and test scores, it’s open-ended. There are a million different ways to write a college essay, and a million possible topics. Students often have a hard time knowing what to write their college essay about. They often don’t even know where to begin! Let’s take a look at some college application essay Dos and Don’ts to help get you on the right track with your college essay.

Dos for your college application essay

Writing a college essay may be daunting, but follow these tips, and you’ll be typing away in no time.

1. Do think about what you want colleges to know about you

Remember: The college essay is your chance to show colleges who you are in your own words. What do you want colleges to know about you? Who do you want to show to them? Take some time to consider what persona you would like to present to colleges. Then, think about what stories or events from your life allow you to showcase best the traits you’re trying to convey.

2. Do use your college essay to tell a story

Do use your college essay to tell a story and make it personal . College admissions officers have to read essay after essay after essay, all day, for months. Telling a story is a good way to help grab their attention. It will also give you the chance to demonstrate your point in a way that is specific, relatable, and memorable. Think carefully about which story will help you articulate your point, and then tell that story in your college essay. Just make sure to be succinct and engaging.

3. Do reflect on the story you tell

It’s not enough to just tell a story from your life. Part of the point of the college essay is to show that you are a mature, capable, reflective thinker. So, after you’ve told the story in your college essay, you have to reflect on it. Why was this story so important to you? How did you change as a result of this story? Why have you chosen to tell it now? Reflection is an important part of your college application essay, and it lets admissions officers see that you have the ability to sit down and grapple with complex ideas.

4. Do leave yourself plenty of time to write your college application essay

Do leave yourself plenty of time to write your college application essay. Good writing takes time – way longer than you think – and several drafts. Start at least three months before the deadline to give yourself time to improve your writing , think and get feedback, and write and rewrite it. It may be a long process, but your essay will come out much more polished if you give yourself enough time to go through several drafts and get useful feedback.

Don’ts for your college application essay

Try to avoid these common pitfalls when drafting your college essay. 

1. Don’t write about a very common college application essay topic

There are a few college essay topics that admissions readers see over and over…and over and over. These include the following:

  • The time your team worked very hard and won the big game…or didn’t win but learned a lot
  • An important lesson your grandma taught you
  • The time you traveled to a different country and learned just how good your own life is

Of course, even though these topics are widely overdone, it is still possible to write about them in a unique and engaging way. But unless you’re very confident that your particular college essay is a fresh take, it’s best to steer clear of these topics.

2. Don’t submit the very first thing you write

It is important to take your time with your college essay. You don’t necessarily want to tell the first story that comes to mind, and you don’t want to submit your very first draft. Give yourself time to edit! Your essay has to fall within the right word limit , so it’s important to take your time so that you can craft the story you want to tell within the proper constraints.

3. Don’t start with the prompts

This is a very common trap that students fall into! Students often read the essay prompts and then try to squeeze themselves into the prompt offered. This is understandable, but it makes you think much more narrowly than you otherwise would. The prompts are quite broad. Pretty much any essay you write could fit into one of them. So, instead of limiting yourself, think first about who you want to come off as and which story about yourself you want to tell . Then, write the essay, then decide which prompt fits. It will definitely fit one. After all, the last prompt in the Common App is a wildcard prompt. You’re allowed to submit any essay or piece of writing you want!

College application essay examples

Let's look at some impactful college application essay starters and topics.

College essay first sentences

One of the hardest things to do is start! Here are some examples of successful college essay first sentences:

  • I heard a loud bang. I thought a bird had hit the roof of my car, but when I got out, I saw the front bumper dangling off the right side.
  • I swing my pickaxe into the crevice of a rock a few feet above me, praying that it holds when I hoist myself to the next foothold. If it doesn’t, and I lose my pickaxe… I try not to think about it. 
  • I thought the town would have changed in the six years since I had left, but as we drove past the old snowcone shop that my mom went to as a kid, I began to think that maybe I was the one who had changed.
  • Nine-year-old Isabelle and I stood under the bars, chalk flying around us. 

College application essay topics

Here are a few of the successful college application topics we’ve seen over the years.

  • The student who loved working on cars and refurbished an old VW. He illustrated how the lessons he learned from working on his car applied to different parts of his life. 
  • The student who reflected on a video she watched in stats class. The video helped her grapple with the balance of effort and privilege she has faced in her own life up to this point.
  • The student who reflected on her decision to quit dance used this as an opportunity to explore her personal philosophy and the concept of quitting more generally.

Want more ideas? Here are several more college essay examples.

Elevate your academic journey with a great college essay & an ideal living space with us!

Book through amber today!

Need more advice on your college applications?

The team at Great College Advice has deep experience in guiding students along the road from high school to college. Great College Advice provides individually tailored, one-on-one advising to help young people achieve their educational ambitions. If you’d like more information about their services, contact them for a free consultation. Or just pick up the phone and call at 720.279.7577.  

We trust these dos and don'ts for crafting a compelling college essay prove valuable in your writing journey. Follow guidelines, revise diligently, and seek feedback. Your essay is a powerful tool; wield it thoughtfully to leave an indelible impression on admission committees.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do i write a college essay, what is a short essay in college, what is the most common college essay widely used for, what is the college essay format, how do you write a 500-word college essay.

Your ideal student home & a flight ticket awaits

Follow us on :


Related Posts

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

How to Present a Presentation in Class?

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Teaching Courses in Canada for International Students

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

10 Best Music Production Schools Around the World!

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Planning to Study Abroad ?

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

Your ideal student accommodation is a few steps away! Please fill in your details below so we can find you a new home!

We have got your response

Top 10 Educational YouTube Channels

amber © 2024. All rights reserved.

4.8/5 on Trustpilot

Rated as "Excellent" • 4800+ Reviews by students

Rated as "Excellent" • 4800+ Reviews by Students

play store

help for assessment

  • Customer Reviews
  • Extended Essays
  • IB Internal Assessment
  • Theory of Knowledge
  • Literature Review
  • Dissertations
  • Essay Writing
  • Research Writing
  • Assignment Help
  • Capstone Projects
  • College Application
  • Online Class

15 Essay Writing Dos And Don’ts to Help You Write Great Essays

Author Image

by  Antony W

September 13, 2022

Essay Writing Dos and Don’ts

There’s nothing worse than scoring low marks for an essay that you’ve worked so hard to complete.  So before you start working on your essay, regardless of the type of essay your instructor has asked you to work on, it’s important to know about essay writing dos and don’ts.

This will help you stay on the right track from the time you start writing to the moment you put the final full stop to paper.

Key Takeaways

  • Use short, simple sentences to make your essay easy to read.  
  • Include a statement of declaration (thesis statement) in the introduction.
  • Stick to the format for writing an essay.
  • Do not share too many ideas in a single paragraph. Each paragraph should address one unique issue.
  • Do not plagiarize your work.
  • Do not address your reader in the essay but focus on the objectives while remaining detached and analytical.
  • Do use this essay writing service if you don’t have enough time to write your essay from scratch.
  • Do not start an essay with the phrase “My essay” or “In this essay”. 

The Dos and Don’ts of Essay Writing: 10 Things to Do and 10 Things to Avoid

Here are the dos and don’ts of essay writing:

1. Do Split Up Your Sentences if They Get Too Long

Make sure your sentences are not blocks of words. A block of words will undoubtedly turn off the readers because they will find the essay boring to read.

So, make sure your sentences are short and to the point.

Apart from easing your readers reading experience, splitting your sentence will even help you discover sentences that can stand alone during essay editing.

2. Do include a thesis statement in the Introduction

You should include a thesis statement in the introduction to summarize what the essay is.

Having a thesis statement in your introduction also helps the reader to understand what you are about to write about.

This statement should appear at the end of the introduction paragraph.

In this section, completely avoid the use of complicated words since it is a point where the reader gets a clue of what you intend to communicate.

3. Do Use Simple Sentence

As you write your essay, ensure the language and sentences you use are easy to digest. Use words so simple that even a high school student can understand.

What is the goal of using heavy words in your essay yet no one will understand what you’re trying to communicate?

Just help the reader to understand you more by using simple sentence constructions.

4. Do Remember to Proofread Your Work

Carelessness, laziness, unprofessionalism is what readers see in you when you submit unrevised essays for reading.

Typing errors, grammatical errors, and small spelling mistakes can make an essay you took time to right look bad.

It is your essay nobody else’s so, make the effort to go through it.

Revisiting your essays helps you identify errors. Once you eliminate each of the errors, your essay will have a good flow of ideas and be very easy to read.

5. Remember to Look for Formatting Requirements

Before you start writing an essay, make sure you have gone through the formatting requirements.

Reading these requirements is important because it shows that you can follow instructions.

The habit of reading through instructions, before anything else and implementing what the instructions command will help you score high marks for the essay.

6. Remember to Use Your Candidate Number, Tutors Name, and Page Numbers

Before submitting any of your essays for marking, ensure that you have included your candidate number as your file name.

Remember you are not the only student submitting his or her assignment, and that means if the assignment doesn’t have a candidate’s number you won’t get your results.

It is also important to include the name of your tutor and indicate the number of pages your work has.

7. Sufficient Spacing

As you write, leave some space for the tutor to leave comments as he or she marks your work. The space should be on both margins of the essay paper.

8. Do Discuss Literature in the Present Tense

Always use present tenses when writing essays.

Adhere to present tense especially when the essay an assignment based on literary works. Present tense on historic narratives makes your essay more engaging.

9. Choose the Correct Language

Your ability to investigate and explore topics is based on the language you choose to use write your essay in.

The language you use will also determine how well and how easy you will explain your points and prove your opinions.

The language you choose to use also determines the level of your language proficiency and grammar knowledge. It is therefore important that you ensure the language you choose favors you.

10. Make Good Use of Your Time

 A semester is usually 75 days or 15 weeks long.

This is enough time to prepare the 20-page assignment. Make good of the period to write an essay worth awarding good grades.

Our time management tips can help you use your time well.

11. Don't Give the Reader too Many Ideas in a Single Sentence 

Having all your essay ideas in a single sentence means the remaining part of the essay is a joint of words with no meaning and is only there to lengthen your essay.

Also, long and too complicated sentences will confuse essay readers.

So sprinkle the ideas you have all over your essay.

12. Do not Plagiarize Your Essay

Never should you ever use someone else’s research as your own. Markers always disqualify plagiarized essays .

Readers also distrust you once they learn a portion of your essay is a duplicate from an outside source. In case you find a piece of information so important, give credit to the author.

13. Do Not Address the Reader

While writing an essay, avoid addressing your readers. Instead, you should focus on your objectives.  Stay detached and analytical.

Avoid appealing to your reader’s personality and emotions because if you do, they will rightly lose the reading morale.

Essays that touch on the reader’s emotions and personality are as tasteless as water.

14. Do Not Open an Essay With “In this essay or My essay”

Of course, we already know it is your essay, so you should never start up your essay with such phrases.

Consider staying formal to the very end. Also, be careful about the kind of expressions you use in essays because some expressions might hurt your reader’s emotions and feelings.

15. Don’t List the Topic of each Body Paragraph  

Although this is a strategy taught to armature students to help them organize their work better, it has a few limitations.

First, it will work well on short essay projects on an essay. Second, listing the topic in each body of your paragraph may not lead to complex points.

Unless you are asked to do so by the instructions, avoid listing the topic of each body paragraph.

About the author 

Antony W is a professional writer and coach at Help for Assessment. He spends countless hours every day researching and writing great content filled with expert advice on how to write engaging essays, research papers, and assignments.

Calculate for all schools

Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, dos and don'ts for writing college essays.

Hey guys, I'm about to start working on my college essays. I'm feeling a little stressed and I want to make sure I'm doing things right. What are some dos and don'ts for writing a strong college essay? Any advice is appreciated!

1. Start early: Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, write, revise, and polish your essay. This will reduce stress and allow you to develop a stronger essay.

2. Be genuine and authentic: Colleges want to get to know the real you through your essay. Share your unique voice, perspective, and experiences in an honest way.

3. Show, don't tell: Use specific examples, anecdotes, and imagery to illustrate your points, rather than simply stating them. This makes your essay more engaging and memorable.

4. Be intentional with your topic: Choose a topic that will highlight your character, values, and interests. Avoid cliches or overused topics, such as sports victories or mission trips.

5. Revise thoroughly: Your first draft won't be perfect. Revise your essay several times and ask for feedback from trusted mentors, teachers, or friends to help you improve.


1. Exceed the word limit: Adhere to the given word limit, as it shows that you can follow directions and respect the time of admissions officers.

2. Use overly complex vocabulary: While you want your writing to be polished, avoid using words you wouldn't typically use in conversation. This can make your essay seem unnatural or overly formal.

3. Discuss controversial topics: Steer clear of divisive topics like politics or religion unless they are essential to your identity or directly related to your chosen theme.

4. Rely solely on spell-check: While spell-check is a helpful tool, it's not foolproof. Carefully proofread your essay for grammatical errors, punctuation, and typos.

5. Plagiarize: Your essay should be a reflection of your own thoughts and experiences. Do not copy, paraphrase, or use someone else's work without proper attribution.

Above all, remember that your college essay is your opportunity to showcase your personality, values, and growth to admissions officers. Make sure it is a true representation of you and offers insight into what makes you a great fit for their school. Good luck!

About CollegeVine’s Expert FAQ

CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

Dos and Don'ts in Writing College Application Essays

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz

Founder, Director, adMISSION POSSIBLE; author, speaker, adMISSION POSSIBLE: The Dare to Be Yourself Guide for Getting into the Best College for You

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

College Essays Can Give a Glimpse into Your Soul

While student grades and test scores are clearly top factors in admissions office decisions, application essays often play a pivotal role. Like nothing else, essays give admissions readers a real sense for who you are as a person and student. Some say they are a "glimpse into your soul."

Most colleges require at least one essay as a part of their applications; some require two, three or even more. Ranging in length from just a few words to one, two, or three pages of content, essay questions in any free-response section of the college application should be considered an opportunity to make a good impression.

At the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) yearly conference, college admissions deans have admitted repeatedly that poorly written essays can "do in" a student with top grades and test scores... and that great essays can sometimes turn the tide toward acceptance for a student with less-than-stellar grades and test scores.

These same deans have offered sage advice about the dos and don'ts of writing college essays.

1. Write revealing, concise essays that inform, enlighten and amuse.

2. Present yourself as genuinely humble, modest, perhaps even self-effacing.

3. Be yourself.

4. Answer each and every aspect of the essay question as best you can AND within the character/word limit provided.

5. Come across as mature, positive, reflective, intelligent , down-to-earth, curious, persistent, confident, original, creative, hard-working and thoughtful.

6. Demonstrate evidence of your having real knowledge about a college and its many resources, including courses, programs, activities and students.

7. Write about anything that is counterintuitive about yourself , e.g., you are a football player who is totally into poetry, a young woman who is a computer or physics geek, a macho guy who wants to be an elementary school teacher.

8. Compose an essay, give it to others to read and edit , and then do a final edit before you declare that it is done.

9. Use a variety of words to describe something or someone , e.g., Charley, my friend, my buddy, my schoolmate, he, him.

10. Explain what needs to be explained, as in an illness, a learning disability, a suspension, a one-time bad grade, a family tragedy, a major challenge you have had.

1. Write too much, ramble on , thinking that more (words) is better. It is not.

2. Brag, boast, toot your own horn , or come across as arrogant.

3. Write what you think college admissions people want instead of what you really think.

4. Go off writing about what you want to say rather than what the question asks AND ignore the specified character/word counts.

5. Come across as immature, negative, superficial, shallow, a phony, glib, a slacker, insecure, whiney, judgmental or disrespectful.

6. Give the impression that you know little about a college by writing trite, inaccurate or inconsequential things about it.

7. Make something up about yourself just to impress the admissions readers.

8. Write an essay and consider it done without looking for punctuation or grammatical errors and having it edited by at least one person.

9. Use the same words over and over , e.g., my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.

10. Make excuses for anything, including a bad grade, an infringement of rules, a suspension, whatever.

Application essays are a wonderful opportunity for you to show admissions offices who you really are, in what ways you think, how well you perform, and even your sense of humor.

If you want more advice about writing, take a look at the July 28, 2012 New York Times Book Review section for " How to Write" by Colson Whitehead.

Go to College Countdown to learn how my book, adMission Possible (Sourcebooks), can help you "dare to be yourself," write compelling college application essays and get accepted to college.

Support HuffPost

Our 2024 coverage needs you, your loyalty means the world to us.

At HuffPost, we believe that everyone needs high-quality journalism, but we understand that not everyone can afford to pay for expensive news subscriptions. That is why we are committed to providing deeply reported, carefully fact-checked news that is freely accessible to everyone.

Whether you come to HuffPost for updates on the 2024 presidential race, hard-hitting investigations into critical issues facing our country today, or trending stories that make you laugh, we appreciate you. The truth is, news costs money to produce, and we are proud that we have never put our stories behind an expensive paywall.

Would you join us to help keep our stories free for all? Your contribution of as little as $2 will go a long way.

Can't afford to donate? Support HuffPost by creating a free account and log in while you read.

As Americans head to the polls in 2024, the very future of our country is at stake. At HuffPost, we believe that a free press is critical to creating well-informed voters. That's why our journalism is free for everyone, even though other newsrooms retreat behind expensive paywalls.

Our journalists will continue to cover the twists and turns during this historic presidential election. With your help, we'll bring you hard-hitting investigations, well-researched analysis and timely takes you can't find elsewhere. Reporting in this current political climate is a responsibility we do not take lightly, and we thank you for your support.

Contribute as little as $2 to keep our news free for all.

Dear HuffPost Reader

Thank you for your past contribution to HuffPost. We are sincerely grateful for readers like you who help us ensure that we can keep our journalism free for everyone.

The stakes are high this year, and our 2024 coverage could use continued support. Would you consider becoming a regular HuffPost contributor?

The stakes are high this year, and our 2024 coverage could use continued support. If circumstances have changed since you last contributed, we hope you’ll consider contributing to HuffPost once more.

Already contributed? Log in to hide these messages.

Popular in the Community

From our partner, more in college.

dos and don'ts of writing a college essay


  1. 8 Do's And Don'ts Of University Essay Writing (Infographic)

    dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

  2. College Essays: Dos and Don'ts

    dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

  3. two thumbs up signs are next to each other and one has a paper on it

    dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

  4. 3 Do's and Don'ts of Writing Your College Essay

    dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

  5. Do's and Don'ts of Essay Writing

    dos and don'ts of writing a college essay

  6. FREE 9+ College Essay Samples in MS Word

    dos and don'ts of writing a college essay


  1. Elephant Revival

  2. Writing Dos and Don'ts

  3. DOs & DON'Ts Drawings The Amazing Digital Circus

  4. The DOS and DON'TS of writing Plot Twists (including 5 common mistakes writers make)

  5. Information Transfer

  6. How to Write an Essay in 40 Minutes


  1. 10 College Application Essay Dos and Don'ts

    DON'T copy and paste. With upwards of 25 or more essays to write for a balanced college list of 10-12 schools, it's tempting for students to repurpose essays across applications if the prompts are similar, especially when working down to the wire. While students can use the same main essay on the Common App for multiple schools, we always ...

  2. Getting College Essay Help: Important Do's and Don'ts

    Have a fresh pair of eyes give you some feedback. Don't allow someone else to rewrite your essay, but do take advantage of others' edits and opinions when they seem helpful. ( Bates College) Read your essay aloud to someone. Reading the essay out loud offers a chance to hear how your essay sounds outside your head.

  3. 24 Do's and Don'ts of Writing a College Admission Essay

    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.

  4. Do's and Don'ts for College Essays

    The best way to make an essay unique is to tell your story in a way nobody else can. You can do this by including thoughtful details and personal insights, which include your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the specific examples you plan on writing about. This way, it'd be difficult for anyone else to tell the story the way you just ...

  5. PDF Strategies for Essay Writing

    Harvard College Writing Center 2 Tips for Reading an Assignment Prompt When you receive a paper assignment, your first step should be to read the assignment prompt carefully to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do. Sometimes your assignment will be open-ended ("write a paper about anything in the course that interests you").

  6. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

    Sample College Essay 2 with Feedback. This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at College essays are an important part of your college application and give you the chance to show colleges and universities your personality. This guide will give you tips on how to write an effective college essay.

  7. Dos and don'ts for college essays

    Hi there! Writing a successful college essay is an important part of the application process. Here are some important dos and don'ts to keep in mind: **Dos:** 1. **Be genuine and authentic.** Admissions officers want to get to know the real you. Share your unique experiences, perspectives, and voice in your essay. Avoid trying to impress by using big words or cliché stories.

  8. 8 Do's and Don'ts For Crafting Your College Essay

    Here are 8 dos and don'ts for writing your college essay. Don't: Regurgitate your resume. Do: Find a hook. Colleges have your transcript, SAT/ACT scores, recs, and extracurriculars to understand the academic side of you. Your essay is a place to show them what you're really like—your personality, passions, and what you'll bring to campus.

  9. Writing the College Essay: Dos and Don'ts)

    Students should make sure their college essays are memorable in a good way. Remember: the personal statement is a chance for you to show you are a person beyond your test scores, GPA, and resume. Let the essay be a tool that showcases who you are and who you might be on campus: a roommate, leader, classmate, teammate and friend. Danny Byun.

  10. The College Admissions Essay: Dos and Don'ts

    The college admissions process can be a daunting experience for students, and the admissions essay is an essential part of that process. With the number of college applications increasing every year, standing out through your essay is crucial. In this article, we will discuss the dos and don'ts of writing a college admissions essay and provide the latest data and statistics on the importance ...

  11. What are the dos and don'ts for writing a college essay?

    A college essay should go beyond a list of achievements and delve into who you are as a person. 5. Don't be overly formal: A college essay should have a more relaxed and conversational tone compared to an academic paper. Avoid using jargon or overly complex vocabulary, and instead write in a way that feels natural and relatable.

  12. College Essay Dos and Don'ts

    What to do in your college essay. 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. Dig for that topic. Brainstorming and finding your best idea are some of the most important parts of the essay process.

  13. College Application Essay Dos and Don'ts

    That's why we put together a list of our top DOs and DON'Ts for the essay writing process. DO take a look! DO give yourself enough time. Some students work well under tight deadlines, but we always suggest you start the essay writing process early enough to spend ample time brainstorming, free-writing, drafting and perfecting.

  14. Crafting a Compelling College Essay: Dos and Don'ts

    Do use your college essay to tell a story 3. Do reflect on the story you tell 4. Do leave yourself plenty of time to write your college application essay Don'ts for your college application essay 1. Don't write about a very common college application essay topic 2. Don't submit the very first thing you write 3.

  15. Do's and Don'ts of Writing A College Admission Essay

    Use these do's and don'ts, as well as our other essay writing tips, and you'll be in good shape. The essay is an important factor in the college admission process, and oftentimes the only time the college will get "to know the real you." It's not only a number game but a word game as well.

  16. What are some dos and don'ts for writing a college essay?

    1. Rely on clichés: Steer clear of well-trodden essay topics like sports injuries, immigrant stories, and moving to a new school, unless your perspective on these topics is unique or extremely personal. 2. Write for the admissions officers: Don't try to guess what the admissions officers want to hear. Be honest about your experiences and opinions.

  17. 5 Do's and Don'ts: Writing an Essay

    5. Do: Be Descriptive. A good way to show off your writing skills is to use descriptive language while staying within word count and format. Saying, "I was startled," and, "I breathlessly stopped in my tracks," mean the same thing, but the latter keeps your reader engaged and better shows your ability to express ideas.

  18. What Is Academic Writing?

    Academic writing is a formal style of writing used in universities and scholarly publications. You'll encounter it in journal articles and books on academic topics, and you'll be expected to write your essays, research papers, and dissertation in academic style. Academic writing follows the same writing process as other types of texts, but ...

  19. Dos and don'ts for writing a college essay?

    Don't: 1. Be cliché: Avoid overused topics like sports injuries, moving, or an immigrant's story. If you do write about a common topic, add a unique spin to make it stand out. 2. Write for the admissions officer: Don't write what you think they want to read; focus on expressing your genuine thoughts, emotions, and experiences. 3.

  20. 15 Essay Writing Dos And Don'ts to Help You Write Great Essays

    Here are the dos and don'ts of essay writing: 1. Do Split Up Your Sentences if They Get Too Long. Make sure your sentences are not blocks of words. A block of words will undoubtedly turn off the readers because they will find the essay boring to read. So, make sure your sentences are short and to the point.

  21. PDF The DOs and DON'Ts of Writing Your College Essay

    DO be yourself. Think more about what you want to say than about what you think they want to hear. Write about what MATTERS to you, what you feel strongly about. DON'T repeat information that the reader already knows. Tell them something about yourself that does not appear elsewhere in your application. This is precious space—DON'T waste it.

  22. Dos and Don'ts for writing college essays?

    Do: 1. Start early: Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, write, revise, and polish your essay. This will reduce stress and allow you to develop a stronger essay. 2. Be genuine and authentic: Colleges want to get to know the real you through your essay. Share your unique voice, perspective, and experiences in an honest way.

  23. Dos and Don'ts in Writing College Application Essays

    1. Write revealing, concise essays that inform, enlighten and amuse. 2. Present yourself as genuinely humble, modest, perhaps even self-effacing. 3. Be yourself. 4. Answer each and every aspect of the essay question as best you can AND within the character/word limit provided. 5.