10 Dos and Dont's of the College Application Essay | Winward Academy


10 Dos and Don’ts of the College Application Essay

Do you want to write an essay that gets you noticed – and gets you accepted? The key is to first wrap your mind around the most important dos and don’ts of the college essay writing process. Then you can explore other time-tested methods that lead to admissions success.

Don’t repeat the Activity Section

Don’t use the essay to repeat your activities and achievements. You’re supposed to be adding a personal perspective – a deeper insight into who you are – without repeating information found elsewhere in the application. The essays are supposed to reveal your curiosity, personal growth, motivation, and initiative. They should reflect your unique qualities. The essays aren’t a resume listing what you did. Think of the essays as the “why” behind the “what” in which you should explore – honestly – your character, resilience, and leadership. Give them a deeper insight into what information isn’t visible elsewhere in the application.

Do give a complete picture of who you are

Many colleges have more than one essay because they want a more holistic sense of who you are. Figure out how to best portray yourself while taking advantage of the multiple prompts to highlight all facets of who you are. Don’t write about the same topic in every single one. Show them a more complete picture with distinct topics for each prompt.

Don’t skip part of the prompt

If a question asks you to “evaluate a significant achievement or experience and its impact on you,” then make sure you don’t forget to include its impact. Yes, it can be hard to tell your story inside the constraints of the prompt, but you must make sure you’re answering the full question they’re looking for. They want to see your passion, your character, the way you reason, think, and reflect.

Do follow the word or character limits

Copying and pasting a 650-word essay into an online field with a 500-word limit will simply cut off the last 150 words of what you copied and pasted. These limits exist for a reason – to give everyone a fair shot. Make sure you answer the question being asked within the length constraints, and do so while remaining true to yourself, your story, and your voice. Remember that editing is an integral part of a writing process.

Don’t think doing community service one weekend qualifies you as Humanitarian of the Year

Students frequently want to talk about a day they volunteered at a retirement home or a week they built a home with Habitat for Humanity. Yes, these efforts are important, but they’re quite simply not enough for a striking essay. Students who display dedicated service hours throughout middle and high school, and who show leadership and growth within charitable organizations, have earned the right to discuss service and what it means to them. Sorting cans at a food bank one Saturday morning for 2 hours is not going to impress anyone.

Do read the essay out loud (slowly)

The best way to catch mistakes is to read your essays out loud and slowly. Otherwise your eyes can play tricks on you and not catch errors if you’re reading only in your head. Just because words are spelled correctly doesn’t mean they’re being used correctly. Consider if I typed, “I considered an agreed” instead of “I considered and agreed.” Spell Check wouldn’t catch that mistake, but reading out loud would.

Don’t think the Thesaurus is your answer

Use caution trying to use “big words” to “look smart.” You risk using words improperly, which can happen if something that pops up in your Thesaurus sounds fancy but you might not understand subtleties of its usage. You also want to avoid forcing words like ennui, harbinger, and ubiquitous. You risk coming off as overly eager, which won’t impress anyone. Use words that you would use when talking to your grandparents about something meaningful to you.

Do a final read before clicking SUBMIT

When it comes time to do the final preview before submitting, a lot of students get anxious to click the button, which can lead them to overlook careless errors – ones that can jeopardize an otherwise excellent application. You’ve spent months preparing. Spend another 10 minutes giving it another careful read before you submit. You might catch something you missed.

Don’t rush the writing process

Take the essay seriously. It’s an important part of your application, and it’s worth the time and investment to get it right. If you rush, it will be obvious to the reader that you didn’t put the thought into doing it right. Your task is to push beyond the surface while avoiding clichés and generalizations, which is a challenge. You want to stand out. You want your essay to reveal specific qualities. You must offer personal, specific insights to be remembered. That process takes time, so give yourself that time and maximize your success in the writing process.

Do invest in a strong opening

Admissions officers are people. They get tired after reading hundreds of applications every day. Pretend the person picking up your application off the top of the pile has just returned from lunch and is in a food coma. You need to catch his attention and pique his interest from the start, so it’s critical that your first few sentences capture the reader’s interest and engage him in reading the rest of your story. A boring opening isn’t going to compel the person reading your story.

Looking for additional insight to put together a stellar college essay? Here is some advice to make sure you’re getting started on the right path.

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About Winward Academy – Winward Academy is one of the world’s leading innovators in the online education space, providing web-based academic support that enhances students’ knowledge, confidence, and competitiveness in middle and high school academics and in college applications. We help thousands of students every year by providing personalized, comprehensive ACT and SAT test preparation and extensive math curriculum support. The Winward Academy learning platform honors over 40 years of education and cognitive psychology research, incorporating proven techniques that promote effective learning.

Winward Academy’s unmatched reputation is wholly attributable to our students’ exceptional success and to the trust earned among students, parents, and schools around the world.

Jennifer Winward, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Winward is a renowned college instructor, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her Ph.D. specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with highest distinction honors. Dr. Winward has been widely recognized for her academic success, published research, and philanthropic efforts with awards from the President of the United States, the California State Assembly, Rotary International, the Marin County School Administrator Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Science Foundation.