The Do’s and Don’ts for the College Essay


By: Kayla Ritter Rickels, College Manager – Curriculum, CPS Office of Curriculum

The college application essay is a primary source of stress for many rising high school seniors looking to go to college. For some students, it is a way to help an application stand out when test scores might not reflect their work ethic. For other students, it’s a painful exercise. No matter the outlook, as The New York Times once put it, “Your goal is to write an essay that makes someone fall in love with you.” Easy, right?

Below are some essential “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for the infamous college application essay that may be helpful for your child.


… Pull the reader in with an interesting lead. Consider your favorite novels, books, or essays, and register what was enticing or interesting. Then, make that your own for this essay.

… Write about something that actually happened to you or is important to you. The authenticity will show through in the writing. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to your reader, and your application won’t matter to your college admissions officer.

… Ditch some rules. Yes, there are reasons you had to memorize so many grammar-related rules throughout school, but some rules are worth breaking. Refer your favorite authors. There’s a good chance they’ve ignored some rules, and the writing was better for it.

… Write a few drafts, then edit or take bits and pieces of them later for your final essay. Completely empty yourself in each draft, without going back to edit little by little. When you read back over your work, you’ll see the progression in your writing, find where you became more efficient or descriptive, and enjoy a much more effective and productive editing process.

… Ask someone (or multiple people) to proofread—once for content and another time for accuracy and grammar. You’ll be glad you did.

DON’T … 

… Repeat the prompt. Your reader knows you’re picking up where the question or prompt left off. The running start can weigh down an otherwise interesting essay and use up precious word limit.

… Provide a Webster-like definition of something. In fact, don’t even mention “Webster” or dictionary unless it’s critical to a story you’re telling. This technique is well known because it is has been widely used. Using it in your essay will water down your statement.

… Start your essay with an epigraph or a quote from someone else. This essay is your words, not someone else’s. An epigraph is another example of a futile running start that can impede your essay.

… Include sound effects or onomatopoeias. Save it for Dr. Seuss.

… rely on clichés. Clichés are what they are for a reason—they convey some sort of universal truth. Challenge yourself and your writing by avoiding them. It will pay off with the admissions officer who reads your essay and takes note.

… use “to be” verbs. They can get you trapped in passive voice through the whole essay. Plus, they weaken the verbs they’re paired with. You will pack more punch in your points with active voice and action verbs.

… use redundant phrases. They’re unnecessary clutter (see what I did there?)

If you’re still looking for guidance throughout the essay-writing process or need some other grammar and writing tools, check out this advice from a college dean, read through some college essays that worked, or use Grammarly to check your style.


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