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4 Application Essay Do's and Don'ts

Expert Provides Hands-On College Essay Tips

Here are expert tips and college application essay do's and don'ts from Zack Homer, CEO and cofounder of Hello Essay- an online website that makes it easy for students' to connect with experts who edit and proofread academic essays and personal statements.

1. Do Maintain a Narrow Focus.

You are asked an essay question. You must provide a written answer. Sounds straightforward, right? One of the most common mistakes that students make is to include too much information and try to list all of their accomplishments and awards. This results in a grocery list of achievements with no central theme or focus. Even worse, this approach often results in a failure to answer the essay question in the first place! The most effective application essays respond to the essay prompt with one clear focus and theme.

In terms of maintaining a narrow focus, this means keeping to one central theme, story, or topic. The best essays focus on one concept, even just one story, and provide extensive detail and explanation to support that idea. For instance, an entire essay about the detail of the meaning and connection from swing dancing can give the reader great insight into the student.

Conversely, many students make the error in thinking that listing accomplishments will serve them well. For example, listing swing dance as one “accomplishment”, discussing how sports enabled growth, and explaining a story about being inspired to pursue an MBA due to an early experience in observing a parent manage a portfolio might seem like a good idea. It does get a lot of ideas on paper! However, this will actually make the essay scattered, and doing this waters down the message and confuses the reader as to what the essay is really trying to say. Better to focus on one message or story– perhaps the inspiration from a parent – and explain in detail to deliver a unique perspective and argument.

Don’t ramble about your accomplishments! Do answer the essay prompt with a central theme.

2. Do Choose a Topic That Has Personal Significance.

Many students write about a topic that they believe admissions officers want to hear rather than about a person, activity, or event that has personal significance. Essay topics that are not authentic and do not have significance to the author (even if the essay is narrowly focused) tend to be generic and uninteresting. The most successful application essays are engaging because they center on topics that the student can passionately write about and allow the reader to understand the applicant on a personal level.

For personal significance, it does not necessarily have to be limited to any particular topic. The main point is that it is something that is unique and really matters to the individual. For instance, if a student is extremely passionate about swing dancing and found meaning, growth, development, and maturation from this hobby, engaging in an essay about what dancing has meant to the individual can be a great essay. This passion will clearly resonate to the reader. Other examples might be a unique family experience or perhaps a life-changing story about a discussion with a war veteran grandfather. Ultimately, these are things that may not have shown up in the rest of the application and will help the admissions officer understand who the student really is.

Conversely, common errors usually involve covering generic topics such as being involved in many extracurricular activities and clubs. Such a topic lacks in-depth meaning or connection and will come across as a laundry list of items. There is not much added to the application (these items are already in the resume!) and the lack of passion and a unique personal story will be evident.

Don’t write what you think others want to hear. Do choose a topic that has personal significance to you.

3.  Do Avoid General Statements and Clichés.

The use of general statements and clichés will weaken your application essay. Saying that you “believe in doing what you love” is not convincing. Instead, include a concrete example, detail, or personal story to show the reader how your actions or experiences have contributed to your belief and why they support your central idea.

Don’t use clichés or general statements! Do offer personal examples and specific details to support your central idea.

4. Do Use Clear and Simple Language.

A common misconception from applicants is that complicated language or lengthy sentences sound more professional. In fact, doing so will make your message more difficult to understand. The best application essays are straightforward, succinct, and clear. To deliver your message with maximum impact, go through your essay and remove excessive language. For instance, remove each “very” or “extremely” that you find.

Don’t use overly complicated language! Do write with clear and concise language.

Zack Homer is the CEO and cofounder of Hello Essay. He and his team of expert essay editors are passionate about helping students reach their potential by providing them with accurate, rapid, and ethical writing support. Homer has been featured in the press on topics such as plagiarism, admissions, essay writing, and more. He previously worked as a consultant and survey researcher designing, developing, and managing studies for government and corporate clients. He is also a former tutor. His research has been presented at the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Homer graduated from New York University.