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The dos and don’ts of college essays, according to the pros

The college essay: It’s a phrase that’s enough to make you break into a cold sweat. Simply put, many people are intimidated (terrified!) of penning it — and with good reason.

“The college essay is the hardest part of the application process,” said New Haven, Conn.-based Pierre Huguet, CEO of H&C Education.

“It’s also one of the most important elements of your application. For many students, it’s difficult to get going, feeling pressured to sum up everything they’ve accomplished, everything they are, in 650 words. So where to begin? And, for many students, it can be just as difficult to conclude — how do you know when you’re done?”

Still, the essay presents a unique opportunity to shine in a sea of GPA numbers, standardized testing scores, and the general laundry list drib-drab of college applications.

“The essay is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from the other thousands of applicants by making your voice heard and your personality shine,” said certified educational planner Laurie Kopp Weingarten, co-founder of One-Stop College Counseling in Marlboro, NJ.

Ahead, experts chime in with their top tips and what to avoid when crafting your college essay.

DO: Keep it focused

A picture of a male student working on an essay.
H&C Education CEO, Pierre Huguet, said the number one thing to keep in mind when writing a college essay is to remember the 650-word count.
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First of all, while you’ve probably heard that it’s a bad idea to write your college application essay about world peace, a sports game (or sports in general), a trip, the death of your pet rabbit, and so on, “the truth is that no topic is 100% off limits,” said Huguet. “Students have gotten into Harvard and Yale by writing about sports. I’ve seen excellent essays that fit into all the above categories. I’ve seen a good essay about a dead squirrel.”

Huguet said the No. 1 thing to keep in mind as you brainstorm essay topics is that you’ve only got 650 words max. “Make sure you’re not trying to tell your life story or giving long lists of your achievements,” he said. “Don’t try to emulate the coming-of-age novels you read in English class. Your college essay may be closer in form to the kind of story your charismatic friend tells at a party or confides to you at a diner at 1 a.m.”

Huguet illustrated his point by referencing a story about a loquacious buddy in a booth at Jackson Hole. Why? Because these are the kinds of stories that are generally both personal and also interesting. “When they are told well, they allow us to get close to the storyteller, to catch a glimpse of who he or she really is and how he or she sees the world,” he said.

DON’T: Use hackneyed platitudes

Most college applications ask “why this school?” and Kopp Weingarten said college applicants should avoid writing generic sentences when responding.

“Colleges want to know what specifically interests you about their college; they aren’t looking for vague generalities or for fluff,” she said. Examples that didn’t pass their sniff test include: “The opportunities at Lehigh University greatly align with my interests,”

“Dartmouth College creates an environment in which I can learn, grow and thrive,” “I know that attending Princeton University will provide me with the opportunity to broaden my horizons,” “Visiting the beautiful campus, I knew that Stanford University was my dream school,” “Due to the fact that it’s located in the best city in America, NYU will allow access to the most interesting internships and future career possibilities.”

As Kopp Weingarten put it, she can drop the name of countless colleges into these sentences, making it a bad writing choice.

DO: Pay attention to the tale you tell

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Huguet says that the best college essays show something meaningful about the applicant. “They show personality, qualities, and quirks.”
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Spend some time drumming up the right anecdote(s) for your essay. “Remember that your ideas are far more important than your style. The hard part is coming up with a great story to tell, so spend time brainstorming different ideas,” said Huguet, who added that once you know what you want to say, don’t worry about showing off your vocabulary (“use the right word, not the fanciest word”) and avoid overselling your story with hyperbole and bragging.

“You’ve written a winning essay when you are able to bring a reader into your compelling, authentic story,” echoed Kopp Weingarten, who noted that a captivating opening line that immediately grabs the reader can help on this front. She pulled two openings that adhered to that principle: “My family regularly welcomes strangers into our home,” and, “Have you ever been abandoned in the wilderness?”

DON’T: Merely state your point

You’ve probably heard it before, but it bears repeating: “Show, don’t tell.” Commit that to memory.

“It can bore the reader if you ‘tell’ the story, recounting fact after fact,” said Kopp Weingarten. “When you show what’s happening, you can engage the reader, helping them relate to what you’re experiencing,”

Huguet riffed on this sentiment, saying that the best college essays show something meaningful about the applicant. “They show personality — qualities, and quirks. The best college essays show these things — they don’t come right out and say them.”

Huguet illustrated this point with the example of an applicant’s essay hoping to show that she thinks outside the box. “If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, ‘and so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,’ she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet,” said Huguet. “Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the [desired] conclusions.”

Put another way: “Spelling out the moral of a well-told story is like explaining a joke to someone who’s already laughed at it.”

DO: Think small

You only have a page to get your point across; there’s no need to tell your whole life story.

“After finishing your essay, your reader won’t know you — not the whole you, anyway,” said Huguet. “Your job is to make your reader want to get to know you.”

Writing about seemingly mundane topics is fair game, too. “Terrific college essays have been written about breakfast routines, family TV-viewing rituals, and Dad’s driving habits,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean you can write about anything under the sun. “A great number of students decide simply to detail the various objects in their bedrooms on their college essays,” said Huguet, commenting that he strongly recommends against “inventorying the stuff in your room.”

Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning as they could only to you.

Huguet advised students to keep asking themselves: Could somebody else write this?
“If the answer is yes, keep coming up with ideas.”

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