Dos and Don’ts for the College Admission Essay

By Huntington Learning Center

You’ve heard before that the admission essay can give your teen’s college application a boost, and it’s true. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2019 State of College Admission report, grades and academic achievement are at the top of the list of factors that college admission teams consider when evaluating candidates. But the next highest on the list: the admission essay. 

How can your teen make the admission essay the best it can be? Here are a few dos and don’ts: 

Do be real. Your teen should think of the essay as an opportunity to speak directly to someone at the college or university to which they are applying. It’s appropriate to be authentic in sharing any events that have shaped your teen, obstacles encountered, and passions that are guiding your teen’s choices in major and college. Remind your teen: genuine is best. 

Don’t get too personal. Life has its ups and downs, and perhaps your teen has encountered difficult times that have been transformational. The best approach to the essay is to be sincere in sharing a meaningful experience, passion or interest, while keeping in mind that this is not the place to share anything traumatic or overly graphic or sad. 

Do use the essay space wisely. On some applications, your teen might get as little as a few hundred words for the essay. It’s smart to use this space to reveal something to the admission officer at the college that would not be obvious throughout the rest of the application. In other words, your teen should avoid repeating the resume or listing off accomplishments like the GPA and test scores. 

Don’t be generic. Using that essay space wisely also means your teen should strive to create an essay that is interesting and compelling and sounds distinctly like your teen. So, your teen should answer an essay prompt with a good story or poignant memory that includes vivid details and descriptions. They should not submit an essay that sounds like it could have been written by 1,000 other students. 

Do follow best practices for writing the essay. The best essays are well planned. Discourage your teen from diving into the essay without any forethought. Ideally, that plan should include these steps: 

  • Create a timeline of drafts, reviews (by a teacher), revisions, and proofreading.
  • Develop an outline with a clear introduction that addresses the prompt, a compelling middle with poignant details, and a conclusion.
  • Write a first draft with the detailed outline on hand. 

Don’t skip the most important step: editing! The essay needs to address the prompt provided by the college or university, of course. But have your teen review the essay to ensure it grabs the reader’s attention, flows well, stays on topic, includes descriptive details, and makes the most of every word. The essay should share your teen’s story through action and compelling language (The oars through the water every morning quieted my mind and inspired me to look inward to set goals for my future), not just by telling (Being on the rowing team was fun and motivating for me). 

Do have a teacher review. A vital step is having an outside reviewer read the essay. For most students, a teacher (or even better, a favorite English or writing teacher) makes sense, but your teen might choose a guidance counselor or family friend. While you’re welcome to give input too, encourage your teen to have someone outside of your household review. 

Don’t send that essay off without a final proofread. After writing, reviewing, editing, sharing with a teacher, and revising to create what feels like a final draft (and possibly repeating a couple of those steps), your teen should make sure to do a final proofread for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. 

The college admission essay is your teen’s chance to make an impression on colleges that goes beyond what the academic transcript says. Encourage your teen to take advantage by crafting something great. And if your teen needs help, contact Huntington. We will help your teen hone those writing skills for high school, the college admission essay, and college.


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