The Nine Commandments of College Application Essays


Joy Song

“It’s the purest part of the application…what colleges can’t see with grades and standardized tests”~The New York Times. 

The personal essay is vital to our college application because it’s the admissions committee’s way of getting to know the real you, the person behind the data on papers. The “Why _______ essay” is the other most common type of college essay, providing an opportunity for you to show how a specific school is a good fit. For juniors, spring is the best time to learn more about how to effectively write these essays for college applications. Randy Levin, who has an MA in English, was invited by our Parent Teacher Organization to talk about the top mistakes that students make on these college application essays.


Personal Essay

1. Write about yourself, not your academic achievements.

Like-minded people are going to apply to similar schools. Someone else may have the exact same achievements as you, so those accomplishments don’t necessarily make you unique. Also, don’t give your admission officer deja vu after reading your transcript and activities list. 

2. Use your vocabulary, not the thesaurus.

What 17-year-old uses “thus” or “henceforth” in their daily vocabulary? It’s okay to sound like yourself.

3. Metaphors are not necessary. 

You don’t need to show that your life is like the phases of the moon; the best topics are hidden in plain sight.

4. Show colleges something they wouldn’t know about you. 

Avoid these cliches: 1) I’m hardworking, ambitious, and driven. 2) I love to be challenged. 3) My peers often look to me for leadership. Colleges already expect you to be hardworking and driven. Not to mention, every other applicant is also claiming that they’re a leader, so be more specific in order to show an authentic part of yourself. 

5. Avoid writing about what you’re going to major in. 

Let’s say you want to major in chemistry. Your transcripts most likely show that you’ve taken AP Chemistry, and your resume might highlight an internship at a lab. Then your “why _______ school” essay is also about the resources offered in the college’s chemistry department. If you also write your personal essay about chemistry, it paints you as one-dimensional because there’s nothing else to you than your interest in chemistry. 

6. Be authentic.

Avoid cliche narratives like wanting to go into research so you can be part of a team that cures __. However, if you can add your authentic perspective to a topic, go for it. Admissions officers want to finish reading your essay smiling. As you read through the multitude of great essays online, I’m sure you will have that same experience.

7. Start with your main idea.

Don’t start your essay by repeating the prompt; get to the point. Additionally, don’t force an opening by relying on crutches like quotes, questions, or dialogue. Embrace authenticity.

8. Be positive.

These essays are your first impression. Don’t say you’re “forced” to do something, don’t talk down on other students, don’t criticize a teacher, don’t talk badly about your parents. Put your best foot forward.


The “Why _______” School Essay

9. Read the school’s website.

If you talk about a major the school doesn’t even offer, or your essay is so generic that you can replace the college’s name with another college, it reflects on how much you want to attend their school. Find something about the school that you can make a personal connection to, like their academics, internships, clubs, organizations, or traditions. For these essays, it is helpful to visit colleges because it can provide specific anecdotes for you to use.

Lastly, here are some pieces of advice that he ended with in his presentation:  

  1. Apply to approximately 10 schools. 12 is okay. More is overkill.
  2. Search up your name to observe your digital footprint; colleges will rescind admissions if they see anything inappropriate.
  3. Use a formal email address.

The essay has a 650 word limit on the common app; it’s safe to stay in the 500-600 word range.