1. Do… start early enough to allow for:
- Inspiration and introspection
- Revision (Most essays of 500-650 words require about four drafts)
- Feedback and valuable suggestions from family, teachers, mentors, coach
- Polishing and fine-tuning
2. Do… try to relax. Writing personal essays can be intimidating when you haven’t had much practice – especially these essays – but once you get going, you’re likely to find pleasure in the process.
3. Do… think strategically when you consider possible essay topics:
- Choose a topic that allows you to convey something they won’t already know from your transcript or list of extracurricular activities.
- Imagine an admissions officer reviewing the two-dimensional details on your transcript and think about what additional material will transform you into a multi-dimensional flesh-and-blood person.
- Choose something about which you feel animated, moved, or just genuinely excited. The feelings you have will register with your readers.
- Choose a topic that will allow you to reveal something below the surface, something essential about who you are.
4. Do… write in your natural, most authentic voice. Write thoughtfully and from your heart. Use your everyday language (this is not the place to show off your impressive vocabulary). Be honest. Be yourself. Be personal. Be real. The best essays are about the writer’s voice as much as they are about the topic.
5. Do… think about what most students might write in response to a particular prompt, and try approaching the topic a little differently. Definitely don’t use someone else’s essay as a template for your own. Be original.
6. Do… remember that sometimes a small, everyday subject is as likely to produce a revealing portrait as a peak experience. (A former student of mine wrote an amazing essay about her Hungarian grandmother’s blinis. Another wrote about always having to answer the family phone because she was the only one in her household who spoke English.)
7. Do… be careful to avoid tired topics unless they provide you something unusual and/or especially unique and important to say about yourself. Remember, lots of students write about:
- Wanting to “make a difference”
- An athletic event and/or the importance of teamwork
- Making a commitment to the environment
- A service trip abroad
- How lucky they are compared to other people/population
8. Do… be careful about taking on emotionally weighty topics like death, divorce, tragedy, trauma, physical illness or disability—unless you can control the material and use it effectively to illustrate something unique, compelling, and relevant about yourself. And at all costs, do not manufacture hardship—this approach often backfires.
9. Don’t…focus your essay primarily on a much younger version of you. Regardless of how cute you were in kindergarten, readers will be looking for evidence that you’re someone on the cusp of an independent life.
10.Don’t…write about controversial or inappropriate topics, like sex, drugs, political or religious views that might be perceived as extreme. You’ll also want to avoid negative, defensive, or blaming language.
11. Do… find a way to begin your essay with something strong, grabby and/or intriguing to pull readers in.
12. Don’t…rely on a gimmick; don’t write a poem instead of an essay, for example.
13. Do… focus your essay sharply on one potent theme; avoid writing an essay about so many things that the main message is murky.
14. Do… keep it short, tight, and to the point. Leave out the parts readers might wish they could skip.
15. Do… make sure you address the prompt. (It often helps to paste the prompt at the top of all your drafts so you can keep your eye on the ball.)
16. Do… reveal your genuine personality:
- If you’re writing about something lighthearted, make it fun (but never use humor inappropriately and never try to force a laugh).
- If you’re a serious person, write a serious essay.
17. Do… try to find ways to infuse your essay with examples, scenes, anecdotes, and concrete detail. Showing (versus telling) makes for a vivid essay, especially if you can appeal to all the senses, not just the visual.
18. Do… however, take an opportunity to reflect on the deeper and/or lasting meaning of your story.
19. Do… avoid writing only about abstract ideas. Avoid trying to impress with dry intellectualization.
20. Do… avoid using clichés. (Also, if you can, avoid the words passion, strive, countless, and plethora.)
21. Do… provide interesting variation in the structure and length of your sentences.
22. Do… experiment with active verbs and avoid passive sentence construction (ACTIVE: They speak English. PASSIVE: English is spoken). Also, avoid starting every sentence with “I…”.
23. Do… compose your essay using a word processing program, not directly into an online application. This will allow you to:
- Rewrite and revise until your essay is as perfect as you can make it
- Print copies for later review;
- Avoid losing your work when an online session times out.
24. Do… know and adhere to word-count limits.
25. Do… read your essay aloud so you can hear where the language isn’t flowing smoothly, or where punctuation
may be missing.
26. Do… proofread very carefully.
27. Do… try to approach this enterprise with an element of excitement and pleasure. After all, how many opportunities do you have to explore the life and share the inner workings of the one person in the universe you know better than anyone?