The One Thing Not To Do On A College Essay


The hardest part of writing a college essay is staring at a blank Google Doc with no idea how to start. How are you supposed to cram 18 years of your life into 500 words? How do you write something memorable that will also make you look impressive? To be honest, there’s no magic formula. Each student has unique experiences, so a great college essay demonstrates this uniqueness in much the same way a fingerprint does.

Don’t Describe Yourself

So without a magic formula that tells you exactly what to do on a college essay, it’s all the more important to understand what you shouldn’t do. The biggest thing to avoid on any essay, whether you’re writing 650 words or 50 words, is describing yourself. Now, that may seem counterintuitive, but here’s what we mean: don’t simply list a bunch of adjectives to describe yourself. You might very well be hard-working, determined, and compassionate, but if all you do is list those words, a college doesn’t have a better understanding of who you are as a person. Anyone can list a bunch of adjectives, so adjectives alone won’t help you create that fingerprint.

Show Don’t Tell

So what do you do instead? You’ve probably heard your English teacher use the phrase “show don’t tell.” This goes hand in hand with another English teacher classic, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” While both of these are a little cheesy, they’re completely true when it comes to college essays. Your goal should be to paint a picture that gives the admissions officer a clear image of who you are, what you care about, and how you might fit into the college community. Don’t say, “I’m determined.” Say, “I started with an 18 on the ACT, but I did all the practice tests I could get my hands on and eventually went up to a 28.”

Think about it like this – suppose I show you a picture of a stranger for 5 seconds and then show you a list of adjectives describing that stranger for 5 seconds. Which one are you more likely to remember if I ask you about that stranger 30 minutes later? What about 3 days later? I’m willing to bet that all of you will remember the picture over the adjectives, so keep that in mind when you’re staring at your blank doc. You’re much better off telling a true, unique story about yourself than you are spending 30 minutes on trying to find the most impressive adjectives.