I don’t wade into the waters of college essays very often, but for those of you who are thinking about starting them or are already in the process of writing them, I’m going to offer some tips regarding things to avoid. 

While the most effective college essays do tend to share some general features (specific, stylistically varied, have a clear story arc, are unique to the writer), they come in so many different varieties that there is no real formula to writing one. For that reason, I find it difficult to prescribe a particular set of “do’s.”

Ineffective essays, on the other hand, tend to exhibit a much clearer set of characteristics.

So having said that, I’m going start with one very big cliché to avoid:

If you are considering writing about your trip to a third-world country and your amazing discovery of the fact that you are very privileged in comparison to the impoverished people you encountered there, please don’t. 

It’s likely that your shock and pity and desire to help were genuine, but the reality is that you probably didn’t save the world (or even make much of a difference), and it’s all been done before… again, and again, and again.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not get bonus points in the admissions process for (expensive) “community service” trips. Colleges wised up to that one years ago, and no admissions officer wants to read another one of those essays.

Yes, there are extremely rare exceptions in which an applicant manages to put a unique spin on this topic, but chances are you’ll end up sounding like everyone else.

And while I’m at it, here are some other ones.


-Write a sports or outward-bound essay that starts with some version of, Sweat poured down my face as I strained to reach the finish line… Along with the “third-world” essay, the “coming to America” essay,” and the “sports = life” essay, this is the cliché to end all college essay clichés.

-Try to score pity points. It is possible to write about family tragedies in a mature, reflective way – I’ve had several students who did so successfully – but you will not get in simply because an admissions committee feels sorry for you. Again, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have suffered to get noticed. 

But at the other extreme, don’t…

-Brag about your family’s connections, directly or indirectly. Boasting about your father “the CFO of a listed company” (real example) or the family friend who helped you land that really great internship or research job makes you look entitled and clueless.

-State that your experiences have made you more mature/sophisticated than your peers. You have no idea what some other people your age have experienced; keep the focus on your personal experiences, and don’t compare yourself.

-Bend over backwards trying to be poetic and literary. Writing that you consider the embodiment of your unique, personal style may in reality come off as wordy, vague, and confused. It’s good for your writing to have some stylistic flair, but admissions officers will probably not be impressed by your flowery language. If you’re not sure how your writing stacks up, run your essay past your guidance counselor or an English teacher. 

On the same theme, don’t…

-Pack your essay with 10-dollar words in an attempt to sound adult. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a couple of more sophisticated terms, but only if they are the precise words you need to describe that particular situation or experience. The best essays tend to sound like someone telling a story. Your writing should come across as natural, closer to speech than the type of language you’d use in an English paper. If people who know you can pick up your essay and say that it sounds just like you (albeit an edited, grammatically correct, well-organized version of you), you can be pretty sure you’re on the right track. 

-Use profanity

-Write about your drug problem, ADD, anxiety, depression, sexual experiences, or do anything else that would cause an admissions officer to seriously question your judgement. 

-Try so hard to be original that you end up being downright weird. The brother of a high school friend of mine wrote a stream-of-consciousness mess in which he mused about the pattern that the fabric on the seat of the family car left on his skin. Not only did he end up at his backup school, but more than 10 years later his family was still laughing about what a disaster that essay was. (Incidentally, his sister played it safe and got into Harvard.) 

The bottom line: Most essays are not staggeringly brilliant, and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, focus on talking about something that genuinely interests you. If your enthusiasm comes across, your readers are more likely to be enthusiastic too.