The Crazy Scary Admissions Essay

As any good writer will tell you, the hardest part of writing is getting started. Whether it’s a poem, a letter, a magazine article or the dreaded college admissions essay, even experienced writers sometimes get stuck. But the truth is, it’s not all that difficult if you know how to start.

I always begin with a tip I learned years ago: start tapping on the keyboard and keep your fingers moving. The goal of this exercise is not to write anything which makes sense or in any order – it’s just to get some words in the document. Doctors know there’s something about rhythmic tapping that helps relax the mind and the muscles. Before you get started on your college admissions essay, try tapping on the keyboard for about 7-10 minutes, then finish off with a couple of deep shoulder shrugs to release any lingering tension.

The Application Process

Typically, a team of volunteer alumni reviews and scores admissions essays before passing on recommendations which are considered and weighed against thousands of others. Essay formats vary between schools; some have one question, others up to five. Responses are scored based upon how fully the question is answered (see example below). This process is confidential and only reviewers and university staff see the scores.   

Essay score example: Answers are complete and reflect an understanding of the question (5 points) OR Answers are incomplete and reflect no understanding of the question (0 points). 

Top Do’s and Don’ts

  1. DO follow the instructions precisely. Don’t skip over a single line, or you risk missing vital information which could impact your application status.
  2. DO stick to the indicated word limit. There’s a formula that allows for easy counting. Exceed the set limit and your essay could be tossed for not following instructions.
  3. DON’T plagiarize or use uncredited quotes. It is not expected that incoming freshmen will use university-level English, so be comfortable writing at your level. If it’s suspected your essay contains uncredited quotes, it will be forwarded to the admissions office for immediate disqualification. There’s no getting past reviewers who routinely check for plagiarism.
  4. DON’T use credited quotes from any source in your essay. Even if you were inspired by a notable historical figure. This is your story. Let someone else be inspired by long-dead guys.
  5. DON’T ask someone else to write your essay. Doing so is grounds for immediate disqualification. It’s easy to discern the work of a young student versus that of an experienced writer.
  6. DO check out more than one source to make the process easier for you. recommends you begin your essay with a compelling introduction. With so many applications to review, a vivid line or two will keep readers engaged. This is where your lived experiences matter. Your job is to catch the reader’s attention and provide insight to help admission officers get to know you.
  7. DO be yourself when writing and use your own words. Teachers and advisers will encourage you to check out examples of great essays for inspiration. This may sound like a good idea but you risk being overly influenced by other essays in your rush to impress school officials.
  8. DO share how you see the world. A college admissions essay is a glimpse into your world and how your mind works. You want to be credible so make sure everything you write (a) answers the questions and (b) supports your point of view.  
  9. DO include specific details each time you express an idea. Include specific examples to develop your ideas. Share examples of your personal experiences and write about what truly motivates you and how you developed your beliefs.
  10. DO set yourself apart. There are thousands of students applying to your chosen university. You’ve got to distinguish yourself. Re-read your essay, delete all the phrases that sound cliché or echo someone else’s words. Then work to find an original angle.
  11. DO proofread your essay and have someone other than family or friends proofread it as well. Family and friends are too close to you and may miss  misspelled or absent words. After it’s been proofread, read it aloud and make any necessary changes. Then ask for another proofread.
  12. DON’T rely on spell check or other online editing apps to catch your spelling errors. How you weather the process depends upon whether there are others who lend their expertise to your endeavors. Don’t wait to see if they’re helpful; you’re on your own!   

While the college application process may seem daunting, take time to congratulate yourself for getting this far. You’re following in the footsteps of millions of others but your journey is unique. Have fun along the way. And remember, now and then, appreciate how far you’ve come and be kind to yourself.  

Explore post-high school options, including college, the military and vocational training as well as application deadlines, scholarship and grant opportunities in our College Ready, Career Prepared guide.


Valarie Edwards is the assistant editor for Fostering Families Today. She and her sisters spent nearly a dozen years in foster care. Nominated for an Emmy and the recipient of numerous journalism awards, Edwards is an alum of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.