William and Mary

W&M Blogs

Admission Committee
Admit It!

True Confessions from W&M's Admission Officers

About  Posts

Some Dos and Don’ts of Writing a College Essay

December 16, 2008 by

Reading season is on baby!  While we haven’t quite yet hit our maximum reading load (read 150 applications a week) we might as well be (currently assigned to 125 applications per week).  So in the past few weeks I’ve read nearly 300 applications and I am once again reminded why essays can be the most awesome or the most tedious part of the read.  I also realize that it is crunch time for those readers who are high school seniors and those essays need to be finished and submitted.  So here are a few quick pointers to consider when composing your application essay.

  1. DO NOT write about someone else.  This is not an essay, it’s a personal statement.  You may be able to compose a wonderfully eloquent essay about your grandfather or sibling or best friend or teacher (or insert any other person not you in the blank) and at the end of reading it, I may want to admit your grandfather (sibling, best friend, teacher) but I haven’t learned anything new about you; YOU ARE THE APPLICANT! If you think about the composition as a personal statement chances are you will be writing about yourself and that will make for a far more interesting (or at least applicable) read.
  2. DO take a risk.  Admittedly it may not pay off but those that do pay off in remarkable ways.  Today I read a gritty, dark, and brooding essay about a very racy and even scandalous event in a young woman’s life but the essay was amazing, fantastic, awesome and the gutsiness of it added to its brilliance.
  3. DO NOT forget that your personal statement should have flow.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve written disjointed on an application essay review so far.  When the first paragraph talks about your personal appearance and the next one talks about your love of reading and the next one talks about your loyalty that personal statement is likely annoying to read.
  4. DO proofread.  Are we going through your personal statements with a red pen?  No.  Are we indicating to our colleagues that you have made grammatical errors?  Yes.
  5. DO NOT feel compelled to tackle a big topic.  DO NOT feel like you have to condense your 17 or 18 years into 500 words.  DO choose a topic that is small and uniquely you.  Today I read an essay about the street on which an applicant grew up.  Not a monstrous topic to tackle.  And through reading it I learned about him, his family, his culture, and his upbringing.  And it was that essay in fact that made me advocate for a student that might otherwise receive a less positive vote.
  6. DO avoid being cliche.  Believe me, we know that going abroad changed your worldview and made you more open to diversity.  We know that indigent and downtrodden people can be good and happy people and we know that you learned that lesson on a mission or service trip.  We know that when an injury prevented you from participating on your sports team your senior year you learned the value of teamwork and cheerleading.  If I can tell you what the rest of your essay says after reading the first paragraph, that’s not a good sign.
  7. DO NOT feel restricted to the typical five-paragraph essay.  DO experiment with style, theme, and voice.
  8. DO remember that this is only one component of many.  DO NOT succumb to undo self-induced pressure to write the next great American novel or the first Pulitzer-prize winning college application essay.
  9. DO NOT write an essay that hundreds of other applicants could write.  At age 17 or 18 many of your experiences are similar (death of a grandparent, first time abroad, exposure to diversity, etc).  DO pick a topic that is uniquely you and DO realize that I know this is easier for me to say than for you to do.  DO browse a few of my previous blogs if you need further assistance or inspiration (yes that was a shameful plug).
  10. Finally, DO use your own voice to tell us a story.  DO make us laugh (but only if you’re funny).  DO make us cry (but only if it’s subtle and not a glaring attempt to get sympathy).  DO show us some effort (I promise we can tell when your personal statement or optional essay was an after-thought).  DO show us who you are and inspire us to admit you (after all that’s the desired result right?).

- Wendy Livingston

2 Comments

  • Alisann Marshall says:

    I just read your blog, “Some Dos and Don’ts of Writing a College Essay.”
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    My daughter has been going through a nerve-wracking experience and you’ve just answered many questions. She composed a thoughtful essay and showed it to the assigned college prep advisor. The advisor told her to, “Start over! Do not think about exceeding one word beyond 500 words,” and proceeded to outline a cookie cutter formula. AAAUGH! My daughter’s instincts and interests are leading her to apply first to William and Mary, a school that understands doing things in a NON cookie-cutter fashion.
    After she reads the blog, I expect she will feel better about taking a chance submitting an essay which reveals more about herself than a formula. Her double-spaced essay fits on two pages. Does this length sound ok to you?
    Essays Unplugged! I love it.
    We’ve been encouraging her to go with her gut, but “Admit It!” really helps. Keep up the good work and happy reading!

  • Wendy Livingston says:

    As you can see, several deans have written blogs about college essay writing and we hope they’re helpful to prospective students and families. Feel free to check them out and if anyone else has any questions about essay writing, just let us know.