7 things students should never write in an application essay

Admissions counselors have to read dozens of essays from prospective students, so if a student wants to make their essay stand out, they should abide by some simple rules, writes Rachel Toor for the New York Times.

As a creative writing professor at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Toor grapples with the conventions of storytelling for a living. Her book, Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay is being released soon.

Toor advises students to first and foremost picture themselves in the setting where their college application essay might be read: a room crammed with tired admissions staff and a few agitated faculty sitting around a large table covered with papers, coffee, and junk food.

Administrators are so bored by reading similar essays over and over that students should aim to give readers "something to be excited about," Toor argues. She suggests several tips for students to help their essays stand out.

First, Toor identifies four things students should include in essays:

  1. A personal reflection about something that matters most to them;
  2. Nuanced perspectives and conflicting emotions;
  3. A lesson learned from a significant failure; and
  4. Onomatopoeia can make an essay Pop!—literally.

Toor also identifies seven things students should avoid in essays:

1: Repeating the essay question

The admissions office wrote the essay prompt, so they know what's in it, notes Toor. Instead of starting the essay with, "One of my biggest achievements is becoming a Math Olympiad," she recommends students should rephrase to: "As I trained for the Math Olympiad..."

2: Definitions

Students should assume the reader knows what the words mean. They should never begin a sentence with, "According to Webster's Dictionary...," or anything of the like, Toor writes.

3: Excessive quotations

Many students try to spice up with essays with a quote. But most essays have strict word count constraints, so students shouldn't use their limited space for someone else's ideas, Toor argues.

4: The present tense

When telling a story in their essays, Toor advises students to always write in the past tense. While the present tense might seem more exciting, Toor argues that it doesn't let students reflect on lessons learned.

5: Common phrases

It's true that, as writers, we inadvertently steal phrases from other places, writes Toor. But as much as possible, she argues, students should avoid using cliché phrases. Instead, express the thought that the cliché is trying to get across for you, she adds.

6: Too many words of any kind

A great way for students to trim the word count in their essay is to get rid of "to be" verbs, writes Toor. She uses an example: Instead of writing "The essay was written by a student," someone could write "The student's essay…"

7: Repetition

Lots of phrases are redundant and simply take up space, writes Toor. For example, in the phrases, "free gifts, personal beliefs, final outcome, and very unique," the second word in each case is really all we need.

According to Toor, one of the most important takeaways for students is that they can ignore some of their English lessons. Many students have learned archaic rules in English class, such as that they should avoid contractions, never end a sentence on a preposition, and shouldn't begin with a conjunction. While these rules provide a good foundation in grammar when you're first starting out, Toor notes that the rules are intentionally broken by the greatest authors, so students should feel empowered to occasionally break them too (Toor, New York Times, 8/2). 

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