Here is your foot. Don’t put it in your mouth. Don’t shoot it. No Plaxico jokes, please. Shmoop is here to help save you from essay jail.
1. Edge is good but don't be offensive. Maybe it’s a fine line – but we would completely understand if you had an aversion to “nice” people (who play nice but really aren’t) and “nice” phrasings (which are masking how you REALLY feel) and vanilla ice cream. But in this case, there isn’t much upside to having lots of edge – and there may be a lot of downside. You don't know who will be reading your application. Disparaging comments about people of diverse religions, racial backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, and political viewpoints is usually just a bad way to go. Also, be aware that colleges are looking for students who will be respectful of other students and professors of diverse backgrounds. Long story short: don't sound like a jerk or a bigot or some angry narrow-minded loser.
2. Avoid controversial political topics. Why? Like… don’t you think Republicans and Democrats will be reading your essay? So why even go there? Maybe if there is some deeply personal (and relevant) issue brought about by an edgy political issue – healthcare policy, immigration, privacy protection, etc. – then yeah. That can make for a compelling essay if the politics have shaped you. But you’re a kid. You don’t know squat yet about how the world really works so why would you opine on things that really are beyond your grasp? You’ll just sound arrogant and ignorant – dangerous combo on a college app.
3. Steer clear of negativity. Negative Nancy out. Nice Nancy in. Lots of people have been through rough patches in life. Parents getting divorced. Physical injury. Poverty. Life challenges can be good subjects for college essays. However, if you aren't yet able to write about a topic in a mature, positive way that shows your growth, then punt. Writing about not being able to have your own car at 16 is really not hardship and if you focus on “challenges” that aren’t really challenges, you’ll just come across as angry or whiney. Not exactly the primary impression you want to leave in the mind of an admission officer.
4. Beware of the overshare. There's a difference between being personal (good) and major TMI (not good). Going to the bathroom, sex, open festering wounds… ewww. You don't want the admission officer reading your app to walk away feeling nauseous or blushing madly. Imagine that you're going to be admitted to the school you're applying to. On your first day on campus, if you met your admission officer face to face, would you be embarrassed by what you wrote in your essay? If so, then you're oversharing. Though writing your essay on your home computer may feel like an anonymous experience, it's not. A real person is reading it. And some details of your personal life should stay personal.
5. Don't disparage the school to which you are applying . Busting out and telling the admission officer that you consider their college a "safety school"? Bad idea.
6. Beware of being “too creative”. Writing your own sonnet may seem clever and original but – assuming you are not quite Shakespeare reincarnated – this is a dangerous move. Admission officers have seen tons of bad poetry. Plus, your sonnet probably doesn't say as much about you as six solid paragraphs of prose could. If you want your essay to stand out, try channeling your creative writing side into adding a solid anecdote or even bits of dialogue. You are trying to show who you are – at the minimum, be intimate. Be real.
7. Don't be arrogant. Writing about yourself is hard. You want to highlight your strengths, but don't do it at the expense of other people (like your peers). If you disparage your classmates or teachers, you can leave a bad impression. Pounding on your chest like an NFL wide receiver who just scored a touchdown won’t sell here.
8. Make sure you actually answer the essay prompt. Duh. Obvious. But you’d be amazed how many students blow this. University admissions officers have two words for these students: “Junior College.”
9. Don’t write too little. Fill the page. Kiss the edge of the word limit. If you write too little, it will look like you don't care. No college wants to admit a student who seems uninterested or uncommitted. You will have missed an opportunity to tell the admissions office something important about yourself.
10. Remember what your English teacher taught you. Spelling and grammar mistakes are the work of the devil. Use proper spelling (no txt lingo or lolcats, okthxbai and no a in lmao). Write in paragraph form instead of dumping one big, fat blob of unreadable text onto a page. (Unless you aspire to James Joyce and have already won the Nobel Prize in literature.) Don't use profanity. Watch out for slang that the reader might not understand, dude.
11. Don't spell the name of the college wrong. People spell Shmoop with a "c" ("Schmoop") all the time, and it hurts our feelings. Actually, we just dump their resume in the trash folder. If you spell a college's name wrong, they'll think you're not that interested, don’t care, are sloppy. Similarly, if you are using the same essay for multiple schools, make sure you are using the right school's name. The folks at Oregon State aren't going to be real impressed if your essay talks about how stoked you are to become a Bruin.