Dos and don'ts of the application essay

By Ashleigh Viveiros


In addition to your application form, transcript, letters of reference, and maybe even a portfolio, one other thing you may be asked to submit when applying to a post-secondary program is an essay.

Generally, schools that ask for an essay are looking to get to know a bit more about you as a person, since your GPA really can't tell the whole story on its own. Since an awesome application essay can really make the difference between acceptance and rejection, it's important to get it right.

So, here are a few dos and don'ts of application essay writing:



  • Start early. This is one essay you can't just polish off the night before and hope it's 'good enough'. Give yourself lots of time to write and rewrite it, as well as to get feedback from a teacher or guidance counsellor.


  • Answer the question, if you're given one. A school may give you a very specific question (what made you decide to enter this particular course of study?), or a very broad one (tell us about yourself), either way, make sure your final product gives them what they're asking for.


  • Follow the guidelines. Don't give them a 10-page essay when all they ask for is 500 words; no matter how good it might be, it won't endear you to the person who has to read it (if they even bother to get past the first few pages).


  • Write an intriguing introduction and follow through on it. Basically, hook 'em early so they want to keep reading, and then make sure you deliver the goods. Don't set anything up in your intro that you don't intend to elaborate on later, or else you run the risk of not only annoying your reader, but also coming off as a bit scatterbrained.


  • Be yourself. The whole point of an application essay is to let them get to know you, so let your own voice shine through your writing. If you're a funny person, than put some humour in there (but don't go overboard, you're not applying to be a stand-up comic). If you're passionate about something, let it come through in how you write about it. Don't try to come up with an alternate persona - one you think has a better chance of getting in. An astute reader will see right through you.


  • Be memorable/unique/creative. Creative essays stand out, and having your essay positively stand out in the mind of the admissions officer (who has to read dozens of other essays) is a very good thing. It will put some life into your essay, help paint a clearer picture of the kind of person you are, and show you can think outside the box.


  • Show, don't tell. Don't just write that you want to be a teacher because you love helping kids, really demonstrate that interest by describing the rush you got when you helped your little brother learn to read, or when you taught arts and crafts at summer camp. A well written explanation of the pivotal moments in your life that have helped create the person you are (or want to become) will leave a much stronger impression than just boringly spouting off the same generic things that anyone else could have written. Leave them with the sense that they now know who you are, and what makes you tick.


  • Proofread. This is your first impression - make it a good one. Read through each draft of your essay for spelling, grammatical errors, and awkward sentences, and fix them all. Then get someone else to read through it for anything you may have missed. Nothing kills an essay faster than having it look like you couldn't take the time and effort to do it well.



  • Recycle essays. Generally, you want to tailor your admissions essay to each individual program. That doesn't mean, though, that you can't reuse large chunks of stuff used in other essays, as long as they're all addressing the same personal topic. But try to make sure it doesn't feel like the piece was written for an entirely different program.


  • Rehash what's already in your transcript/application. The essay is a chance to elaborate on your relevant achievements and goals and to demonstrate why those things make you a good potential student - not to simply list items they can easily find elsewhere in your application. Avoid bragging about a high mark in a high school course, unless there's an interesting story to go behind it (maybe you overcame a learning disorder to earn the top mark in your class). And don't just restate all your extra-curricular involvements - instead, pick the one or two that really meant something to you, that made you a better person, and then explain why/how.


  • Make up or exaggerate your achievements. Again, stick with what you know and be yourself. No school wants a 'poser'.


  • Be too slangy. You want your voice to shine through, but still avoid using too many slang words, or, if you must, use them sparingly and with good purpose. This will make your paper seem more polished. Similarly, though, don't try to stick a bunch of long words in there when simpler words will do - you'll just seem pretentious.


  • Be too modest. This is your chance to toot your own horn. Tell them why you are the perfect student for the program. Show them you can succeed. You don't want to come off as an overconfident jerk, but the 'aw shucks' mentality won't get you very far when there's only a handful of spots for hundreds of applicants.


  • Send it in late. Miss the deadline, and your chances of recovering from it are incredibly slim. If there were some amazing extenuating circumstances (a major illness, a death of an immediate family member), you might find some sympathy from the admissions office. But for your run-of-the-mill forgetfulness - forget it. Just get it in on time.
Modified on April 23, 2009