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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 11/ 3/2009

Question 2: What should students NEVER write in their essay?

By Valerie Strauss

What should students NEVER write about in their essays?

Henry Broaddus
Dean of admission
College of William & Mary, VA

Never write about anything you would reasonably expect other 17- year-olds to be writing about commonly, such as the first time you fell in love or the first time you lost a grandparent, unless you can do so in a way that reveals distinctive insights about yourself. No matter what the topic, you’re ultimately the subject.

Eileen Brangan Mell
Director of Public Relations
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA

It probably won’t help their cause to share any homicidal tendencies. Other than that, I would caution students from writing about topics of global importance like nuclear proliferation or climate change unless you can speak to your personal involvement in the issue. My general advice to students is to write an essay that no one else can write, whether it means talking about your part-time job at a Mediterranean market, or your father’s never-ending stream of home improvement projects, or your first experience scuba diving.

Sundar Kumarasamy
Vice president of enrollment management
University of Dayton, OH

[Regarding the term “brutally honest”:] That may mean a different thing to a 17-year-old than to an admissions person; we don’t want to hear about the stupid things they’ve done as a kid. I would instead encourage them to be more authentic and more courageous about their experiences.... Transformative moments are those experiences that take you to a new place, to a new reality. They are more final and deeper. When a student talks about change, they often only talk about only one part of themselves that changed.

Angel B. Perez
Director of Admission
Pitzer College

Most students approach the essay writing process the wrong way. They worry about what Admission Directors want to hear versus telling us what they have to say.
Well here’s the thing - there isn’t a magic story we want to hear. We are interested in the student’s voice, and the students experiences. Many kids worry that they don’t have enough to say but some of the most extraordinary essays I’ve read have been about ordinary, everyday experiences. It’s how a student writes about it (and the impact of that experience) that makes the difference.... One of my favorite essays in last year’s applicant pool was about a young man who worked at a coffee shop. Most people would find this experience ordinary, but what he learned from that job (and the way in which he described it!) was so extraordinary, that I was jumping out of my chair with joy when I read it. I had to pass it around my office for others to read!

Ken Huus
Dean of Admissions
Sweet Briar College, VA

Never write about something you haven’t told someone else. Again, an application essay is not "therapy." It’s important to use this opportunity to communicate something about who you are as an applicant, but it’s not the time to reveal your deepest, most personal secret.

Erika Vardaro
Director of Undergraduate Admission
Bentley University, MA

We do see many essays related to a deceased family member or scoring the winning goal. Students should avoid just telling us the story of how the death occurred or how the goal was scored. They need to share more about themselves, what they learned from the situation and how that occurrence shapes their future. Overall, I would say that there’s no one topic that students should “never” write about. It’s how they write about it.


Christine Mica
Dean of University Admissions
The Catholic University of America

I am not sure I have a “never” write about topic. If the student feels it is relevant and important, then anything goes. That is why we ask essay questions- to see how students answer them! The one thing I do believe is the student should answer the question. If the student forces a topic of importance to them, but does not answer the question, then that is a problem.

Gail Glover
Senior Director of Media, Public relations
Binghamton University

We just sent out e-tips on writing essays and had over 10,000 students check them out. Top tips include:
*Narrow your focus – get your idea down to a single point and be concise.
*Say something new to stand out in the crowd. This is a chance to express your personality.
*Don’t list all of your activities, we already have them
*Tell an interesting story – be expressive and descriptive

By Valerie Strauss  | November 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  College admissions, filling out the application  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Question 1: How to write the college application essay?
Next: Question 3: Do colleges want well-rounded students or those with a passion?

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