Essays & Statements of Purpose

essays and statements of purpose dos and dontsAs part of the application process, some colleges may ask you to submit a brief essay or a "statement of purpose." Usually the essay assignment asks you to explain why you want to attend the school in question. Sometimes essays ask about your career goals. Occasionally, college essays are open-ended, meaning you can introduce yourself in any way that you like.

The purpose of application essays is twofold. For one thing, admissions committees want to make sure that you can write in a clear and organized way. For another thing, colleges like to ensure that their students have reasonable goals and expectations. If you can't clearly convey what you want to study and why, admissions committees may worry about your ability to follow through and graduate.

Still, the essay writing process should not make you nervous. If you give yourself plenty of time to prepare, revise, and get a few second opinions, you can produce a topnotch college essay.

Books have been written (lots of good ones, in fact) on the subject of strong, well-crafted essays. Since we can't teach essay-writing in a single article, we'll supply some important do's and don'ts. The following tips are all worth considering when you're drafting your essays for college.


  • Don't Get Cute — Candidates are often told that their essay is the place to come alive, and really introduce themselves beyond the facts and figures of a transcript. To whatever degree this advice is true, it's not an invitation to sound cavalier or flippant. Your tone should be conversational, while maintaining notes of polish and poise.
  • Don't Force a Metaphor — Creativity is great. And setting yourself apart from a stack of faceless applicants is always a good aim. But be careful not to frame your essay with an overly abstract concept. Metaphors should be subtle, and at the same time pertinent. You have a limited amount of space; don't sacrifice substance for two fluff paragraphs that compare your life to a salad bar or a trapeze act. Which brings us to…
  • Don't Exceed the Word Count — If you truly have a surplus of glowing achievements, then you're already in better shape than most applicants. Don't jeopardize your standing by force-feeding all 96 feats into a 500 word essay. Similarly, if you're worried that your application needs a boost by way of a great essay, extra length won't win you extra points.
  • Don't Ask Hypothetical Questions — Why would a person ask hypothetical questions in an essay? What purpose would that serve? Does an essay really need to chart the writer's thought process? Is anyone ever interested in reading about the stages of confusion? You get the idea. Hypothetical questions are annoying, and they make an essay sound like you haven't figured out what you're trying to say.
  • Don't Include the Definition of Anything — Sorry to rain on your quotation parade, but other people have used this trick before. A lot, in fact. Definition openings sound prepackaged and phony. Even if an essay question asks you to discuss "innovation," for example, or your understanding of what it means to be a "teacher," don't waste space by spitting back the literal, dictionary entry.


  • Start With an Outline — Make a blueprint of your essay before you start writing. Five paragraphs is a good length to shoot for, since most applications limit you to about 500 words. Carve out 3 distinct points that you'd like to address. These points should answer the question being asked. For example, if the application asks you to explain why you want to attend XYZ University, you need to identify 3 solid reasons. Then, write 3 distinct paragraphs that explain those reasons. Finally, frame your 3 paragraphs — at the beginning and the end — with an introduction and a conclusion.
  • Start Your Paragraphs with Clear, Topic Sentences — A topic sentence cues readers into what the next paragraph will discuss. If you start with a clear topic sentence, readers will be able to follow your line of thinking, and you'll be better prepared to stay on point. Good topic sentences include lines like: I have always been fascinated by science. My high school job as a camp counselor got me interested in teaching.
  • Use Periods — Some students try to jazz up their writing by lengthening their sentences with extra clauses and commas. Remember that "more complex" does not equal "more intelligent." In fact, run-on sentences and rambling ideas are the opposite of impressive. Don't be afraid to write in simple, straightforward sentences. When in doubt, use a period, and start a fresh sentence.
  • Use a Thesaurus — The Internet offers some great tools, including writer's resources. If you find that your essay repeats the same phrase/adjective over and over again (e.g. "I like" or "important"), find an appropriate alternative. Just be careful that you don't select a synonym that is too fancy — one that doesn't match the tone of your writing. If you wouldn't use the word in your natural conversation, you probably shouldn't use it in your essay.
  • Write Several Drafts — Your first draft is never your best work. There's always room for improvement! Don't try to write your essay in one day, either. You'll achieve better results if you look at your work with fresh eyes, after a good night's sleep.
  • Ask Friends and Family Members to Proof Read Your Work — Your own writing is a hard thing to judge. You already know exactly what you're trying to say, so it usually seems pretty good. Other readers can tell you if your points are actually translating on the page. If friends and family are confused or unconvinced by what you've written, there's a good chance that admissions committees will be confused too.
  • Pay Attention to Details — If you're not sure about a spelling or a word choice, look it up! Do not rely on your computer's spell-check to catch all your typos and grammar mistakes! Many words can be spelled 2 or 3 different ways (e.g. to, too, two; there, their.) Spell-check doesn't correct you if you're using an incorrect alternative. This sounds nitpicky, but it's a good habit to adopt before your start writing college papers and reports.

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