Essay Writing Checklist

Many colleges require applicants to submit an essay.  This is a great chance to tell admissions officers what makes you special. But it is also an opportunity for them to make sure you know how to write.

Of course, every essay is different. But here are some general ideas.


Talk about yourself personally.
The admission counselors want to learn things about you that they can’t find out by reading your application or resume. And they want to see whether you can write well.


Use real-life anecdotes and tell real-life stories.
This will ring true to the reader. Put the reader in a scene or setting. Set time, place, tone, tension. The main essay for the Common App must be 250-650 words, so look for a “small” but meaningful story to tell.


Be conversational.
Try for a relaxed, personal storytelling style. As you’re writing, read parts out loud. This is important as it will help you determine whether your writing is informal, colloquial, and easy to read. (There are obvious exceptions to the conversational writing style depending on the subject matter.)


Show me, don’t tell me.
This means that you should use meaningful details. Don’t just tell me that you love working with children. Show me how you do: by volunteering at the local day camp every summer and teaching kids to play soccer; by babysitting for kids and keeping their cute notes (cite example) tacked to your bulletin board; etc.


Dialogue is great. Quotes are great.
They help you tell the story.


Use humor, if applicable.
If the topic allows for it, humor makes your essay fun to read. Self-deprecating humor can be a wonderful thing.


Keep word or character count requirements in mind.
But you can always edit to fit later, so don’t worry about writing exactly to fit in early drafts.


Spell check!
But don’t rely on spell check, which only picks up misspellings. Proofread very carefully. And use your dictionary and thesaurus.


Some simple structural rules:

  • Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs.
  • Don’t start too many sentences with the word “I.” And don’t start too many sentences or paragraphs with the same word such as “the” or with similar phrases.
  • Use active verbs instead of passive whenever possible. The active voice livens your writing.
  • When you reread your essay, try to notice whether you keep using the same words over and over – and then change them! The thesaurus helps here.

Thanks to Patrice Mitchell of Essay Editing Edge, Pittsford, for contributing to this page.