Essay Tips

There are typically 4 different types of essays:

  • The personal statement
  • Your favorite activity
  • Why do you want to go to this college
  • A question on intellectual development

Essay’s should be:

  • Fun
  • Free form writing
  • Journal entry
  • Narrative

Brainstorming for your essay

  • Read the essay prompt and understand what it is really asking for. Focus on key words such as contribution, challenge, diversity or accomplishment
  • Write down what comes into your head, don’t second guess yourself and don’t censor
  • If you get stuck, take a break and return later in the day or even the next day
  • Revisit your ideas and something will probably jump out at you and say this is going to be my essay topic
  • Find a thinking partner to “bounce” ideas off of.
  • Outlining
  • Develop a great and catchy opening statement

Eleven essay mistakes to avoid

  1. Don’t be offensive. Hey, we get that it’s hip to be edgy. We’re with it. But watch that you don’t overstep the bounds of good taste in your essay when ruminating on faith, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or politics.
  2. Avoid controversial political topics. You’re in the Tea Party. The admissions officer is a communist. Step back, everyone, this could get ugly.
  3. Don’t be negative. It’s not okay to talk about your dead dog in your college essay, unless Fido’s death spurred you into caring about the plight of homeless animals so much that you felt compelled to start your city’s first animal shelter.
  4. Beware the overshare. There are some things that the admissions office does not need, or want, to know.
  5. Don’t disparage the school you’re applying to. You’re trying to get in, right?
  6. Don’t be “too creative. ”The admissions office at Vanderbilt is looking for a solid, real, interesting piece of prose, not a Shakespearean sonnet.
  7. Don’t be arrogant. Highlight your strengths in your essay, but not at the expense of others.
  8. Answer the essay prompt. We’ve discussed this before, but it’s another one of those things we can’t say often enough, rather like “Brush your teeth twice a day” and “Milk belongs in the fridge, not on the counter.”
  9. Don’t write too little. There’s a word limit attached to your essay, which means that the admissions office thinks you’ll have at least that much to say about their prompt.
  10. Remember what your English teacher taught you. Check for spelling and grammar errors, write in paragraph form, and don’t use profanity.
  11. Don’t spell the name of the college incorrectly.


SAT, ACT, both, neither? Most colleges accept SAT or ACT scores, so you may wonder if you should take the SAT, ACT or both exams. On the flip side, you may find that if you take the ACT, you still need to take SAT subject tests.

The SAT was designed as an aptitude test — it tests your reasoning and verbal abilities, not what you’ve learned in school. In fact, the SAT was supposed to be a test that one could not study for — studying does not change one’s aptitude. The ACT, on the other hand, is an achievement test. It is meant to test what you have learned in school. However, this distinction between “aptitude” and “achievement” is dubious. There’s concrete evidence showing that you can study for the SAT, and as the tests have evolved, they have come to look more and more like each other.

Many students score similarly on the ACT and SAT. However, the tests do assess different information and problem solving skills, so it’s not unusual to do better on one exam than the other. Key exam differences are outlined below.

Length 3 hours, 45 minutes 3 hours, 25 minutes (includes optional Writing Test): English, Math, Reading, Science, Writing
Sections 10 Sections: 3 Critical Reading, 3 Math, 3 Writing (including Essay), 1 Experimental (not scored) 4 Sections (plus optional Writing Test): English, Math, Reading, Science, Writing
Subjects Critical Reading, Math, Writing English, Math, Reading, Science, Writing (optional)
Reading Reading passages with questions pertaining to comprehension and sentence completion 4 passages, 10 questions per passage
Science N/A Science (analysis, knowledge, problem solving)
Math Arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and algebra II Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry
Essay Required Optional (final section)
Score Composition 1/3 Math, 1/3 Reading, 1/3 Writing 1/4 English, 1/4 Math, 1/4 Reading, 1/4 Science
Scoring Aggregate score 600 – 2400 based on total of 3 scores 200- 800 (Reading, Math, Writing) Score of 0-12 for Essay Composite score 1-36 based on average of 4 sections (English Math, Reading Science) Score 0-12 for Optional Essay
Penalties Penalties (typically ¼ point deducted) for wrong answers No penalties for incorrect answers
Score Choice Student may choose which set(s) of SAT scores to submit to colleges but submission must be consistent with college SAT score choice policy Student decides which scores are sent
Additional Information


There are hundreds of fresh and plainspoken books on the admissions process that help explain and demystify the college application process, and can help guide students and parents through this too often anxiety-filled ritual. We have compiled a cross section that covers practical issues during a time of transition and growth for the whole family. Topics include discovering colleges, narrowing down the search, finding financial aid, and of course using college counselors to the best advantage!  These books highlight that the best college choice is not simply the school that is the most difficult to get into but a place that will allow your child to become the best version of themselves.

  • Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools You Should Know About Even If You’re Not a Straight-A Student (Loren Pope)
  • Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late-Blooming, and Just Plain Different (Donald Asher)
  • Fiske Guide to Colleges (Edward Fiske)
  • The Hidden Ivies (Greenes’ Guides)
  • The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges: Students on Campus Tell You What you Really Want to Know (Yale Daily News)
  • Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You (Loren Pope)
  • The Public Ivies (Greenes’ Guides)
  • A is for Admission (Michele Hernandez)
  • Acing the College Application (Michele Hernandez)
  • Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process (Rachel Toor)
  • The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite (Christopher Avery et al.)
  • On Writing the College Application Essay: The Key to Acceptance and the College of your Choice (Harry Bauld)
  • The Truth About Getting In (Katherine Cohen)
  • What It Really Takes to Get Into Ivy League and Other Highly Selective Colleges (Chuck Hughes)
  • Paying for College (Kaplan)