Guest post By Marilyn G.S. Emerson

Are your students prepared for the upcoming college application season? Read the post below for expert advice you can provide to help them with what is perhaps the most stressful part of the application: the essay. In a recent National Honor Society (NHS) virtual college application essay writing workshop, Marilyn G.S. Emerson, a certified education planner, detailed strategies for students to discover their voice in writing. As a follow-up, Marilyn shares 10 common pitfalls that your students will want to avoid in preparing their college application essay.

Admissions representatives read hundreds of thousands of college essays. While there is no magic formula that makes for the perfect application, there are certain things students should avoid at all costs. Here are 10 essay “don’ts”:

  1. DON’T be boring.
    A great essay should paint a picture of a special moment. Rather than giving a laundry list of their activities, students should focus on a single story, a single interaction, or a skill learned. They should explain what happened and what was learned.College application preparation
  2. DON’T list honors or awards.An applicant’s activities list already gives an overview of his or her main accomplishments. Students should use the word count to help the reader get to know them through a story.
  3. DON’T write about sensitive topics.
    In other words, stay away from politics and religion. After all, one never knows who will be reading the essay!
  4. DON’T talk about sports.
    This one may surprise all the athletes out there. Why avoid talking about sports? Well, it’s too predictable. Almost everyone knows the story will be either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Unless an applicant’s story is truly unique, this topic should be avoided.
  5. DON’T try to use humor.
    This one may come as a surprise too! But seriously—don’t attempt to be funny. If humor comes out naturally, that’s great, but don’t force it!
  6. DON’T discuss volunteering and trips.This is one of the most popular essay topics. But since so many students write about it, it can be a boring cliché. Students who do decide to talk about volunteering should pick a single moment in time.
  7. DON’T write an anti-essay.
    Intentions may be good, but students should stick to the traditional essay format and let their creativity show through the story they choose to tell.
  8. DON’T explain bad behavior.
    Bad behavior should not be the focus of an essay because it is not the focus of who the applicant is as a person.
  9. DON’T blame or credit others.
    Don’t blame or credit others for your successes or failures. Students should take responsibility for their experiences. While a passing mention of a role model or a positive influence can show humility, for the most part, the essay should focus on the applicant.
  10. DON’T talk about tragedies.
    Topics like death and divorce are exceptionally difficult to write about. So, if this topic is chosen, applicants should keep the focus on themselves and make sure to address the issue with maturity.

Learn More

Marilyn’s presentation is available for NHS students to watch on demand. Faculty and counselors at NHS-affiliated schools can also watch. To facilitate participation, viewers should get the school’s NHS affiliation number before logging on. Look for the recording under “Discover Your Voice” at

Marilyn G.S. Emerson is the mentoring project director for New York City’s Possibility Project. Over the years, Marilyn has visited numerous colleges and universities and currently visits approximately 40 campuses each year.

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