Formal Essay Donts

Applying to college is stressful. While there are many factors you can’t predict, crafting a successful college admissions essay is entirely within your control.

READ: Check out an updated essay-tips article here.

With deadlines fast approaching – scholarship (Dec. 1) and regular notification (Feb. 1) – College of Charleston admissions counselors have a few tips for your admissions essays:

Don’t: Let the essay overwhelm you

The admissions essay is an important part of your application, but it’s not going to make or break you. Don’t spend so much time and energy on your essay that you miss college application deadlines. Deadlines are pervasive in college and well beyond graduation. Admissions counselors want to see that you can meet them.

Do: Use spellcheck and grammar check

When essays are submitted with obvious errors it shows carelessness – not what you want to portray through your admissions portfolio.

Don’t: Submit an incorrectly formatted essay

Thoughtful experimentation is one thing, but your essay should reflect what you know; you should know how to properly format a formal essay.

 EXPLORE: Learn about the admissions process at the College of Charleston

Do: Have a teacher proofread it

Teacher or guidance counselor—it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re not related to you. Family members might infer subtleties outsiders won’t and you need to be sure any reader will understand your message.

Do: Make it personal

You’ll hear about subjects you should “never” write about, but we want to learn about you as a person and as a student. If one of those taboo subjects has impacted your development, write about it. If you feel like you can own the topic and justify its relevance then it’s appropriate to write about.

Don’t: Use gimmicks

Unless you’re getting at something that will jump off the page immediately, don’t use text messaging shorthand or send a blank piece of paper to represent the greatest risk you’ve ever taken. Let your story and your writing – not a clever ploy – speak for you.

READ: Explore the College in Spanish

Do: Take advantage of the personal statement option (if offered)

Use the primary essay to talk about yourself, but write a secondary personal statement if there’s something you feel warrants further explanation – a poor grade or no higher-level language after junior year, for example.

Don’t: Make excuses

If you earned a bad grade or stopped taking language courses because you were lazy, don’t go out of your way to blame external factors. Conversely, if you discovered you have a learning disability or your school didn’t offer higher-level language courses, explain it in your personal statement.

Essay writing is an obligatory academic assignment, regardless of course of study and institution.

However, few students find the essay writing process easy. Of course, practice makes perfect and by the time students hit their senior year in college, most of them can write an essay in their sleep.

However, no one wants to learn from their own mistakes so knowing the most important dos and don'ts of essay writing will help make this experience less stressful and more productive.

There is no universal template that can solve every college essay trouble.

However, the following rules of writing are standard and applicable to all types of academic essay, no matter what the course and topic:

The Do's of Essay Writing

Do Make your Essay Easy to Read

Because of the large number of essays that have to be graded, many instructors admit that they skim read essays to get an idea if a student is competent in the topic and how well they have adhered to the style guidelines. Therefore, it is a good idea to structure your essay so the key points are visible when skim reading and are clear enough to get the message across.

Get rid of extra words and phrases, use clear constructions and stick to the point.


Do Include a Thesis Statement in the Introduction

A thesis statement is an important part of introduction and the essay in general, so it should never be neglected. The thesis statement should reveal the main idea of the essay in a concise format.

Although it is an obligatory part of the introduction, never make your thesis statement the opening sentence of your essay. It is a good idea to place it at the end of the introductory paragraph so it serves as a transition to the main body of the essay.


Do Use Transitions Between Paragraphs

Sometimes paragraphs sound like separate pieces of text put together. This is the wrong approach to writing.

Your essay should be smooth and coherent, leading the reader from one point to another. This is why you should use transitions – the phrases that help to connect each idea with the previous one, serving like bridges between paragraphs.

Examples of phrases you can use for transitions include:

  • Despite the previous arguments…
  • Speaking about this…
  • Regarding this…
  • With regards to this…
  • As has been noted…
  • To put it briefly…

Do Cite Examples

Any example you use – from literature, scientific work, etc. - should be cited.

Only examples from your own experience do not have to be cited. If you want to include mention of something that you have read, even if you are not using a direct quotation,  it is best to reference the source of the information. This way, your examples will be more convincing and form more reliable evidence of the points you wish to prove.


Do Discuss Literature in the Present Tense

When writing literary reviews or essays based on literary works it is advisable to use present tense – historical present or narrative present, as it is called. It makes the storytelling more engaging and real, increasing the feeling of presence.

For example:

‘Romeo and Juliet experience true love the moment they see each other. Love makes them forget everything else. From the very beginning they are somehow aware that they are doomed to die – they have given up their lives to love. Not only love, but every emotion in the play is heightened and leads to terrible consequences.’

Book Reviewed by Amrita Dutta, Source: http://www.book-review-circle.com/Romeo-And-Juliet-William-Shakespeare.html


Do Use Advanced Vocabulary

The aim of an essay is to not only to reveal your knowledge of the topic, but to show your ability to choose appropriate vocabulary and show your language expertise.

You should show that your vocabulary has progressed since high school. That means using advanced vocabulary and replacing ‘good’ and ‘nice’ with more appropriate synonyms to reflect the shades of meaning.


Do Respond to the Prompt of the Essay

The prompt of the essay is intentional.

No matter how much you want to ‘go with the flow’ and write whatever your inspiration dictates, you should remember you are writing an academic assignment and, as long as it has a prompt, you should stick to it.

If the prompt is complicated and consists of several parts, analyze your final draft and check if you covered every point of the essay prompt.


Do Use Simple Sentences

Complicated sentences may be confusing, not only for the person reading and grading your essay but for the students themselves.

Writing complicated sentences doesn’t indicate elaborate writing style. Rather it may show your inability to convey information in a simple and readable format, or to break the sentences in a logical way. What’s more, complicated sentences increase the risk of grammar errors and stylistic mistakes. Famous writers, like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, wrote simply and that didn’t make their writing any worse.


Do Choose Proper Type, Style and Format

A good essay is not about style and formatting, of course, but style influences the first impression your paper makes.

First and foremost, professors want to see the correct essay style and structure depending on the topic and essay type students have to tackle. In many cases, the style meant to be used in the essay is laid out in the directions or has been established beforehand. You may easily figure out the style based on the type of essay.


Do Choose the Right Language

The language you use in the paper indicates your ability to research and analyze the topic, prove your opinion, and explain your points clearly and vividly.

It also shows the level of your language proficiency, knowledge of grammar and syntax, and ability to develop rich vocabulary. It is important to remember the academic style of writing and use the appropriate language. The following phrases work well to introduce and support your points:

  • There seems to be no compelling reason to argue that …
  • The argument can be made …
  • Current research on [your topic] shows …
  • The most common argument in favor of (or against) is …
  • There is a growing body of evidence to support …

Do Revise your Writing Thoroughly

Before you hit ‘Save’ and print the final version, check your essay thoroughly to avoid spelling mistakes, typos and incorrect sentence constructions. Apart from language mistakes, check if you followed all the requirements: number of words/pages, text formatting, essay structure, etc.

See our page: Assignment Finishing Touches for more information.

The Don'ts of Essay Writing

Now that you’ve learnt the major Dos, let’s move to some Don’ts – the things you’d better avoid in essay writing.

Don't Overwhelm your Essay with Information and Facts

Though essays should be meaningful and detailed, learn to filter the information and choose only important points.

There is a temptation to include every single detail of your research to make the essay holistic and complete. However, your aim is to narrow the topic, show that you are able to analyze and structure information, and choose only the most relevant facts to prove your points.


Don't Neglect Formatting Details

No matter what your style and formatting requirements are, you should not forget to pay attention to the following points: paper size, spaces, font size, margins, and page numbers.

Also do not forget about narration types. For example, narrative essays tell stories from first person while persuasive or argumentative essays require that you leave emotions out and base your views on the solid facts, so no first person narration is appropriate.


Don't Use Too Many Clichés

While using set phrases, avoid overwhelming your essay with clichés.

Remember that not all clichés are good for every type of essay. What's more, professors expect your work to be original and truly value students with fresh ideas and views. Also, beware of using informal language. This doesn't mean that your writing should be reminiscent of a scientific thesaurus rather than real speech, but academic writing requires a certain level of formality.

See our page: Avoiding Clichés for more.

Don't Let Typos Ruin your Essay

Although typos do not indicate your language proficiency or grammar knowledge, they may show your professor that you are not attentive enough or do not care enough to proof read your essay.

Submitting a paper that looks like a draft can be interpreted by a professor as disrespectful.


Don’t Rely Only on Spell Checkers

Though spell checkers are good way to automatically proof read your writing, don’t rely on software alone.

These programs may miss a lot of spelling errors that that human eye will definitely notice. So, take time to proof read your essay. It is better to print out the final version on paper as spelling mistakes can be missed when reading from the screen. It is a good idea to ask someone else to have a fresh look at your essay and to proofread it for spelling mistakes.


Do Not Plagiarize

This rule should be clear for every student.

Plagiarism is a form of cheating, and when detected it is always punished.

Do not risk your reputation and your place in higher education. Plagiarism is easily detected today with the help of software and Google, so be honest with yourself and your educators and write on your own.

Reference every source to make sure you are not committing plagiarism, even unintentionally. It is a good idea to ‘know your enemy’ and read about the kinds of plagiarism possible and best ways to avoid it.

See our page: Academic Referencing for more information.

Do Not Address the Reader

No matter what type of essay you are writing, academic writing rarely reveals the author nor engages in the conversation with the reader. Addressing the reader is more a mark of fiction than an academic essay. While writing a college essay you should be detached, objective and analytical rather than appeal to the reader’s emotions and personality.


Don’t Start an Essay with “in this/my essay” Phrase

The introduction has to present the main idea of the essay and reveal what you are going to talk about.

Writing an effective introduction and including a thesis statement is enough to lead the reader into the context of your essay topic without using this meaningless high school phrase ‘In my essay I’m going to focus on…’


Don’t Use Negative Language

Negative language doesn’t mean vulgarisms. It means words with negative suffixes, phrases with negation, etc.

For example, painless is not a negative word in its meaning. However, using it makes the reader focus on pain instead of its absence. So it is better to replace so called negative language with more positive, synonymous expressions, like using economical instead of inexpensive, or comfortable/pleasant instead of painless.


When writing an essay you should walk a fine line between presenting a clear idea of the established knowledge and proving that you understand it well enough to make an independent assessment.

Show your professor your ability to format an essay correctly, choose the right style, express your point of view and prove it with facts. Learn to balance the form and meaning and essays will no longer be challenging for you.

About the Author


Tracy Collins is a writing instructor, education enthusiast and the author of the academic essay writing site EssayUniverse.org.

You can find her on Google+ and Facebook

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