How Formal Should A College Essay Be?


Am I allowed to use contractions (don't, won't, isn't, etc.) in my college application essay? All of my English teachers have advised against them in formal writing assignments, including college essays, but I wasn't sure about this because I think a college essay should seem more relaxed than a research paper. So I wanted to know what The Dean thinks.

You don't need to avoid contractions in college essays, and your teachers shouldn't have insisted that you mustn't use them. ;-) Contractions can work in every section of an application from short, specific questions to entire essays. In fact, your essays — especially your primary essay — are not supposed to be formal at all. The main purpose of a college essay is to give admission committees a look at what makes you tick and to showcase an interest, experience, accomplishment or characteristic that the rest of the application doesn't fully reveal.

So your college essay should fall somewhere on the formality scale between a school research assignment and a story you're telling to a friend over pizza, but leaning much closer to the latter. Go easy on the slang, but — in some cases — even slang can be appropriate in a college essay. Prose without contractions is apt to read like an English term paper on The Scarlet Letter and is likely to sound stilted. Of course, you do need to distinguish between acceptable contractions and those that should stay confined to Snapchat. The examples you already cited (don't, won't, isn't) are fine, but steer clear of gonna, gotta, and finna!

Here's a link to “The College Essay Guy's 35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts," where “The Dean" was recently quoted. You'll find my own advice down near the end (no. 27). Read it and follow it! Other tips in this blog that address the issue of formality in college essays are numbers five, six, seven (this one confirms what I already said about contractions), nine, 12 and 26.

You'll often hear the college application essay also called a “Personal Statement." And if you view it that way, too, it may help you to achieve the right level of formality, and it won't scare you off from including contractions.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at