Fall is here and the class of 2022 is entering the horrifying college application season. This time of year is stressful for parents and teens alike. For me, August to December of my senior year was dedicated to balancing the IB program, taking multiple SAT and ACTs, and writing as many college essays as humanly possible.
As a result of many schools shifting to test-optional, the dreaded Common Application essay has become even more important and writing a good one can be more challenging than taking an exam.
In this article, I want to share some tips and tricks I have learned about how to make writing the essay (and all the supplements) a little more bearable.
Side Note: When I say “the essay” I am referring to the main Common Application 250-650 word essay. I know that there are other applications (such as the Coalition Application) that one can use to apply to college but the Common Application is the one I am most familiar with. While my tips are based on that experience, I have tried to provide advice that can apply to any essay a student has to write during the application process.
Advice from the Pros
In my senior year of high school, our counselors spoke to the grade multiple times to give us guidance on how to write our Common Application essay. The advice they presented could be used when responding to any kind of prompt.
– Show What You’re Passionate About
One of the ideas our counselors drilled into our heads was that quality beats quantity in any circumstance. While participating in two sports, four clubs, and spending your weekends volunteering is extremely impressive and certainly deserves praise, the essay is not always the place to talk about all of those activities in extensive detail.
It is much better to zone in on a specific passion or idea that emphasizes the hardships you have faced, how those challenges have changed you, and how that makes you more prepared for a college environment. Using your activities for evidence of your passion or drive is helpful but remember, explaining each thing you have done without diving deeper into a specific theme can hurt your essay.
– Get Someone to Proofread
Ask a parent, friend, English teacher, counselor, or anyone who will give you a few moments to read your essay. You want as many pairs of eyes on your writing as possible.
Not only do you want to catch any grammar or spelling errors, but your peers and teachers will likely have helpful feedback on the story/flow of your essay. Ask them: Have you actually answered the prompt? Have you articulated your point in the best way possible? Does this essay tell something important/meaningful about you? Make sure that when you receive this feedback you listen and try to apply the recommendations in the way you think best but always trust your gut.
– Don’t Go Over the Word Limit
As someone who likes to write long and wordy essays this tip always slightly annoyed me but it is NECESSARY to follow.
Going over the word limit is going to signify to a college that you can’t follow the criteria they have given you and also may hint that your writing is not as sophisticated as it could be. Even one word over is a no-no.
While some may be stressed about writing too little it is more damaging to write too much (although writing under 250 words is also a big no-no). If you feel you are able to write a great essay in 500 words then that is what you should turn in. All the prompts can be answered proficiently within the word range so you must adhere to the limit.
While my high school counselors were extremely helpful and were always willing to answer my questions, some things you can only learn when you are actually doing the application. Here are a few things that I think would have been helpful to know before starting the process.
Brainstorm for at least a week. The prompts are always super open-ended (there is even a make your own prompt option) so you can really write about anything.
Take the time to think about stories you have, things you like, and moments that have impacted you. Bounce ideas off of your teachers and counselors. Ask them what they think makes you stand out.
What do you feel so passionate about that writing an essay on it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world? I ended up having to rewrite my entire essay because I didn’t give other ideas a chance which increased the amount of time I had to spend on the application.
– Understand Your Supplements and Reuse When Possible
This is not really a tip about the Common Application essay but it is crucial to recognize that if you are applying to more than five universities, more time will likely be spent writing supplements than the primary essay.
While the essay is often in the spotlight, the mini-essays each college asks you to write are equally important. They can ask you to write about a range of things from, why do you want to come to our school to if you could talk to anyone fictional, dead, or alive who would you speak to?
Personally, I had a much more enjoyable time writing the supplements than the main essay but it can be super time-consuming if you don’t plan accordingly. While I probably wrote around 40 supplements after number 10 I started to notice I could reuse/adapt some of the ones I had already written.
Work smarter not harder and reuse your writing when you can. If you have two different colleges asking you about why you picked your intended major it’s okay to say similar things; as long as you aren’t sending a college two of the same essays you should be in the clear.
– Show Not Tell
Show not tell is a piece of advice that English teachers give when they have tasked their students with a creative writing assignment; this applies to the main essay as well.
The same way that you write a story, you want to compose a piece that is equal parts reflective and engaging.
Don’t let the word “essay” trick you into thinking this piece needs to be boring. You should try to make your writing feel fun for the college admissions team to read. This doesn’t have to be your traditional five-paragraph essay. Try reading a few non-college-related personal essays, their style could inspire you to think outside the box.
– Convince Colleges You Will Succeed at their School
Something I have realized over the past few years, upon further reflection, is that colleges really want to be given an indication that you won’t drop out. They either want you to show that you like their school and want to stay there for the long run or that you have a passion for learning that will help you succeed at their university. Prove to them you are excited about going to college and they won’t view you as a risky candidate.
My last word of advice is to remember that while this time can be super stressful, just remember that not getting into your dream school is not the end of the world. Putting together a college application is a lot of work but it also feels so gratifying once you’re done. I hope you have found these tips helpful!