Tips for Getting Your Common Application Essay down on Paper

For the past three years, I have served as a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor 2.0 Program at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque.   The young woman I mentor is now a senior preparing her college applications, and these are the tips I offered to her and her classmates:

Tips for Getting Your Common Application Essay down on Paper

The 2016-2017 Common Application Essay Prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (According to the Common Application Essay Prompts, roughly half of the applicants so far—more than 800,000—have responded to this prompt. Keep reading.  College admissions officers are bound to be sick of reading essays on this topic.)
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (Note that this prompt asks for narrative and reflection—an incident in your life and what you learned from it.)
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (This prompt also invites you to tell a story from your life and explain what you learned.)
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (Twenty-two percent of applicants responded to this prompt.)

Begin by Brainstorming

  • I recommend that you write in response to  #2 or #3, which invite you to write a narrative (story) and then reflect on the story’s meaning. Most narratives are written in chronological order.  It’s easier to structure a narrative than an expository essay, and readers enjoy a good story.
  • We’ve all failed many times, and we all appreciate hearing about the failures of others, so for the purposes of this exercise, let’s brainstorm on the subject of personal failures. Make a list, or, better yet, create a cluster like so: clustering
  • Come up with at least five instances of failure. Focus on your recent failures because these are the ones that will be of most interest to the college admissions officer whose job it is to read your essay.  Additionally, the specifics of the story will be fresher in your memory.
  • It may help to share ideas with your mentor—and for your mentor to share a story or two with you.
  • Next, take a few minutes to make some notes. How did the situation start? When did it end?  Who else was involved? What did you learn?  Would you do things differently now or not?  If not, why not?  Write it all down.  Don’t begin writing the essay until you’ve taken a good set of notes.
  • If you can do so, ask others who were involved—Mom or Dad, say—to share their thoughts about the situation. Or, try talking through the situation with a friend or your mentor.  Use others as a sounding board to get insight into your story.
  • Now, you are ready to write your essay. Don’t worry about length or correctness in the first draft.
  • Find a half hour and a quiet spot; sit down with your cell phone and activate the timer for 25 minutes. Put your phone away and write your heart out until you hear the buzzer.  Don’t reread; don’t hesitate or cross out; don’t get out of the chair.  You can do it.  Spend the five remaining minutes patting yourself on the back.

Tips for Editing a Draft of Your College Application Essay

If possible, complete your editing and proofreading in several short blocks of time.

  • Give your draft a little breathing room. If at all possible, let it rest for at least a day.
  • Print out a copy and read it out loud, to yourself.   Read slowly. Stop every sentence or two to take notes. Write in the margins.
  • What do you write in the margins? Whatever you left out: details, description, dialogue.  Have you told the whole story?  Are you sure?
  • Have you focused on the most important part of the story? Slow down and share the specifics.
  • Take another twenty-five minutes to revise your essay to include the margin notes and any other additions. Don’t worry about length.  Get the story on the page.  You can cut later.
  • Try to give your second draft a little more breathing room. Even an hour or two will help.
  • When you return to the essay, sit down and pretend you’re the intended reader, the bored college admissions officer. Read it from his or her point of view.   Have you left out information the college admissions officer needs to understand the situation?  Conversely, have you included information that isn’t really relevant or useful?

Tips for Proofreading a Draft of Your College Application Essay

Ask others to read through your essay, checking to make sure

  • each sentence is complete.
  • the punctuation is correct.
  • the dialogue (if there is any) is correctly punctuated.
  • no words are misspelled.
  • your sentences have variety.
  • your essay is broken up into reasonably unified paragraphs.
  • the length is acceptable.

FYI:  The required minimum length for a Common Application Essay is 250 words.  The maximum length is 650 words.

Additional Online Resources



Georgia O’Keeffe and Fear

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

This week, the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center is sponsoring a forum on “Balancing Authenticity, Idealism, and Expectations at a Single-Focus Institutions.”  This three-day event (Sept. 14-16) has drawn a number of museum directors, archivists, and independent scholars.  As well as one English professor and novelist.  That would be me.  I am taking part on behalf of the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.

Foreground: The National Landmark Marker Background: Barbara, our wonderful docent.

Like Georgia O’Keeffe, I have often been frightened.  Also like her, I have pushed myself to act in spite of my fear.  Yes,  I was a wee bit scared to attend the forum because, after all,  what do I know about museums?  (Shrug) I’ve wandered through quite a few of them.

Believing in yourself can be difficult, but believing in your cause, in this case the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, well, that’s not hard at all.  The Ranch could be and should be a museum and it could be and should be a residency center for the arts.

(BTW: I don’t believe Georgia O’Keeffe was frightened every moment.  That’s the sort of hyperbole that the Misfit indulged in at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Do you remember the concluding line of the story?  The misfit has just shot the grandmother, and he speaks this line over her body:

“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

But, as a result of my tour, I do know that Georgia O’Keeffe was certainly frightened during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Would you believe she had a bomb shelter built outside the bedroom of her Abiquiu home?   The docent told us about the bomb shelter, which is built into the side of a hill, as well as all the supplies O’Keeffe ordered to be stored in the shelter.  Once she was prepared for disaster,  she went right on making art.

View from the Ghost Ranch home

Seeing O’Keeffe’s home at Abiquiu is something I’ve dreamed of doing for years, and I am grateful to the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center for the fascinating tour of both the Abiquiu and the Ghost Ranch homes.

Back of the Ghost Ranch home

In recent years, the caretakers for the Abiquiu house have restored the gardens where O’Keeffe grew most of her vegetables and fruit.  History brought to life, quite literally.

While it’s true that Lawrence didn’t raise vegetables at the Ranch, he did have a cow named Susan, and he milked her whenever he could catch her.

In recent years, the Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch homes have been carefully preserved and lovingly tended, but such was not always the case.  It’s up to those of us who care about an artist’s legacy to preserve it.


How Nice Is This?

This morning, I consulted Google images to find a cover shot of my first novel, Deep in the Heart.  One of the images in the display caught my attention:

from the blog, "Our Little Piece of Heaven"
from the blog, “Our Little Piece of Heaven”

When I clicked on the photo, I discovered the blog, “Our Little Piece of Heaven.”

The blogger’s name is Anke, and her posts appear in both German and English.  Here’s what she had to say about Deep in the Heart:  

This hitchhiker scarf will be a present for our neighbor and I’m knitting it with Knit Picks hand painted yarn in the colorway “looking glass”.

My current reading material was picked up at the library sale for 25 cents. “Deep in the heart” by Sharon Oard Warner is a very captivating read and I would highly recommend it!

Why MOCKINGBIRD Lovers Should Read WATCHMAN Part 3

It’s been two weeks since Bookworks hosted the panel presentation on Go Set a Watchman, and I am still pondering the issues raised by the novel and the discussion of August 25th.    To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

The controversies surrounding Watchman  fascinate me for a variety of reasons:  First, because I read To Kill a Mockingbird shortly after its initial publication in July of 1960 and have read it several times since; second, because I came of age in Dallas during desegregation and experienced it firsthand; and, third, because I went on to become a novelist myself and someone who, like Lee, is compelled to explore social issues.

I am a forward-looking person, always have been.  But reading Go Set a Watchman returned me to a crucial year in my life, my sixteenth year, when I was a sophomore attending South Oak Cliff High in Dallas, Texas.  Given that my memories of childhood and adolescence are spotty,  I did a little research on the history of desegregation in Dallas, and I learned the following:

In the 1960s, Dallas schools were designated for specific races, white or black, with other minorities typically falling into the “white” category. South Oak Cliff, for example, was designated a white high school when it was built in 1952. Then black families began moving into the developing neighborhoods around the school, and after preliminary court orders forced Dallas to open schools to students of all races in 1965, black students began attending South Oak Cliff. Four years later, in 1970, the school had changed from almost 100 percent white to almost 100 percent black. - See more at:

Memory tells me that in 1968, the racial distribution was approximately 25% white and 75 % black.  Thanks to, I was able to find my photo in the 1968 South Oak Cliff Den.  (Our mascot was a bear.)

Here’s a screenshot of the page that verifies at least a few of my memories, including the awkward helmet hairdo I preferred that year:

South Oak Cliff Sophomores




Near the end of my sophomore year, Martin Luther King was killed. What a murderous decade:  First, we lost our president, John F. Kennedy, killed in my hometown in 1963; then in April of 68, the Reverend Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis.  A few months later, Robert Kennedy would be shot dead while delivering a speech in Los Angeles.  Death, death, and more death.

I heard the news about Dr. King in class.  By the end of the day, rumors of race riots swirled down the halls.   I recall  standing at my locker as a black classmate sidled up with a warning:  Don’t come to school tomorrow.  Honestly, I was more befuddled than frightened.  I’ve never been one to catch on quickly.

Me and my white friends–we all received similar warnings–but we weren’t really sure what a race riot was, and we were afraid to ask.

Staying at home the next day wasn’t something I considered doing. But I had second thoughts when  I arrived at school and saw that the curbs around the building  were ringed by news trucks and police cars.  All day, we were uneasy, students and teachers, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did, and that’s the takeaway.

Whites were few and far between, and we were fellow students, confused and reluctant, sure, but fellows all the same.  I was the only white girl on the sophomore drill team. Everyone called me “Ostrich Oard” because I had skinny, white legs.  No one wanted to hit silly old Ostrich over the head.  What would be the point of that?

The first indication of Watchman’s real subject comes near the end of Chapter Two, when Atticus, finishing his breakfast, inquires:

“Jean Louise,” he asks. “How much of what’s going on down here gets into the newspapers?”

She isn’t sure what he means, so he offers another opaque statement:  “I mean about the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality.”

He can’t even say the words; they’re too upsetting for breakfast-table talk.

Brown v Board of Education:  these are the words he can’t say and no one ever does say in the whole of the book.  This 1954 landmark decision–wherein the Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools to be unconstitutional–is at the center of the book Lee was trying to write.  The shame is that she didn’t write it.  To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t that book, great as it was.  Neither is Go Set a Watchman.  

Now, I can’t help  but count the years between the Supreme Court decision and my sophomore year of high school–fourteen years.  I was only three years old when the Supreme Court ruled against segregation of the public schools.  And I was graduated by the time busing began–in 1971.

Protesters Dallas Public Schools
from “Forty Years of Desegregation”

One of the best reflections on Lee’s new/old book, appeared in the Huffington Post piece, and it’s called
“Here’s Why You Should Read ‘Go Set A Watchman'” by Maddie Crum.

Perceptive and persuasive, Crum argues that although Watchman “is not a good book,” it is worth reading because it serves to challenge our assumptions about Atticus Finch:  “While separate but equal [schools] made it easy for passively noble citizens to advocate for justice for all, a more complete version of equality meant a violent shake-up of a long-standing caste system that in many ways still exists today.”

To recognize and accept the authentically flawed Atticus Finch is to move a foot or two in the right direction, towards a recognition of our own limitations and prejudices.  People can change.  Atticus Finch does change for the better or would have if Harper Lee had written another novel, say one that took place in the years after desegregation.

More on that Atticus in the next installment.


Why MOCKINGBIRD Lovers Should Read WATCHMAN Part Two

At Tuesday night’s event, one of the more  outspoken members of the audience was a white woman  in her mid-sixties.   (BTW: A majority of the audience fit this description.)

A self-described retired, high-school English teacher, someone who spent years teaching Mockingbird to generations of students, this woman began the evening by sharing with Hakim Bellamy that she had seen him in the role of Tom Robinson in the Albuquerque Little Theatre production of the play, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Marge Maio/John Maio Photography

In fact, she went to the considerable trouble and expense of taking all six of her grandchildren to see the production because she wanted to introduce them to Atticus Finch, a beloved figure for this teacher and for so many of us who came of age in the late fifties and early sixties.

When Bellamy asked whether the play had endeared the children to her hero, the woman’s expression was bemused.

The children were shocked, she said, that Atticus shot a dog, and on the wayAtticus Finch Shooting a Dog home could talk of nothing else.

Funny, yes, and instructive, sure:  The children wouldn’t have been impressed by a white lawyer’s defense of an innocent black man.  They’ve seen that sort of situation play in many television programs and movies.  For them, it’s a commonplace for lawyers of one race to defend clients of another.  What they haven’t seen are rabid dogs wandering the streets of a small southern community!   They don’t have any experience with rabies and infected dogs.  From their perspective, Atticus Finch isn’t much different than Dr. Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who, earlier this summer, killed a Zimbabwe lion named Cecil.

The most telling moment of the evening came later, though, when the same retired teacher tried to explain her reverence for the character of Atticus.  Now that she’s read Go Set a Watchman,  her misty memories of a saintly father figure have been hopelessly sullied.

“Were you devoted to the book version  or the movie version?” someone asked.  She didn’t have to think long:  “I used to believe my life would be perfect if only Gregory Peck were my father and Spencer Tracy my grandfather.”

“Imagine my disappointment,” Hakim Bellamy replied.  “I used to daydream about having Bill Cosby as my dad.”

Of course, we all laughed, but the moment was fraught and clearly  illustrative of a larger point:  For many years, most of America assumed that BIll Cosby the man was somewhat synonymous with the character he played, Cliff Huxtable, the kindly OBGYN who never seemed to go to work.  Regardless of race, we all wanted a spot on the couch at his house because kids at the Huxtables had the full attention of a devoted and entertaining dad.

Now, the millions who revered Cosby are particularly hard-pressed to come to terms with continuing news coverage.  The number of women who have come forward to accuse him has grown to more than fifty, making it likely that the comedian and television personality is a longtime, serial rapist.

What’s the takeaway?  People are complicated, and as we all know from our own personal experience, many of us are not what we seem to be.  Why is this lesson so difficult to learn?

One of the best discussions of the book is in a blog written by Ursula Le Guin.  In “A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman,” she says, “I think that by seeing Atticus as first saint [in Mockingbird], then demon [in Watchman], we refuse to let him be a man, and also refuse to hear what the author was trying to tell us about being a Southerner.”  I couldn’t agree more.

More on being a Southerner in the next installment

Why MOCKINGBIRD Lovers Should Read WATCHMAN Part One

Go Set a Watchman Panel at Bookworks
Photo by Amanda Sutton                                                              Go Set a Watchman Panel at Bookworks


Let me begin by thanking Amanda Sutton of Bookworks in Albuquerque for convening a panel on Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, and for asking me to take part.    I am also grateful to the other panelists–Lisa Walden, Carolyn Flynn, and Hakim Bellamy.  Walden is the manager of the University of New Mexico Bookstore, and Carolyn Flynn is a southern writer and longtime editor of women’s issues for the Albuquerque Journal.   Bellamy is an accomplished poet and host of the local PBS series, Colores.  He was the star of the panel because he played Tom Robinson in a recent local production of the play, To Kill a Mockingbird.    A number of the audience members had seen the play and welcomed Bellamy with enthusiastic applause.

Like many thousands of other readers of my generation, and like all of those in the sizable audience for last night’s event, I have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf for To Kill a Mockingbird.   I’ve read the novel several times over the years, and I am grateful to the English teachers who taught the book to my sons, Corey and Devin. I made sure my sons saw the movie version of the book, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.

That said, if not for the invitation from Amanda, and the complimentary copy of the book that came with it, I doubt I would have read Go Set a Watchman.  My reasons for boycotting the book are likely consistent with yous, if you are curious but undecided:

In the first place, I couldn’t make heads or tails/tales of the title.  It’s the imperative, which means I’m being told to do something.  But what exactly?   Go set a table, sure.  Go set a trap, maybe.  (I don’t advocate trapping defenseless animals, but right about now I’d love it if someone trapped that  insufferable Donald Trump. Drag him out of my living room for a few days, will you, please?)  Go set a watchman?  What does that mean?   I do know it’s a quote from the Bible, but that doesn’t make it self-explanatory or evocative, and a book title should be one or the other or both.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of Watchman are disturbing and disappointing. Like Margaret Mitchell, Lee seemed destined to be a one-book wonder.   If Harper Lee had died before her sister Alice, Go Set a Watchman would never have seen print because Lee was adamant on the subject of a second novel: She didn’t intend to publish one.

The early reviews were negative, to say the least.  Here’s the concluding paragraph from the  NPR review by Maureen Corrigan:

“The novel goes on sale Tuesday, and everybody who loves To Kill a Mockingbird is going to read it, no matter what I or any other reviewer says about its literary quality, the bizarre transformation of Atticus or its odd provenance. All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.”

But here’s my take:  Changing the way we read a masterpiece may be overdue.  It may, in fact, be just what we need to undertake as individuals and as a culture.   Perhaps the avarice of a lawyer named Tonya Carter and a publisher named Harper-Collins will serve us all in the end.   

Stay tuned for Part Two.



Author. Teacher. Founder: Taos Summer Writers' Conference.