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.

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