Tips for Surviving College Essays

Brace yourselves, kids! The Common Application went live on August 1. Of course, you already knew that. You’ve been chomping at the bit to get a peek at this year’s supplements for your top choice schools. Right? Right.

Of course, the Common App prompts have been posted on their blog since March, and many of them are the same as last year:

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.

These prompts are specific enough to help you brainstorm, but open-ended enough to allow for some creativity in how you answer. However, for many students, that essay is just one of many. Depending on your list of colleges (I’m looking at you, Stanford), you may be facing a seemingly endless list of writing tasks.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. How does one even begin? What is this madness? You know “what outrages me,” Wake Forest? The fact that I need to write forty-seven essays.

Here are Ten Tips! to make your college essay writing experience less terrible. Trust me, it is possible.

  1. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes, inhale deeply. Exhale. Repeat. We’ll wait.
  2. Seriously, breathe. You skipped that because you didn’t think it was important. It is. I promise. Your brain needs oxygen to come up with the words that make essays.
  3. Put this in perspective. These essays might seem like the most important thing ever, but they’re not even the most important part of your applications.
  4. Get organized. If you don’t have a solid college list, start there. If your college list contains 38 colleges, consider narrowing. Take stock of the essays you need to write. Make a list, or even a spreadsheet. (I know. I know. Trust me though.) Include what school the essay is for, word count, and the prompt. Don’t forget essays for special majors, programs, or scholarships.
  5. Think about your experiences. The best essays are stories that only you can tell. Be specific. Your experiences don’t have to be huge, impressive accomplishments. They do have to be authentic and important to you.
  6. Are you still breathing?
  7. Connect ideas to prompts. Go back to your list. If you’ve decided you want to write an essay about how reading a certain book influenced your attitude towards life, where might that fit? Devise a plan that allows you to write less than 47 essays.
  8. Just write. You can’t revise a blank page. Set a timer for five minutes and don’t stop typing. Don’t hit backspace. Just write. It’s OK if you hate it. It’s OK if it’s terrible. Just write.
  9. Revise. Be ruthless. Cut superfluous words. You’ve got to get down to 650, or 500, or 250, or 50. You’ve got no room for anything that doesn’t have a purpose. Delete. Save your drafts, though. They might be useful later. Don’t get too attached to sentences. They might be beautiful. They might also be unnecessary. Go back to the prompt(s). Are you answering the question(s)? Get specific. Go deeper. What did the room smell like? Read it aloud to yourself. Does it sound like something you’d say? Record yourself. Play it back.
  10. Ask for help. It’s important that your essay be your story, in your words, but feedback is critical to any writing process. You might ask your teachers, friends, or family to read your essay and provide their thoughts. Get Smarter Prep is here to help, too. Our College Essay Writing course is designed to help you develop your ideas and write your best essays! Contact us for more information or to get started!
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