How to Make the Dreaded Application Essay Easier to Deal With
Let’s get a couple things out of the way first. The Common Application opened up on August 1 for this year’s seniors. And if the colleges you’re applying to require their own proprietary app, they probably opened up on August 1, too. So go there now and create your account. If you have a, well, less-than-mature email address – say, email@example.com – setup a new, more professional email to use with your college applications. As an aside, you’ll like having all your college email in one place not cluttered with lots of junk and personal email.
Here are the Common Application essay prompts for this year:
- 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.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
You’ll want to get started on this now before you’re buried in school work. This is your senior year, right? Finishing strong matters. And this is a great opportunity to build your prioritization, calendar, and time management skills. Block out some time.
I get it. Given my statement above, this can seem like a chore, and a daunting one at that. Can you say Writer’s Block? Totally get it.
Let’s try to reduce the stress here. I’ll start with a comment from an actual college admissions counselor. Jeff Schiffman works for Tulane, and he says,
Pick an essay topic you love to write about, no matter what it is. We’re more likely to love reading something you loved writing. We read thousands and thousands of these things, so make sure you get us going right off the bat. And remember, sometimes the best essays are the simplest ones. No need to dig for a tragedy, over embellish anything or try to change the world. Just be yourself. And I hate to tell you all this, but I must have read a thousand essays about summer camp, Harry Potter, grandmas, and your service trip to Fiji last summer. Think outside the box!
Jeff is your audience. It really doesn’t matter what your English teacher tells you during your college essay writing assignment. What Jeff thinks matters more. Seriously pay attention to the things that Jeff DOES NOT want to hear about. What Jeff is saying is that if you write about these things you will make his job harder and more boring. Your application will end up in the harder-more-boring pile. If you’re applying to a selective school this is not the pile you want to be in. I can’t say it matters as much as the 40,000 student state schools if you plan on paying full tuition. I’ve seen some pretty awful essays not keep students out of those schools.
Note that Jeff said his office reads “thousands of these things, so make sure you get us going right off the bat.” How do you deal with this? Think of it as a conversation. The admissions counselor wants to get to know you, but they don’t have time for a phone conversation or coffee. So approach your essay as if you were having coffee with a good friend and you want to tell her a story about something really cool in your life. Then tell that story. In fact, play this out in real life. Go to a coffee house with a good friend, pull out the voice recorder on your phone, and talk to them. Have them ask you something like, “Hey, I know you’ve been thinking about your life a bit. I know you tackled some tough problems in the last couple years. How’s it going with those? What have you learned, and where do you think it’s taking you?” (prompt No. 4). And then start talking. Have a conversation. You’ll have captured it on your phone can can use it to turn around and have a conversation with the admissions counselor.
You usually have a word count restriction, so you’ll need to make every word count (high stress). If you start now you can get all your words out, go over the word count, and take your time whittling out the words that don’t matter (lower stress). The good news is that you can save words by NOT starting your essay with a mind-numbingly boring thesis statement that you need to back up with three paragraphs and citations. You don’t have room for that. Get right to the good stuff. That’s what Jeff is asking for anyway. Write personally. Tell them about anything, anything at all, that let’s them get to know you. They’ll read through the words to draw conclusions about you based on tone, idea structure (do you make sense when you talk), and the rest of your application.
Don’t overthink this. Seriously. You can be fun and playful. You can be funny. You can be deep. You can be thoughtful. Whatever. As long as you are you.
Here are a couple websites with some good essay examples. You’ll find plenty more with a google search. Just don’t let these cause you to freeze up. Be yourself, have the conversation with your friend, and retell it in your essay.
- From Johns Hopkins
- And a couple that got students into Stanford. These are great because they are fun, short, and about nothing. But the student really shines through.
BTW, Jeff from Tulane also published 9 additional tips that you might want to consider as you are shaping your application.