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Elizabeth Peterson

Tips for Your 2016 Common Application Essay

In January, the Common Application announced that the 2016-2017 Common Application essays would be the same as those on the 2015-2016 Common application. Since we already know what those questions are, it’s a great idea for current Juniors to take a look at these essays now.

It may seem like it’s way too early to start thinking about college applications, but those deadlines will sneak up on you faster than you think.

I know it can seem overwhelming, so here are some tips for dealing with the dreaded Common App Essays.


1. Study the topics carefully.

The questions have been carefully chosen to encourage you to think about your strengths and weaknesses, and which one you choose to answer is the first big decision you have to make when writing your essay. Don’t just glance over them and pick whichever one sounds the easiest. Read each question carefully and think about how you could answer it; then try jotting down some ideas for each topic. A question you might originally think of as too hard or not very interesting might turn out to be the opposite!


2. Write about something unexpected.

Often, students pick an essay question and try to write about the first thing that comes to mind. I can’t tell you how many essays I’ve read about “a time that you failed” that are about failing a test. Everyone fails tests. What about that time you totally bombed at planning a surprise birthday party for your Grandma? It may not be unique, but it’s probably the only essay the admissions officers will read about a terrible surprise party.

The point is, many students write about the same things; an essay that stands out from the rest and actually tells the admissions officers something interesting about you that isn’t on your academic resume will work in your favor. It might take some brainstorming, but you’d be surprised what great stories are hiding in your memory.


3. Don’t stress about word count.

The Common Application essay word limit is 650 words. This is the upper limit, but that does not mean your essay has to be exactly this long. Try writing your essay without worrying about your word count. Get all your ideas on the paper, and only then worry about how long it is. Most of the time, you’ll end up with more than 650 words at first; sometimes you’ll be under. Either way, don’t panic. That’s what editing is for! In the end, shoot for a final product between 550 and 650 words.


4. Write at least 3 drafts.

Speaking of editing…you MUST edit! There is absolutely no way around it. You should write at least three drafts of every essay you plan to include in your applications. Five would be even better. It will take a while to craft just the right words to make the admissions officers laugh, cry, or swoon. That’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is the perfect Common App essay.


5. Get at least one person to look it over.

This is part of tip number four, but I think it bears mentioning separately. I know application essays can be very personal, and it is terrifying to let someone else read your work, but sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes to help spot those little typos, grammar errors, or weirdly constructed sentences. Pick someone you trust. A parent is fine, but a teacher or some other person who might be more objective is even better.


6. Check for supplemental essays.

Many colleges that accept the Common App also require a supplemental essay that is more focused on that particular school, so, unlike the Common App essay, you cannot reuse them, at least not exactly. Make a list of all the schools you plan to apply to that require the supplemental essay, and make sure you leave time to apply tips 1 through 5 to them as well!

The essay is your best chance of expressing your personality to college admissions officers. Make sure it paints a beautiful picture!

For detailed advice on how to approach each of the Common App essays, check out Kristin’s post from last summer.

About Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!

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