“When I was still small enough to fit in the sun-drenched space between the armoire and the couch, I sat cross-legged and spun the world.”
“There I was, hanging from the precipice, muscles trembling, fingers aching, sweat dripping onto my spotter twenty feet below.”
“On one hot night in a dark room at the heart of Boston, I became friends with 19,580 people in one single moment.”
What things do these sentences have in common? They all feel like the beginning of a story. They all are specific enough that readers start picturing a scene. They all make us want to keep reading.
And they could all serve as the opening line of a Common Application essay.
As with other parts of the college application process, the prospect of writing the Common Application essay can be fraught with misconceptions: applicants worry that they will need to compose a formulaic piece under enormous pressure. It’s true that it is a high-stakes essay, with a hard and fast deadline, that tends to ascribe to a few broad conventions. But writing it doesn’t have to be so stressful. And as demonstrated by the lines above — from essays published by Hamilton, Johns Hopkins, and Tufts, respectively, as exemplars from admitted students — Common Application writers can produce essays that are vivid, memorable, and a pleasure to read.
We find that the factor that determines whether writers have a positive experience in creating their Common Application essays—and whether writers ultimately are happy with the piece they submit—is time. Applicants need time to get to know the genre, whose pieces tend to mix narrative and reflection. Applicants need time to try out a few different ideas and to compose several drafts, understanding that repeatedly revisiting the piece is a part of the writing process. In a departure from the text-based and research-based essays that dominate high school writing, the Common App essay asks students to draw upon their own lives for material. Applicants need time to generate ideas and to consider how their experiences and passions can help them share a bit of themselves with readers.
Each year, the Common Application itself “resets” in early August, so we advise rising seniors to wait until then to fill out its typable forms; similarly, colleges tend to post their individual supplemental essay prompts in August or early September. But the Common Application has already released its essay prompts for the upcoming application cycle, making spring an ideal time to begin the writing process—particularly this year. In a season when everyone’s plans have been upended, starting the Common Application essay injects a bit of normalcy. It allows students some control while challenging themselves creatively, with no pressing deadlines. It is one of the concrete steps that they can take in shaping their future, an opportunity to reflect on where they’ve been—such as a nook on a living-room floor, a treacherous rock wall, or a thumping concert arena—where they are, and where they will go.
If you’re ready to get started with your common application essay work, we can help to support your process with writing coaching and supplemental college counseling. Please contact us to further discuss your planning.
By Elizabeth Walters, MFA and Private Tutor, and Brad Hoffman, M.S.Ed. and CEP
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