How to Approach the Common App Essay in 5 Steps

How to Approach the Common App Essay in 5 Steps

Your rising senior is likely hoping for a summer filled with fun times with friends, basking in the sun, a lot of sleep. Yet, the summer before senior year happens to be the best time to write the college essay so help them rev up their energy!

Spending the time this summer preparing a draft will give your teen an advantage when the application process speeds up with the new school year. As the college admissions process becomes increasingly competitive, the college essay is gaining prominence as a way to convince the admissions counselor to choose a particular candidate. They give the student an opportunity to showcase who they are as a human, beyond the numbers and facts that fill up the remainder of the application. 

The Common App released its essay topics, and has shared that they are the same as last year’s. As your teen begins the essay writing process, encourage them to use these five steps to allow for a smoother, more successful experience.

Make a List of Ideas that Show Who You Are and What is Important to You

Before your teen even looks at the potential prompts, they should choose a topic. Yes, it seems backwards, but the Common App’s topics are intentionally vague. In reality, college admissions officers want to know who the candidate is and what’s important to them instead of how well they can respond to a prompt.

With that in mind, your teen should jot down their passions, values, memorable experiences, or things that truly matter to them. Use those basic but big ideas as a jumping off point, and write notes about each one. By completing this process, your teen will determine the topic they are most excited about.

Ask Yourself: How Can I Make This Meaningful?

At this point, your teen has a chosen prompt and idea. This is a great stopping point to check in and ask: is this topic meaningful to you? Or, is there a way to make it meaningful? Any admissions officer will be drawn to an essay written with passion and care. These usually end up being the most engaging essays because of the personal connection the student has to it.

Plan Out Your Essay

Planning, outlining, and structuring an essay are typically the most daunting parts of the writing process for any teen. However, unlike the 5-paragraph essays or research papers done in school, a college essay is more of a narrative, which tends to be more palatable for students..

The essay should be written as a personal essay in which there is room for creativity in terms of adding dialogue, using imagery, and playing with structure. 

Write Freely

Now that the outline or planning is complete, with knowledge of where the essay is going, your teen should feel free to simply write. Encourage them to use their own voice and write in a more stream-of-conscious way for the moment. This will help them avoid the nerves that can lessen motivation and the second-guessing that prevents them from finishing the first draft.

Writers, especially high school writers, often forget that there are multiple drafts involved in any piece of writing. There will be future drafts of the college essay, so the first attempt should be  a “no pressure” draft.

Edit for Details, Clarity, Grammar, and Spelling

When the “no pressure” draft is complete, now is the time to go through it with a keen eye for 

what the essay needs to reach that next level. For instance, sensory details and “show, don’t tell” are ways to engage the reader and make it memorable for the college admissions officer, so make sure details are not scarce. Look for specific word choice, correct grammar, and, of course, spelling, as not to detract from the substance of the writing.

At this point, the teen should ask trusted individuals to read the essay to make sure its message is clear. Don’t depend simply on teachers who may not know the student well; instead, consider trusted adults, current college students, or college advisors.

As your teen delves into the college essay writing process this summer, remain focused on the prize: a fantastic admissions essay AND a fall with some breathing room. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out for guidance and assistance along the way.

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