You’ve heard tales of this mythical beast for years, this unicorn, this Loch Ness Monster. Now it’s senior year, and it is time to confront this elusive creature head on.

Behold, the college essay! Thar She Blows!

Before you panic and stab someone with your harpoon read a few of our tips and pointers.

1. Calm yourself

Think of the college essay process less as a burden and more as an opportunity. Believe that a great college essay is within your reach. All you have to do is be honest, clear, and let the reader know something that they wouldn’t be able to assume or surmise from the rest of your application. You don’t have to have a gimmick; you don’t have to have started a world famous philanthropic organization. You just have to be you.

2. Start with some questions

Take a peek at the Common App essay questions and rank them in order of your interest. Identify the top three and get out a timer or stopwatch. Set the clock for two minutes. Take out a journal, some blank paper, or open up a fresh Google Doc. Try to answer each question in two minutes. Use bullet points, jot down whatever comes to mind. Then take a look at your answers. Which do you think you could flesh out? Build on?

If this quick journaling exercise doesn’t speak to you, or you aren’t particularly interested in any of the Common App questions, try answering some of these:

  • Ask yourself, what or who do you truly love? Why? How has this love impacted your life?
  • If you could tell a stranger the single most important thing about you, what would you say?
  • What stories do you find yourself repeating over and over?
  • If you were a superhero, what would your origin story be? How has this origin influenced the person you are today?
  • What upsets you? Why?
  • What is your biggest secret?
  • What do you dream about?
  • What’s the weirdest thing about you?
  • What do you geek out over?
  • Who does your dog/cat/iguana/hedgehog think you are? Why?
  • Time travel — where would you go and why?

3. Free write

Alright, let’s write. Pick your three favorite answers and grab some more paper, open a blank page of your journal, or a new doc. Though the final Common App essay will have to adhere to the word limit (500-650 words), right now we are just pouring our answers onto the page. Aim to write at least 1000 words for each of your questions. Don’t worry about grammar, don’t worry about spelling, don’t worry about anything other than typing and scribbling as fast as you can.

4. Sit on it

Put your answers away for three days. Let them marinate. Let your subconscious do its magic. Don’t talk about your answers with anyone. Keep your cards close to your chest.

5. Revisit and revise

On the fourth day, read over your answers. Which excite you the most? Which do you think you want to expand, edit, or develop? If all else fails and you feel comfortable sharing, ask a friend, a parent, or bring in one of our amazing college essay tutors.

Now that you have some raw material, you are ready to shape and streamline. Tell a story. Use descriptive details. Tell the reader what it smelled like, looked like, felt like. Set the scene and let the reader in. Ultimately, you want the essay to balance narrative AND reflection. If you are looking for a good rule of thumb, you want about 60% of the essay to be a story and about 40% to be the take away, the meaning, the so what?, the lesson, the revelation.

6. Avoid clichés

There are some subjects that are time-worn and cliché. It’s not that you can’t make a great essay out of them; it’s just that it’s harder to stand out when you are conforming to a trope.

Here are some:

  • The what happened after I tore my ACL/broke my…/could no longer participate in the sport essay.
  • The time my team/I was losing the game and I scored the winning goal/point, etc.
  • The time I went to a developing nation and handed out clean underwear.
  • The I love music essay (why do I love it? Because it defies description = dead end).
  • The something significant that happened to my grandma/friend/person other than myself.
  • The time I travelled somewhere and realized that the world is really big.
  • The OMG the college application process is soooo stressful.
  • The let me tell you how much I hate xyz essay.

7. Check your privilege

Admissions readers will be looking at essays from across a spectrum of class, race, culture, gender, and experience. Consider your essay in this context. Make sure you acknowledge and express gratitude for the opportunities you have had.

8. Keep editing and revising

A few writing suggestions:

  • The beginning is not the beginning. Look about four sentences in — that’s likely where the story starts.
  • Kill your adverbs. If you don’t know what I mean, google “adverb,” then kill them.
  • Destroy the phrase “give back.”
  • Destroy the phrase “success/succeed.”
  • Mom and Dad are well-meaning, but go with your gut — make sure that even if you have someone working with you on the essay, that it still sounds like you.
  • (Triple Pro Tip: A dead giveaway that someone older than you edited the essay — it uses two spaces after each period. That’s what us old people use. It’s a subtle but powerful indication that the essay might be filtered through a parent/teacher, etc.).
  • Don’t make fun or mention the college admissions process in your essay; it’s cheesy and rarely works even as a gimmick.
  • Ditto for SATs/ACTs. The first rule of college admissions is that you don’t talk about college admissions.
  • Don’t lie, don’t fabricate, don’t write someone else’s story.
  • Slow your roll with that thesaurus — don’t pick a “big” fancy word because you think it will make you look smart. Nothing stinks more than big vocab used incorrectly.
  • Vary sentence structure — dont start every sentence with “I.” Go for varied rhythm with your sentences. If you have a few long ones, go for a little punch with some short ones.

9. Embrace the process

10. Deep breaths

11. You can do this

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