Application and Essay Tips

Essay Advice Roundup

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It’s mid-September and most high school seniors who are aspiring college students are now thinking about -- if not angsting about -- their application essays. Most college applicants will be using the Common Application for their college process. There are other application methods, but the Common App is, by far, the most used these days.

I have been writing articles and blog posts for College Confidential since 2001. Across those 17 years, I’ve frequently written about how to incorporate the best approaches to writing application essays, both the main Common App essay (the one with the 650-word limit) and those pesky so-called “supplemental” essays that colleges love to tack onto the Common App.


Thus, because it’s that time of year again and there’s a new crop of high school seniors stewing over their college choices and chances, I thought I would put together a compendium of my advice about essays from years past. If you’re one of the several regular readers of my blog [insert chuckle here], you will probably remember seeing some of the material that the links below reveal.

If so, and you’re already in college or a parent, you may want to forward this post to a current senior who is in the college process barrel to help him or her deal with some of the essay writing stress that is so common among that group. I have highlighted eleven blog posts.

I lead off with a review of the Common Application essay prompts. They are likely the main source of concern these days. Supplemental essays come later. However, all the advice I offer below is equally applicable to both the Common App and supplements, even those “short responses,” where humor is such a helpful tool.

For each link that leads to one of my posts, I have included a snippet of text to guide you in. This is a long list, so don't feel duty-bound to read all of them. Just scan the titles and text excerpts (“textcerpts:" A new word!) to see what strikes your fancy. Note: Some reference previous Common App prompts, but the info on the approach remains pertinent.

So, here we go ...

Here are the 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompts, and read below for the 11 blog posts.

Application Essays -- Admit This! “I put together a kind of essay clinic for those applicants who are unsure about how to approach application essays. I called my clinic Real-Life College Essay Lessons. Here’s an example of what you’ll find there …”

Great Common Application Essays -- Admit This! “As we have been approaching this year’s Jan. 1 Regular Decision deadline, I’ve been concentrating on essays in my posts here. Today, I want to show you some more samples of excellent Common Application essays so that they might inspire you to a better level of writing …”

Using Humor in Your College Essay -- Admit This! “A while back, I was chatting with an admissions officer from a highly competitive university. We were discussing the importance of the essay in college applications …”

More About Essays -- Admit This! “What I thought I would do today is present a small sample group of essays written by applicants who were successful in getting into top schools, some Ivy League and other top-20 colleges. My point in doing this is to show you what quality writing looks like …”

More On Essays -- Admit This! “I guess if you say the title of this post fast, it could sound like “Moron Essays.” Trust me; I’ve seen some moron essays in my day, but the sample I’d like to share with you today is far above the moron class. In fact, the writer of this essay was admitted early to one of The Big Three Ivy League universities …”

More Essay Insights -- Admit This! “Colleges like to see evidence of their applicants dealing with adversity and rising above it. Overcoming difficult circumstances is a legitimate topic for college application essays, assuming that those circumstances are, indeed, difficult …”

Adventures in Essayland -- Admit This! “The Common Application requires a ‘major’ essay and many colleges that use the Common Application also throw a supplement your way that usually requires additional writing in the form of either another longish statement or a hit parade of so-called ‘short responses’ …”

The Application Essay: Think About It -- Admit This! “Over the years, in helping many seniors attack their application essays, I have always been surprised at how many of them are stumped for ideas, especially when faced with the ‘Any topic’ prompt. Essay ideas are everywhere; we just don’t see them …”

Essays with A Smile -- Admit This! “Try a little humor, I say! If you can put a smile on the faces of those admissions folks who will be reading your application, then you will have gone a long way to helping them remember you from amid the piles and piles of applications that glaze over their eyes every year …”

Application Essays -- Admit This! “I put together a kind of essay clinic for those applicants who are unsure about how to approach application essays. I called my clinic Real-Life College Essay Lessons. Here’s an example of what you’ll find there …”

Applying You to Your Application Essays -- Admit This! “There are a lot of opinions out there about application essays. You’ll find blogsarticles and books galore. But what happens when your bundle of writing skills meets the probing prompts of the various schools to which you want to reply? …”

Wrapping up ...

What you'll see in the samples that I posted above is the natural style incorporated by the writers. Their essays flow smoothly and don't have an "academic" feel about them. When you read these, you can almost hear the writers speaking. In other words, their "voice" is natural and not at all affected by formality or overblown usage. They don't use big words just for the sake of impressive vocabulary. Big words don't impress admissions committees. A natural voice, convincingly presented, does.

So, think about an essay idea that will address one of those Common Application (and supplemental) topics. The best essays help you to stand out in a crowd and reveal who you are and how you think. Sure, you can write a good essay about anything, but an essay often has the most impact if it highlights something that is unique or unusual about YOU.

There’s a great essay lurking inside you. Read my advice, create a strategy, reach down deep and unlock that winning statement!