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Common App Essay-Writing Tips and Resources

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Happy July! These past few weeks, my seniors have been hard at work on their college essays with the goal of finishing personal statements by the time they head back to school in the fall. Here are a few tips for seniors who need some direction in drafting their common app personal statements.

1. Use solid resources. When I’m getting started with my seniors, I like to use Ethan Sawyer/College Essay Guy’s materials. Sawyer provides a basic curriculum and structure that helps students generate essay ideas and begin drafting. Even better, many of his resources are free: College Essay Guy | College Application and Essay Help

2. Write what makes sense to write about. The common app gives you seven different prompts to choose from this year: 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts. Guess what? You don’t need to address any of these prompts specifically. Write what works for you. Rest assured, prompt #7 invites you to write about a topic of your choice.

3. You are not required to write about a challenge that you have overcome. There is a common misconception that you must write your personal statement about a significant obstacle and how you conquered it. If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid adversity in your life, don’t worry if your essay doesn’t involve a challenge. There are other ways to write about yourself (again, see College Essay Guy). Just be authentic! And, by the way, if you HAVE experienced challenges in your life, you do not need to write about them unless you want to.

4. Try not to box yourself in by the essay's 650-word limit when you’re writing that first draft. Just get your ideas down and don’t exclude anything initially. You can easily cut words later. Trust me!

5. Draft, edit, revise, and repeat (many, many times). I start working with students on their essays in June before their senior year to give us plenty of time to go about this process thoughtfully. In the words of the illustrious Mark Twain, "The difference between the right and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug." Smart guy, that Twain!

6. Have a trusted adult like me review your drafts and offer feedback. It’s ok and even encouraged to have someone help you with concision issues/word count, clarity (does this essay make sense?), or to catch any typos or grammar issues. Just remember that anything you submit to colleges needs to be yours authentically. Do not let a parent or anyone else commandeer the writing process (and your voice) from you. It’s unethical and college admission officials are seasoned at detecting when students’ essays are not their own.

7. Try to have a little fun writing this essay! True, drafting your personal statement is a completely different exercise from writing an academic essay, and, in many ways, it’s much more challenging. But instead of analyzing the significance of the green light in The Great Gatsby, you get to talk about what makes you uniquely you. Go ahead and use a little humor if it works, but don’t force it if it’s not your style. Be creative and original. In 650 words, this is your opportunity to showcase yourself to colleges in a way that isn’t just repeating what already appears elsewhere in your application.

Happy writing! Please be sure to reach out with your questions. Meanwhile, if you need help getting started on those supplemental essays, stay tuned for my next blog post….

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