Conquer Your Common App Essays

If you’re still struggling with your college applications—especially those personal essays—don’t despair.

Here’s a 5-step plan you can execute this weekend to get your essays organized and on track to distinguish yourself from the crowd of students who have grades and SATs just like yours.

1. Make a chart

Once you’ve got the work organized, you’ll feel much better, so your first task is to make a list of the colleges you are actually applying to (8 to 10 is plenty: 2 Reach, 4 Target, and 2 Likely, or add one more Target and Likely), including the type of admission, the due date, any supplements, special forms, etc.

2. Start with your top-choice college

It helps to think about each college you are applying to as a separate conversation. So starting with your top-choice college, go on the website, imagine you have been admitted, and make a very detailed list of what you will do when you are there.

  • Which courses will you take?
  • Which professors’ research interests you?
  • Which clubs will you check out as soon as you get to campus, and what roles will you play in each?

Be as specific as possible with 8 to 10 different things you will do as a student at your top-choice college.

3. What makes you unique?

Now comes the fun part! Lots of students can say they are interested in math or community service.

Go deeper.

Go past the things that everyone can say, and find the moments that you learned, changed, or made a difference in your school or your community.

4. Use details, description, and dialogue

The power of storytelling comes from the details of your story that resonate with the reader’s own personal experience. So the more specific the story you tell in your college application essays, the more powerfully you will connect with admissions readers.

Once you’ve found your unique defining moments, shape it into an essay with details and dialogue that draw the reader in. Those specific details are what connect your story to others, so take the time to distinguish your moment—and you—from everyone else.

5. Two drafts and done

The more work you do on the essay, the worse it gets. If you love the topics, you will be done in two drafts.


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