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Ah, Summer -- Essay Time!

Girl writing a Common Application essay

In most parts of the country, spring is slowly blossoming into summer. Finally, a chance to change gears, experience a more relaxed schedule and -- if you are a rising high school senior –- start on that Common App essay! If you thought junior year was hectic and stressful, imagine next fall, when applications actually come due. It just makes sense to do what you can before deadline pressure sets in. Most selective colleges require a personal statement as part of their application, whether or not they use the Common App. Here are four steps to get you off on the right foot.

Step 1: Ignore the prompts.

The powers-that-be at the Common App have already disclosed that the prompts for the 2016-17 application cycle will not change from last year. But the truth is, the best essays are written without regard to the specific prompts provided for the personal statement. Why? Because the prompts are simply attempts by the colleges to elicit the types of essays they want. If you write the type of essay they want, it doesn’t really matter which prompt, if any, inspired you. Help them learn something true and individual about you, telling your story in your own authentic voice. The prompt will become irrelevant for you and your reader.

Step 2: Put away your resume.

The admissions officer about to read your essay already has access to a lot of information about you. Your transcript shows whether you tackle and succeed at challenge and where your academic strengths lie. Your test scores usually confirm the messages contained in the transcript, while providing a sense of how well your high school prepares its students. Your teacher recommendations describe the type of student you are, and your counselor sets your accomplishments within the context of your high school. The activities section covers what you do outside of school, albeit briefly.

As I said, it's a lot of information. Make sure you don't duplicate it in your essay! Rehashing a list of your accomplishments on the athletic field, in the school orchestra, or at the food pantry will not provide the insight the admissions reader hopes to find.

Step 3: Focus your message.

Obviously, the information listed above can’t present a complete picture of you as a person =– just ask your mom! What does it leave out? Spend some time reflecting on the various activities and accomplishments detailed in the rest of the application. Why did you do all that work for Habitat for Humanity, or study flatworms, or become a soccer star? What motivated you to organize that fundraiser, or read every Harry Potter book in a weekend, or write a 15-page paper about chimpanzee social systems? Admissions officers are begging applicants to uncover something deep and individual about their character and personality. Take the time to identify a quality that is quintessentially you.

Step 4: Set aside a two-week period to complete the essay.

Some students like the idea of dividing a task into easily digestible chunks, spread out over a period of weeks or months, to make the process seem less daunting. With very disciplined students this might work. More often, though, this is a terrible plan! It becomes easier to skip that small step today (“I’ll just do double next time”) and revise your schedule next week (“I’ll do it tomorrow, when it’s supposed to rain.”) Too often, by the end of the summer you have a lot of little steps that have again added up to a big task -- and, by the way, you had the essay hanging over your head all summer long! Even if you are able to produce an essay in dribs and drabs, chances are it won't be as coherent as one written in a compressed period of time.

So choose two weeks this summer and focus on producing those 650 words. You'll set your mind free, open your schedule for more fun time, and enjoy a feeling of accomplishment that might last all the way until reality hits in August.

While these steps provide a great foundation, they are just the beginning; brainstorming, drafting, revising and editing are still to come. If you need a guide through any part of the application process, give me a call or click the “Contact Me” button at the bottom of the page.

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