Why Students Should Start Working on Common Application Essays the Summer Before Senior Year

The common application essay is an essay the likes of which you’ve never written. You’ve been told that it’s a personal statement. But in fact, it’s not. It’s a strategic marketing document masquerading as a personal narrative.

In recent years, the common application essay has taken on new importance in college admissions offices. In fact, it’s become so important that many college admissions officers now refer to the common application essay as “The Deal Breaker.” Why? Primarily two reasons.

First, the common application essay is the only part of your application that helps admissions officers discriminate between you and all the other students with the same GPA and test scores. Think of it: All 1600 SAT scores (or 1400 or 1500) look alike. All 4.0 GPAs look alike, as do all 3.0 GPAs and 2.5 GPAs. There’s no way to tell the difference between you and your competitors by looking at the numbers.

Second, in response to concerns about the questionable predictive value of standardized test scores, college admissions officers have begun to scrutinize application essays for evidence of specific personal attributes and skills  associated with college success.  This means that what you write in your common application essay really matters. Put plainly, writing a great common application essay can spell the difference between an essay that gets you into all your top schools and a dull essay that’s forgotten before the college admissions officer even finishes reading your essay.

Why You Should Start Writing Your Common Application Essay in the Summer

Two Reasons. First, to write a great common application essay, one that distinguishes you from your competitors, you need to create an authentic representation of your unique value while simultaneously marketing yourself. To do this, you’re going to have to think hard about yourself, in more detail, and in ways you never have before, and you have to write about yourself in a way you never have before.

College admissions officials are not looking for an essay that reproduces your transcript or your accomplishments in prose. Nor are they looking for a high-school style essay that follows the conventions of high school history and English writing. They’re looking instead for a story that gives them a sense of who you are, a unique personal story that shows the writer as a person of distinction, a person with a voice. To make your common application essay stand out, you need to boast about yourself, in a decorous and modest way, and you need to sell yourself without sounding crass. Learning how to do this is going to take time.

Second, you are most likely going to have to write a lot of supplemental essays. Most of the colleges to which you apply will require you to write at least one supplemental essay in addition to the common application essay; some colleges require six or eight supplemental essays.

In college admissions offices, the supplemental essays are sometimes called “The Weeder-Outer Essays.”  College admissions officers use these college-specific supplemental essays to eliminate (or weed out) less qualified applicants. Consequently, they need to be taken as seriously as the common application essay.

To write a great supplemental essay or response, you have to learn how to strategically research each specific college to which you are applying and use what you learn to write a specific, memorable, and unique response that markets you well. To pull this off, you need cunning and a good deal of rhetorical dexterity. Learning how to do this is going to take time.

Unfortunately, though, most college supplemental essay prompts are not posted until the fall, and that means that you can’t get started on them until—at the earliest—the beginning of your senior year when you will also be visiting colleges, working to maintain or improve your GPA, filling out school profiles, requesting letters of recommendation, filing financial documents, and possibly retaking standardized tests all while trying to maintain your sanity.  That’s a lot to do.

On the other hand, the common application essay prompts are pretty much the same, year after year, and your story will always fit one. In fact, the prompts are not that important: More important is taking the time to figure out how to represent an important experience of yours with candor and in a way that will create a vivid impression on college admissions officers, while simultaneously selling yourself.

The key to success here is leaving ample time for reflection and for strategizing the essay so that it both represents your unique value and markets you as the best candidate for the schools to which you are applying.

Getting started early is the key to college admissions success!

Ready to begin? Call me. I’m eager to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.