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Hey! You Don’t Have to Start With Your Common App Essay

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What I see a lot right now from you overachievers working on July 2nd is that it’s all about the Common App draft. It seems like your process is to write draft after draft after draft, tearing up ideas and starting over just as soon as you think you like some other idea better.

Ya, don’t do that.

I’m not gonna lie. The Common App essay is likely the single most important thing you will do during the entire application cycle. Many schools don’t even have Supplementals, and even for those that do, your CA is going to be a massive aspect of what they think and say about you. I panic all the time, so I’m not a fan of telling other people not to do so. But what I can offer – and the topic for this blog – is an alternative strategy to create the best possible Common App topic and essay while also facing as little existential dread and stress as possible. Sound good?

But first a story about me.

I get it. When I first started this career, I did what most of you are doing now. I met with a brand new student face-to-face, and the first question I had was, “OK! What’s the single most important thing about you and your entire existence on Earth?”

It went alright. That first year I helped build a lot of “safe” Common App essays. Lots of stuff about building model airplanes and leading dance recitals. Workable stuff, but often not the most compelling.

We would then move onto the UCs. The UCs, for reference, are four 350 word essays about pretty much anything you want. They’re my favorite essays to write because they’re pure creative writing bliss.

I would first have students cut their then-finished Common App essay down to 350 words to submit as one of their four UC essays. The two applications have no cross-over, so you can and absolutely should be reusing content to save time and energy. Sometimes we could even cut that Common App into two UC drafts. This was kind of like doing half-ideas in reverse. I had a student write a Common App essay about his love of Chinese Martial Arts, with a good chunk of the piece involving his fear of performing in public because as a kid his friends had told him it “looked weird.” We split that bad boy in two and had half our work done!

But usually it was just the one UC, and then we had to write three more. I’d gotten to know the students a lot better by then, and this was probably the most fun I had all season working with them. All the charming, tiny details I had picked up on them from our hourly sessions could come to the forefront. The result was we cranked out some excellent work.

Some of that work was more excellent than what we wrote our Common App essay on…

It was usually the third essay we did. The first was just the rehashed Common App. The second was often the other thing they were into. But then, in that third essay, I pushed them to get more in touch with their feelings. To write about a challenge or something they struggle with—nothing tragic, but something hard. The result was a lot of powerful 350-word essays that we both knew were a better representation of their strengths and character than what we had gone with initially.

And then we realized that the 650 Common App essay we had already finished wasn’t the one we wanted to send. We wanted to send a 650-word version of this new topic.

So then we tore down the old Common App and wrote a new one, using the better UC 350 as our template. It worked, and their newer, more powerful essay got them into every school they applied to.

That is a lie. What actually happened is we figured this all out around November 16th and panicked. Most students agreed that it wasn’t a manageable situation, and we would have to stick to what we had. Those were the smart ones.

For a couple of students, the newer topic was so much better that I bit the bullet and worked double or triple shifts with them over the next few weeks as we frantically altered our path. It took a lot out of both of us, and the result was that while the topic was better, the race to build and polish it so quickly meant that the overall quality wasn’t much better or worse than the original one. The factors canceled each other out.

Frantically fixing things that are on fire in mid to late November is bad. I don’t recommend that. What’s much less bad is altering your strategy towards how you apply to schools now, in early July, to you give yourself the best chance for success down the line.

So that’s my advice to you. Skip all the headaches I had to go through and leave your Common App essay off to the side for now. Instead, get to work on your UC essays and, in lieu of them, your individual school supplementals.

The UCs are the most beneficial. Check out the list of eight topics and just go with one. You can even repurpose the 650 you’re already working on into a 350-word version and see how you like it. I’ve found that the best topics tend to keep working no matter how low the work count gets. A remarkable, compelling story has an impact at 50, 200, 350, 650, 3,000, and 60,000 words. It’s all a matter of writing it correctly.

Write at least three UC drafts, edit them, and have them be as good as you think they can be. Be ready to submit them directly to the UC right then and there, because in November the plan is you will be doing so. Then read those essays over and share them with people and see how you feel about them. It was striking to me just how obvious it was which UC essay was the essay. It popped out to us. It should pop out to you, too.

If you’re not applying to UCs, instead start with some supplemental school essays. The obvious choice is to start with the schools you care the most about, but I instead recommend choosing topics from schools that you only kind of care about and also you know what you want to write about. Supplementals are great because they tend to be more targeted in what they ask for. Often CA and UCs cause paralysis by analysis with too many options to choose from. Just pick some topics and go. You also don’t want to write for your top schools yet because A) You’re going to improve at writing essays as you do more of them and B) If/when you do settle on a supplemental essay to convert into your Common App, you will then have to rewrite a different answer for that supplemental. Duh.

Bonus Tip! Don’t try to convert any essay that directly involves the reason you’re interested in your major. You may notice that a lot of supplementals ask about that. You don’t want your CA to be about this topic because if so, you’ll then be pressed into a corner regarding what to write for those same supplementals down the line. Just avoid those questions for now and focus on writing about literally anything else.

Or you can just write. No one’s stopping you. Write 300 words about whatever you want. Then do it again, and again. Save the finished copies in a folder. There is an extremely high chance you will find yourself using that work somewhere down the line. If not for your Common App, than for a supplemental. I offer this advice because it might help someone, but I’ll admit that having to write something without any concrete plans to benefit from it beforehand sounds like what my day job will be once I end up in hell.

“OK, I have my 350 word UC essay all finished. What now?”

Well, now we add in 300 words. The best way I can describe how I teach students to “fluff” an essay to a higher word count is it involves doing the exact opposite of what you do to cut a 650 down to 350 in the first place.

I mentioned in a previous post an outline I use for many essays. If you scroll down to the comments, you’ll see a couple of exchanges I made about how much of each section should be in the piece. In a 350, the core aspects that must exist are:

  1. What you did
  2. How things ended up
  3. How the experience changed you
  4. What that change and the experience itself means for you going forward

That’s the core of a tight 350 word UC essay that works. But there’s a lot of other stuff you can add! Here are some suggestions:

  1. Your history that lead you up to the start of this experience
  2. How you felt during different points of the experience
  3. Your rationale for why you did the things you did
  4. A specific challenge you faced along your journey
  5. How you conquered that challenge
  6. Just more details, man. My “show don’t tell” piece is now at 3,000+ words, and I still hate it. But I’m working my way through it. Set some scenes. Tell the reader some details that, while not essential to the plot, better explain either you or how you view the world – because you are mentioning them in the first place for a reason.
  7. More info on what happened after the main story ended. UCs tend to hit the big finish and then GTFO. There’s room for a bit of an epilogue if it helps.
  8. Even more detail on 3 and 4 from above. I preach a narrative-heavy style of writing, but you need to hit home the importance of what you accomplished, how that made you think or feel differently going forward, and what that means as you plan to embark as a young adult on their next adventure. Hit it so hard.

No viable essay on Earth can’t be stretched from 350 to 650 words using at least a few of the bonus content ideas I just offered. Pick and choose what you want to add and go for it. Hell, feel free to try every single one making a massive Franken-essay of like 1,600 words. What’s neat about starting with a polished, 350 piece is that the core is already there. No matter what you write, you will know that all but 350 words can slide right off, and the core message will remain.

This doesn’t mean all 350 words should be transferred verbatim into a new file like a statue. You still need to plan and write another, longer essay. But do not be afraid to directly import as much content as possible so long as it fits and it is good.

If “fluffing” isn’t for you. Don’t be afraid to just start from square one and write a completely original essay utilizing the same topic and themes as your favorite UC. The key to all of this is getting the best topic and having some idea how you want to tell it. Even with this strategy, keep close tabs on what you’ve already written. I guarantee you will find spots to copy and paste sections back in.

Oh! Remember how I said that one kid broke his Common App essay into two separate UCs. You can do that too! Maybe! Think of each UC essay as a half-idea. Do any connections come to mind that make you realize those two topics are related in ways you may not have expected? If so, try and mash them together! You’ll need to do a good bit of finagling here, as the Common App essay needs to focus more on the connection between the two topics than those topics themselves. But you should still find that a ton of content you’ve already finished will easily fit right into your new UBER ESSAY.

(Don’t go chasing that dragon from the start, tho. I recommend just creating the best content you can to start. And only after you’ve written it then going back and trying to play mad scientist. Or be a mad scientist from the beginning; never gonna hate the player.)

A final added benefit of this strategy is that you will be able to gain practice in writing college essays on lesser works before you tackle the big one. I promise you that the 17th essay you write this year will be better than your first. College essay writing is a skill like any other. The closer you can make your Common App essay to your final one, the more time you will get to spend improving your skills. Doing everything I just outlined is going to be a much more efficient, effective method than plan A of writing the same draft over and over until you figure it out or go insane trying.

Shortening this skill gap is probably the primary benefit of hiring someone like me to work with you in the first place. Having a professional who knows the system already means that you may cut the line and have your early work pop in the same way your later work will naturally. It also really helps to have someone explaining how and why you should be writing things a certain way, so you don’t have to learn them yourself through trial and error.

But I’ll admit, I’m biased.


Want more?  Check out my FREE strategy guide on the “Why College” essay.


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(This piece won the 2020 r/applyingtocollege acorn award for most helpful post! It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever written. Half-ideas is such fire omg.)

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