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Jasmine's Take: 5 Tips to Get Started on Your Common App Essay

Jasmine Wheeler July 28, 2020

5 Tips to Get Started on Your Common App Essay

College application season has almost started, and for many rising seniors this means that it’s about time to start on the Common Application...which includes the dreaded essay. If you’re like me, then you may have found the idea of writing a personal essay to encapsulate yourself for colleges a little stressful, to say the least. Having survived the process with minimal pain, I can safely say that, while it may not be easy, writing your Common App essay can be a fun and approachable task. (Plus, having it off your college app to-do list feels amazing.) Here are some of my tips!


Sometimes, there can be nothing more intimidating than sitting at your computer with a blank document staring back at you. The idea of writing even one word might seem agonizing, especially if you are uncertain of what you want to say. The best way to overcome this paralysis is just to free write. It doesn’t matter if it has anything to do with what you think you want your Common App essay to be about. Vent about class. Write about the weird stiffness in your back. Try to follow your stream of thought. After free-writing for a while, chances are you’ll feel more comfortable starting your actual essay.


One of the trickiest parts of starting the Common App essay can be selecting a topic to write about. After all, you’re a very complicated person with lots of potential stories - how can you choose just one to write about? So, unless you’re certain what topic you want to talk about in your essay, don’t feel pressured to pick just one topic. Think of multiple stories that highlight important information about yourself, information colleges won’t be able to get from the other parts of your application. Try fleshing out an outline for each of these topics, and see if any of them compel you more than others. That way, you’ll be able to avoid worrying about if you made the wrong decision by claiming one topic too quickly. And, if you end up choosing a topic and hating it, you’ll have a list of other ideas on hand. 


Unless you’re a wizard who can write a fantastic essay on your first try, chances are you’ll need to be prepared to revise your work a lot. Having multiple drafts isn’t something to be afraid of. Think of it like being able to edit an email or a text before sending it, to make sure that the person receiving the text understands your point perfectly (and doesn’t read your embarrassing typos). First drafts are, generally, where you start to put ideas down into words. While undoubtedly important, this can often mean that you express those ideas unclearly, whether you use too many words to convey a simple point or forget an important aspect of the story you’re trying to tell in the rush to get it all down. So, after you write your first draft, take a break. Close your computer, go for a walk, get a soda, do what you need to do to take time away from your essay. When you come back, you’ll be able to read the essay with “fresh eyes”, meaning you’re more likely to actually read what you’ve written and notice points that need to change. After your second draft, take another break, come back to your essay, and start the process again. Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary to get to a solid essay you’re happy with. 


Don’t feel pressured to write one particular type of essay about yourself if it isn’t authentic to your experience. Students have gotten into college writing about profound social injustices they’ve overcome, their favorite hobbies, or even their favorite type of snack. How is that possible? The most successful essay-writers use their topic to convey a deeper truth about themselves. While what you write about on the surface level matters, it’s the information that the college learns about who you truly are that matters the most. It doesn’t matter if you write a great essay about social justice if there’s no personal truth ingrained in what you have to say. Stay true to your life story, and communicate your personal truths through the topics and stories that mean the most to you. 


It can be very helpful to get a second or third pair of eyes to read through your Common App essay, whether it’s one of our consultants at Estrela, your English teacher, or maybe even a parent. However, it becomes less helpful when you start to have five or six pairs of eyes reading through, or even worse, telling you how you should rewrite it as if they’re speaking gospel truths. Having a few people to watch for typos or awkward phrasing leads to productive essay-writing that better communicates your intention. But if you start to have too many opinions trying to alter the content of what you have to say, your essay can quickly become a compilation of other people’s feelings and your truth can get muddled. Don’t depend too much on what other people think of the essence of what you have to say.

Hopefully, these tips have inspired you to take a stab at writing your Common App essay. If you’re looking for more specific guidance, we at Estrela have excellent people to offer helpful (but not overbearing) advice on how you can revise your writing!

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Jasmine Wheeler

We are thrilled to announce a new Estrela column: "Jasmine's Take!" Jasmine Wheeler joins Estrela’s team as a recent high school graduate, taking a gap year before joining Stanford’s Class of 2025. Working in social media management and writing, she hopes to offer an insider perspective on what it’s like to go through the college process. In her spare time, Jasmine enjoys watching films with her family and working on her writing projects. 

Tagged: college applications, common app, essay development, essay writing, essays, Coronavirus, COVID-19

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