Writing the Common Application Essay                              by Patti Brugman


         Now that it’s mid-October, it’s time to start—and finish-- your Common Application essay. The Early Action deadline of November 1st offers students the advantage of applying early to get early results. Think of this as election year. You’re on the ballot and you need a campaign speech (for admission to college.) It’s time to start that essay and win your votes.

         New this year is the 500-word limit on the Common App essay. We suggest that you begin by telling your story in 600 words or more. Let the details pour out with bits of humor, sadness, and triumph. Let your pages sit for an hour or a day. Then edit, sleep, and edit some more. By paring down your essay to 500 words, you will find that your writing becomes terse and tightly focused.

         Think of your essay as your interview. Its purpose is to reveal your character. Whether you are talking about a tall ship sailing adventure, teaching yourself physics, or marching on Wall Street, the real story is why you did these things. What motivates you? Why did you decide to take Chinese or tutor inner city kids? Your life is the story.

         There are six possible topics. Look over the suggestions and begin by writing one sentence per topic. Make each sentence exciting, like the first line of a great book. Once you have written five fabulous sentences (or six if you like the open topic), read them over in a loud, internal voice. Choose which sentence you like best and which story you’d like to tell. What we have found is that, through this exercise, students end up using bits from all five topics in the essay they finally pick. Amazing, but true. Nothing you write is ever wasted.

         Finally, as you write, see this image: Somewhere in Boston, San Francisco, or Colorado, your essay will be one page in a tall, teetering stack of pages. Will yours be right on top or at the bottom of the stack? Will your reader pick up yours first thing in the morning or late into the night?  Those factors are out of your control. What you can control is the energy of your writing. No matter what, an essay with a catchy start and a moving story will be a winner. Also remember, if you make them laugh, they might not get it. If you make them cry or sigh, they’ll find you irresistible.  Start today!