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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

6 Tips for Stress Free College Essays

There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes comic that I like to show college-bound 12th graders around this time of year. In the comic, Hobbes asks Calvin, who is playing the sandbox, if he has an idea for his story yet. Calvin replies in the negative: he’s “waiting for inspiration…You have to be in the right mood.” When Hobbes asks what mood is necessary for getting started, Calvin answers, “Last-minute panic.”

This scenario hits home for most seniors applying to college, and not just because the admissions process is long, complex, and frequently fueled by stress and anxiety. In spite of the fact that applications are reviewed holistically in the admission office, there is a lot riding on the writing components, specifically. College applications typically include one or more essays: a long, narrative essay and/or at least one shorter, more direct essay that explains the applicant’s interest in the school or major for which they are applying. In the Common Application, which is accepted by over 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities, these essays are called the Personal Essay, which goes to all of the schools to which the applicant applies using the Common App, and supplemental essays, which are specific to each school. A few colleges do not require any essays, but most require at least one.

Application essays are important because they play a key role in determining both admission and merit scholarship offers for admitted students. Essays are not the only determining factor; they are considered alongside the applicant’s high school transcript, extracurricular activities, accomplishments and awards, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores (which are optional now at many schools). Yet the personal nature of essays – written by unique individuals, with their own unique experiences and values – make them natural differentiators between students taking similar courses, earning similar grades, and engaging in similar after school activities.

Clear, well-written essays can help applicants present themselves in their own voices; convey the personal qualities and characteristics that make them who they are; demonstrate their interest in and fit for the schools they’re applying to; and secure the support of admission officers who will advocate for them in committee discussions about which applicants to admit and deny. Perhaps most importantly, thoughtful college essays can (and should!) also be fulfilling sources of self-discovery, as students reflect on and articulate who they are, how they’ve grown in high school, and what they want from their college educations.

But take note! Clear, thoughtful college essays are rarely written in a state of “last-minute panic.” To reap the academic, financial, and personal rewards of well-written essays, applicants should consider these 6 tips for stress-free college essays that will minimize anxiety and maximize success in admissions and beyond:

1. Identify the Prompts

As soon as you decide which schools you’ll apply to, add them to your Common App account. Move through the application carefully, including both the main Common App and each school-specific application, looking for any and all writing prompts. Make a list of the required and optional essay prompts for each college or university to which you’ll apply, including both the Personal Essay and supplemental essays. If you are using the Coalition Application or institutional applications, consult each one to determine the essays that you’ll need to write.

Why is this important?

  • Understanding how many essays you’ll need to write will help you pace yourself over the coming weeks and months.

  • Listing the prompts ahead of time will help you avoid missing an essay at the eleventh hour (especially if prompts are “hidden” in unexpected parts of the application).

  • Knowing your supplemental essay prompts can help you choose a Personal Essay topic, and vice versa. (For example, if you need to write about X in a supplemental essay, then you can use your Personal Essay to write about Y instead).

  • Choosing similar prompts (when you have the option to choose) can save you time because you may be able to “recycle” content from one essay for another.

If you are feeling especially motivated, organize your list in order of application deadline, and make yourself a personal schedule for completing drafts and revisions of each essay.

2. Embrace the Writing Process

Since elementary school, you’ve been taught that writing is a process that includes prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading in order to arrive at a publishable (or submittable) final product. Utilizing the writing process for your college application essays will ensure that the essays you submit are your very best work, making you a more compelling applicant and potentially increasing the merit scholarships that colleges will offer you as they convince you to enroll at their school.

How does the writing process work for college essays?

  • Prewrite: first, understand the question or prompt, brainstorm ideas for the topic and theme of your essay, and generate preliminary content by freewriting or outlining

  • Draft, with a focus on content: for personal essays, ensure that the essay conveys both a topic (a central story or main event) and a theme (a main point about why this story/event is important to you). For supplemental essays, ensure that the content of the essay answers the question or addresses the prompt.

  • Revise, with a focus on structure: do the paragraphs or sections “flow” together? How effectively is the content organized?

  • Edit, with a focus on clarity and consistency: is the language clear, concise, and consistent? Is the essay written in the applicant’s authentic writing voice?

  • Proofread, with a focus on grammar, spelling, and format: is the essay grammatical and free of typos and other errors? Is it formatted correctly on the page or in the online application?

Prewriting is arguably the most important stage of the writing process because choosing the most effective content often dictates the speed and success of the rest of the writing process. It’s hard to bake a cake without the right ingredients, especially if the cake needs to be German chocolate or red velvet or gluten-free. The same is true for writing college application essays, which ask you to convey specific types of information and often expect you to do so in a specific style. To extend the metaphor, you wouldn’t frost the cake before you’ve finished baking it, so you should resist the urge to correct verb tenses, or to smooth out awkward sentences, before you’ve determined whether the content is appropriate and the structure is effective. It doesn’t make sense to spend 30 minutes editing a paragraph that won't make it to the next draft anyway.

3. Share Your Essays With Others

If you know the writing process, then you know that constructive criticism is a key component in improving the quality of your writing from draft to draft. Identify a couple of readers who are able and willing to review your essays and offer suggestions for improvement.

A few tips for maximizing your productivity:

  • Ask readers who are familiar with college application essays, particularly with the difference between personal and supplemental essays. These readers could be peers who are tackling their own essays (and for whom you can reciprocate as a reviewer!). Or they could be counselors or teachers or parents who have helped students through the process before.

  • Limit the number of readers you’ll ask. At the risk of overusing the baking metaphor, I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “too many cooks in the kitchen.” While inviting different perspectives can be helpful in your writing process, too many essay readers increase the chances that you’ll receive contradictory advice. Pick a few readers whose opinions you trust, and leave it at that.

  • Give your readers a list of specific questions or topics to consider, and focus those questions and topics on the current status of your essay in the writing process. For example, if you’re sharing a first draft, ask your readers to address the content, such as the effectiveness of the topic and theme. Is there anything missing? Does the essay answer the question or speak to the prompt? If you’re sharing a final draft, ask them to point out grammatical or other errors.

Finally, be open-minded about the feedback you receive, but remember that, ultimately, the essay is yours. You don’t need to incorporate all of the suggestions you receive – but you should consider suggestions carefully before you decide whether to take them or leave them.

4. Save Each Draft

Writing is often a process of trial and error, and one draft is not necessarily “better” than its predecessor. Save each version of each essay in case you like the old one better than the new one, or in case you want to bring back a paragraph or a sentence that you took out but now miss in the subsequent draft.

This means that you should work on your essays outside of the online application, using word processing software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word. When you decide your essay is done, and after you’ve proofread it for sentence- and word-level errors, copy and paste the completed essay into the application. Before you submit it, make sure that you preview it to see that it’s properly formatted. Common issues that occur when copying and pasting include not enough or too many line breaks between paragraphs and special characters that appear correctly in Word or Google Docs but aren’t supported in Common App. Check that these issues are resolved before you hit “submit.”

5. Start Early

By now, you’ve surely realized that you need more than a couple days or a week to complete your application essays. Indeed, the writing process itself could take several weeks or even months, especially if you are working on more than one or two essays at a time. It’s never too late to create a plan and get started, but the process certainly goes much smoother with a few months’ lead time.

Besides allowing time for several drafts before submission, starting your essays early also enables you to build in time for breaks: time to rest between drafts, time to ask readers for constructive criticism, and time to consider readers’ feedback before deciding how to proceed. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the best ways to avoid “last-minute panic” is to avoid procrastination. Even if it feels like you’re taking baby steps, completing small tasks here and there – adding a college to your Common App account, or identifying the writing prompts in one or two colleges’ applications, or compiling the prompts in a master list of all the essays you’ll need to write – will save you time and energy in the end.

6. Remember the Questions

As you juggle multiple essays for several different schools, keep yourself grounded by remembering the questions at the heart of the prompts.

The Personal Essay in the Common App (and often in other applications) allows you to choose a prompt from a variety of options, but the main question it asks is “What do you want readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores?” At this point in the application, you’ve shared a number of facts about you, including your courses, grades, and test scores but also your accomplishments, awards, and activities. However, you’re not a walking ACT score, and your role as Editor of the high school newspaper doesn’t define you. So who are you, and how did you get that way? The Personal Essay is your chance to highlight a value or characteristic or personal quality that makes you uniquely yourself. What else should readers know about you?

Supplemental essays, on the other hand, are focused on who you will be at each school you apply to. While some schools do not ask or require supplemental essays as part of the application, many do. Common supplemental essay prompts include

  • Why are you interested in studying the major or academic interest area that you’ve selected?

  • Why are you applying to this school?

  • How will you get involved at this school (for example, in a community within this school, in an extracurricular activity, as a student of the major you’ve selected)?

  • How will you contribute to this school community or campus, given your previous experience(s)?

While the Personal Essay is a narrative that conveys the values, characteristics, or qualities underlying your academic and extracurricular record, supplemental essays explain your interest and likely contributions to the schools you’re applying to. Both types of essay demonstrate your fit for those schools, as application readers seek to determine whether their school environment is an environment in which you’ll thrive.

Ultimately, the essays in your applications are just one of several components that admission officers take into account during their holistic reviews. Yet a lot seems to ride on them, from conveying who you are to demonstrating that you belong. You can’t control how others will perceive you through your writing, but can ensure that your writing is honest and authentic. What else do you want to share? How will you contribute? If you answer these questions – and if you’ve taken the time to plan, draft, revise, and edit your essays with care – you’ll maximize your success while (hopefully) minimizing your stress and avoiding “last-minute panic.”

Need more resources for getting started? Try the College Essay Guy’s Values Exercise, review the AXS Companion’s incredible explanations and resources for writing both the Common App personal essay and supplemental essays for individual schools, and check out more writing tips from the Wow Writing Workshop.

For personalized application or essay help, reach out to me at to set up your free initial consultation.

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