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College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

Common Application Essay: 5 Tips Before You Write

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Common Application Essay 5 Tips Before You WriteYou’ve got a Common Application essay personal statement to write.

You sit down at the keyboard. Your fingers hover over the keys. You’re about to write your first words when —


  • Have you chosen an interesting essay topic?
  • Do you know your best qualities?
  • Can you show the schools how you think and make decisions?
  • Can you put your personality on the page?

If the answer is no, then you’re not ready to write.


1. Be Able to Answer Key Questions

Before you write your Common Application essay, you should be able to answer several important questions about yourself:

  • What are at least three of my most positive qualities?
  • What am I best at?
  • What am I most passionate about?
  • What obstacles or challenges have I faced and how have I gotten through them?
  • What are my saddest/happiest/most embarrassing moments? What did I learn from them?
  • Even if they seem silly or unimportant, what times in my life stand out to me? Why?
  • What do I want colleges to know about me when they’ve finished reading my essay?

Your essay provides a window into who you are.  At first that can seem like a lot to figure out, but it becomes easier when you break the answers down into small steps. It can even help you discover your best essay topic.

2. Stay Loose

Did you ever get so nervous that you couldn’t think? It happens to all of us — you sit down to write and your brain seizes up. Here’s what you can do to prevent your brain from a mini meltdown: 

  • Back away from the keyboard. Trick your brain into thinking it’s not thinking about your essay. Take a shower, walk the dog, play pickup basketball. Let your brain whir in the background while you’re doing other things. You’ll be surprised what kind of ideas can pop into your head.
  • Get creative! What are the craziest, weirdest things that have happened to you? Write them down! (When you lost track of the worms you bought for the compost pile…when you burned the cookies so badly your parents had to replace the stove…when you were thrown out of the museum for talking too loudly.) Even if you think an experience is “unimportant,” put it on the list. We’ve all got experiences that deserve a second look. Let your brain find them. 

3. Become a Fly on the Wall in Your Own Life.  

Are you looking for an essay topic? Are you concerned it could be better? Keep looking. Take a step back and be a fly on the wall in your own life. Become an observer.

Pay attention to what everyone’s talking about at school, how you interact with your family, what you think about when you’re by yourself. (Did your friends say something you disagreed with? Did your class conduct a psychology experiment that interested you in the human brain? Do you wish you could turn your bedroom into an art studio?)

Ask yourself what you were thinking about during those interactions, if you made any decisions, and why the moment was important to you. (Maybe you realized you needed to find a new group of friends, that you wanted to pursue psychology in college, that you’re happiest when you’re being creative.)

Remember, you don’t have to write about anything “big” — meaningful moments can occur anytime. If you take a step back and listen to what’s going on, you might be able to find one.

4. Don’t Stop at the Easy Answer

Your first answer runs the risk of being the easy answer — one that’s more superficial and less meaningful than you could eventually write. So don’t stop at your first answer. Keep digging and keep thinking. Come up with several possible answers before you decide what to write. 

5Jump start your memory

This is fun and easy! Scroll back through old photos, posts and texts and soon you’ll start to remember lots of stories from the past. Even better, you’ll discover tons of details you can use  — like exactly what your sister said to you when you had that fight, or how you felt when you caught that foul ball. Photos, posts and texts will reconnect you with your experiences. They might even inspire an entire college essay.

Take the time to think, and by the time you sit down at your keyboard you’ll be ready to write an interesting and successful essay.

Download a worksheet to help you find your Positive Qualities


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.



Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

One thought on “Common Application Essay: 5 Tips Before You Write

  1. Pingback: Writing College Application Essays: Finding Your Positive Qualities | Applying To College

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