Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


Stuck? 5 Tips to Jump-Start Your College Essay

5 ways to reduce college application essay stressHow are those college application essays coming?
For many students, not well. For many parents, not fast enough. It can be hell out there.

Here are 5 Tips to Reduce the Stress of Writing College Application Essays:

1.  Make a List of All the College Essays You Need to Write

  • The Common Application requires two essays: A “personal statement” of 250 – 500 words, and a shorter essay about an activity or interest (1000 characters, including spaces).
  • If you’re applying to a school that requires supplemental essays, make a list. Write down the exact prompt of each supplemental essay, and the word limit.
  • Some schools don’t accept the Common Application: Write down the exact prompt of each essay, and the word limit.

2. Streamline Your Work

  • Don’t give yourself more work than you need to. Look at all the essay prompts and decide if it’s possible to use an essay you’ve already written, or an idea from that essay, for more than one school.
    • For example: For the Common App, one of my students wrote about a life lesson he learned while playing ping-pong with his dad. But another school, which didn’t accept the Common App, asked him to write about an activity he enjoyed. So he adjusted part of his Common App essay, and wrote about playing ping-pong with his dad as his activity essay for that school.

3. Get Past Writer’s Block

We’ve all been there, staring at the keyboard, waiting for inspiration that never arrives. You can’t relax. You can’t say what you want. It all sounds like garbage, and you might as well toss the whole thing. Here’s how to Stage Your Own Writing Intervention:

  1. Trick your brain: Think about your essay everywhere EXCEPT in front of your keyboard. This works, because it allows your brain to become more creative and relaxed.  Walk your dog, ride your skateboard, take a shower –  let your brain be inspired.
  2. Freewrite: Are you having trouble knowing where to start? Then don’t! Forget about writing “THE ESSAY.”  Instead, try a freewrite. Give yourself 10 or 15 minutes, and write a train of thought paragraph about your topic. Make sure to include the details: who, what, when, where and why. Then move on to sensory details: What you felt, heard, tasted, saw, smelled. What were your emotions? What were you thinking? How did it affect you? You’ll be surprised at the material you come up with. Then, you should be able to move on to writing your essay.
  3. Write Like you Talk. Is your writing too stilted or formal? Talk it out. (Better yet, talk to someone– even if it’s your  dog or cat.)  As you talk, your sentences will start to flow.
    • Tip #1: Don’t feel like you have to speak in finished sentences. Start by talking about what you want to write about, and why.
    • Tip #2: When you say something you like, write it down. Better yet, record it, and then go back and write down the parts you liked.

4.  You Don’t Need a One-of-a-Kind Topic

It’s okay not to have a unique topic, because YOU are what’s unique in the essay.

Your perspective – the lens through which you view your topic – is far more important than the specific topic itself.” (My favorite quote, from a college admissions counselor at Yale)

  • It means, be honest and specific, and write about what’s important about you –  what kind of decision-maker, or leader, or artist you are – what’s inspired you, or how you dealt with a problem, or how your life has shaped you. As long as it’s from your point of view, and says good things about you.

Write your essay from your perspective, and don’t sweat about finding a unique topic.

5. Escape the Family War Zone.


  • If You’re Overwhelmed, Ask for Help. Never be embarrassed to ask for help. Guidance counselors, teachers and private professionals can answer questions, guide you through the application process, provide feedback on your essays, and work with you on achieving your deadlines. Help is out there – you just have to ask for it.


  • Despite a family’s best support, sometimes a student’s stress level can build to overload. If you’re concerned about meltdowns, missed deadlines, and becoming the “application police,” consider enlisting a professional to help with college search, essay writing skills, application filing, etc. The peace and ultimate success will be worth it.

related posts
7 Tips for Parents to Reduce College Application Stress

10 Tips for Students to Reduce College Application Stress

Dealing with the Stress of College Applications
Peterson’s: Reducing Stress About College Admission Requirements
New York Times: The Burden of the College Admissions Process (students write about their college application experiences)

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

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