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Five Foolproof Tips for Conquering the Common Application Essay

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The first time I successfully did a handstand in yoga class, it was unexpected and almost effortless. My legs kicked up, and then, as if being lifted by string, I was supporting my body with my arms.

When we talk about strategies for tackling the college essay, I like to tell the story of my first handstand, or Shirshana as it’s called in Hindi. I ask my students whether or not they think that I kicked up into the pose on my first class, on my first try?

The answer, of course, is no.

I had been going to class three to four times a week, for years; the muscles in my body grew strong and conditioned over time.

Five guiding principles—showing up to practice, embracing my passion, honoring the process, refining my practice, and believing I could do it—allowed me to leap up into the air that day.

Are you interested in conquering your college essays with confidence and grace? These same essential principles can also help guide you when it comes to writing your common application essays. Just follow these five, simple strategies and essay greatness can be yours:

1. Establish A Weekly Writing Schedule. In the same way that basketball players, yogis, and concert pianists alike practice many times a week to hone their craft, students need to find time every week to devote to their college essays. At CEA, we recommend working on your essays two-four times during the week and using the weekend as a time to dig more deeply into the material. If you have the good fortune of starting your essays over the summer (hurrah!), which we ALWAYS recommend, work on your essays for an hour every day, or as much as possible. During the fall semester, students often report that they only have time to work on their essays during the weekend because they are so busy with school. When students limit working on their essays to weekends alone, we find that—like a snail dragging itself down an endless path—the student’s writing progress is painfully slow and the quality of the writing is diminished. Your college essays are a very important determinant of where you attend college. Make writing your essays a priority, commit to working on them several times a week, and you’ll be well on your way to essay-writing success!

2. Essay Topic Is Everything. If you have a topic that you genuinely love, that speaks to who you are, and what makes you tick, your writing will showcase your enthusiasm, and shine. Let’s say, for example, that you are writing about cancer subpopulations, which you are currently studying in AP bio, or a recent volunteer experience, because these seem like topics that that make you sound serious and studious. Secretly, you think these topics are a major snoozefest. You’d much rather write about hip hop music, video game design, or contact juggling. Students, and parents helping students, please write about something you are genuinely passionate about, that you would love to talk about with a friend all day long. The writing process will go faster and the final product will be stronger and more energized. Most importantly, the admissions director will be thrilled to read an essay that is unlike the giant stack of serious, studious, and incredibly snooze-worthy essays sitting in front of her.

3. Chunk It. Rome, as the saying goes, was not built in a day. Similarly, it would be almost impossible to write all of your essays in one or two sittings, and do a good job. To master handstand, I worked little by little. Exercises like downward dog and dolphin pose strengthened my bicep and shoulder muscles, preparing me for the pose. Similarly, at CEA we recommend breaking down the essay-writing process into a series of manageable steps. Here is an example of a sample schedule that I might give one of my students for tackling the Common Application Essay, which you could adapt and use for any essay:

ASSIGNMENT #1. Due Monday: Choose essay topic/brainstorm

ASSIGNMENT #2  Due Wednesday: Write first paragraph

ASSIGNMENT #3  Due Saturday: Write second paragraph

ASSIGNMENT #4  Due Tuesday: Write complete first draft

ASSIGNMENT #5. Due Thursday: Write second draft

ASSIGNMENT #6. Due Monday: Final draft due

4. Good Writers Revise, and Then Revise Some More. Writer Anne Lammot, in her excellent, humorous writing manual Bird by Bird, gives helpful advice on how to approach the drafting process:

Start by getting something–anything–down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental, where you check every tooth, to  see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Lammot gives us the writing/revising process in three stages: 1.) Down Draft: get your ideas, any ideas, down on paper. 2.) Up Draft: Revise your draft for content, structure, vocabulary and grammar.  3.) Dental Draft: Here is where you do very close, line-by-line editing, to make sure every word and every sentence is perfect. When you reach the Up Draft phase, this is a good time to have an adult with writing expertise (a teacher, tutor, counselor, or relative) read your essay over for any glaring issues that you might have missed.

5.I’ve gotta have faith” crooned the late singer George Michael in his debut solo album, which scored a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1989.

It’s true that faith is the key to surviving the all-consuming, tumultuous college admissions process. If you have faith in the process, choose a topic that inspires you, stick to a schedule, and diligently revise, essay greatness can be yours. If you get behind, overwhelmed, or stuck, just take a break and return to work later on. Senior year is a uniquely stressful and hectic time for students and parents. In yoga class, when things get challenging, instructors always remind you to stay calm, flexible, and focused, and when all else fails, do what I did right after I tumbled right out of handstand and onto the floor: Just breathe. Curl up into child’s pose. Then get right back up.

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