If you haven’t yet, it’s time to open a Common App account!
It’s easy, and smart, to start filling out some of the basic information. Your writing for essays and supplements can be added in after you have developed and edited them.
Counselors from the Independent Educational Consultants’ Association, along with the Oregon State admission technology team, have built a great guide to completing the app, along with video commentary from admission professionals and counselors from a range of institutions. Find it here.
About those essays… late September through October is the time to begin brainstorming ideas, then drafting, editing, re-drafting and polishing.
Where to begin? I’m a big believer in the writer Anne Lamott’s advice in her essential book on writing, Bird by Bird. Excuse her salty language… but this is an invaluable mindset for just about any task: “A sh**ty first draft, while not a thing of beauty, is a miracle of victory over nothingness, inertia, bad self-esteem.” Just getting words on paper or a screen is the first step of the journey.
Give yourself enough advance time that you can let the essay sit for a few days or a week between editing/ working sessions. It helps you keep a fresh perspective and keeps you from getting too much in your own head.
Here are a few more essay pointers:
The best essays don’t take on the meaning of life or universal truths. The 500 to 650 word Common App genre doesn’t allow for that kind of large-scale thinking in a way that can allow for expression of your unique perspective. Think small and specific. Aim to offer a look at a slice of your life that shows who you are, what’s important to you, how you spend your time, or a time that you learned something, in a way that adds a little dimension to what a reader knows about you beyond the data in the rest of the application.
I like to remind students that the essay is the one piece of the application that is completely in their hands to shape right now, and to offer a perspective that helps understand the rest of your record, which is all history now. That's exciting; own it.
At the same time, the nature of the evaluation process is that readers will only spend a few minutes reading your carefully shaped essay. It doesn’t pay to overthink or obsess about it! Most folks with admission experience would agree with me that the overwhelming majority of essays fit the category of “just fine”— they affirm the general impression of the application and student record. A small percentage of essays might help tip an application that is otherwise on the borderline, or leave a memorable impression in their specificity. You can aim to fit that category by working to shape a story that only you could tell, in a voice that feels authentic to your teenage self. Over-polishing, abusing the thesaurus, and letting adults put words in your mouth, so to speak, are things to avoid.
Just for fun, here's a classic list of other things you might seek to avoid in your essay, from one of the great college essay advisors.
Don’t sleep on supplements! Those typically shorter questions asked by specific colleges are essential opportunities to demonstrate your fit and interest. Whether you think the college is a reach or a likely, it matters.
Priceless advice 1: write the supplement as another opportunity to explain you and what matters to you— then make specific, researched connections to what the college offers.
Priceless advice 2: if the supplement topic feels impossible to answer, makes no sense to you, or even conflicts with your values, that’s a good sign that the college is not a good fit! For this reason, reading supplemental questions before you apply is a smart research step.
For more essay advice, brainstorming guidance, and feedback and drafts— let’s talk!
While we are on the subject of writing, please don’t forget to write a thank you to those adults who have offered to write letters of recommendation to you. A simple thank you, especially hand-written, means more than a gift to those teachers and counselors. I still have file folders filled with every hand-written note and card I received during the time I worked in schools.
After you write that note, don’t forget to spend time this month looking up and looking around. This is your last year at home and in your school, with that set of friends. Be present. Get outside and take a walk (I’m serious!) to keep your perspective in the midst of all this application focus.
While you’re on that walk, ponder this question: Why am I applying to college? If you’re not sure, or if your answer is shaped by others’ expectations, that’s worth conversation, consideration, and serious reflection.
Most ED deadlines are in November. You should make the call to apply with a month lead time, and be sure that your teachers and school counselor have at least a month’s notice.
Early Decision is a serious, binding commitment. It’s not to be taken lightly, it does not increase your likelihood of admission to a major reach or unlikely school, and you really should feel confident, with as much evidence as you can compile, that it’s a place you’d sacrifice all your other options for. Believe it or not, “buyer’s remorse” in ED is a common phenomenon. When I worked at Colorado Academy, we tracked student pathways over time, and found consistently that students who attended schools they were admitted to in binding Early processes were the most likely to seriously consider transfer later on.
How are things going? Hopefully you’re getting the hang of things as your courses take on some added rigor, and your activities begin to deepen.
Your primary job for now is to continue to orient yourself to these realities, to connect to opportunities, and to explore interests.
The teachers you have this year will be the ones writing your recommendations. Say hi when you come in the room, say thanks when you leave, and bring your best, most cooperative self to the classroom. You'll also feel more engaged and likely learn more with this approach.
9th and 10th graders
Recently, someone reached out to tell me their student had been assigned to read this post of mine from 2014 by their teacher! I’m humbled, and fortunately, my advice is still appropriate and on target.
Your school may offer the opportunity to take the PSAT or a practice ACT next month.
Learn more about how to think about these purely practice tests from our friends at Compass Prep here.