26 Weeks to College: Week 5

Thanks to the work you’ve done over the last four weeks, you are ready to get started on your Common App essays!
September 6, 2019

Get Started on the Common Application Essays

Thanks to the work you’ve done over the last four weeks, you are ready to get started on your essays, while continuing to make progress on other application related tasks.



  • Gather the essay questions from all of your applications. You should be able to access all of the applications within your Common App account for the colleges on your list. Even if the application for a specific college isn't out yet, the essay questions are published there. Add your schools to the My Colleges tab, then go to your Dashboard tab and click on the “Show more details” down arrow for each school to find the essay questions.

  • Create an Essay Map for yourself that identifies where you can use one essay for multiple applications. Even if you discover that there are 25 essays required among the various applications for the colleges on your list (a relatively common number), you won't have to write 25 essays. Look for questions that are the same or similar, and note those as essay questions that can be answered with one essay.

  • Choose your topic for your Common Application personal essay. This essay will be a foundational essay for you, so it is the place to begin.

  • Extra help: Upgrade your free version of Inline (download at inlinecoach.com and then upgrade when you get to the Writing section in your Common App) to unlock in-browser help with your essays.

  • Begin working on the writing for your first application. For most applicants, their first application consists of the Common Application and a College Supplement. This means the application will have multiple writing components to it: the Common Application personal essay, along with some additional writing questions on the College Supplement. Refer to the Essay Map you created to know what writing questions you will have to address on this first application.

  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like. Note: very few of you should have this to-do on your list because you are following Week 3's advice about exhibiting restraint when it comes to these kinds of materials.

  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see if and when admissions representatives will be coming to your school, your community, or a place near your home. Note these visits on your calendar and do your best to connect with the admissions representatives then. (We’ll have more advice about how to take advantage of these opportunities in a few weeks.)

  • Begin working on your first scholarship application. If you have identified scholarships for yourself that require separate applications, get to work on those now.

  • Continue researching scholarships. If you haven't already identified the scholarships available from the colleges on your list, revisit Week 3. Now focus on identifying scholarships available from businesses, civic and community organizations, religious organizations, foundations and the like. We discussed that way back in Week 1, so we’ll repost it below as well.

  • Prep for your upcoming standardized tests. Last week you made a test prep schedule for yourself. It will only work if you work it! So go to it.


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


Commit the time and energy necessary to produce your best essays for your college applications.

One thing we know for sure about writing: it is a multi-step process that takes time and energy to do well. No one does their best writing in one draft. No one dashes off something profound in 30 minutes on the eve of a deadline. No one produces a standout essay without devoting considerable time and energy. NO ONE.

Draft, then revise, then finalize.

Each of these steps in the writing process engages a different part of your brain and requires you to do distinct tasks. Most applicants make the mistake of trying to do all three at once. That makes it much harder than it needs to be. Instead, do it step by step.

  • Draft. In this step, focus on developing and organizing your ideas.
  • Revise (next week’s topic!). When you are revising, focus on the flow of the essay and on making sure your voice comes through loud and clear. An essay that flows well carries the reader effortlessly from one idea to the next and makes reading it a pleasure for the admissions officer. An essay that has a strong voice is one that uses word choice, tone, and rhythm to make the essay distinctively yours. Admissions officers yearn for voice in the personal essays because that is how the admissions officer is getting to know the real you.
  • Finalize (the week after that!). This is the step that allows you to get everything just so. Here you focus on making sure the essay has correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation and is free of typos.

Don't get carried away with reusing answers.

As you are making your Essay Map, you are looking for opportunities to reuse answers so you can work smarter, not harder. But don’t get carried away when it comes to reusing answers. Remember that your goal is to get into the colleges on your list, not to complete your applications with the fewest essays possible.

You should only reuse an answer as-is if the questions are nearly identical. If the questions are similar, but distinct, you should revise your answer for each question. This is especially true for the “Why College X” questions. A generic answer will add nothing to your application and might even detract if it is inaccurate or non-responsive for a particular college, which often happens.

Use your story from Week 2 as your guide for choosing the best topic for your Common App personal essay.

You have a choice of five topics on this year’s Common Application. But before you spend hours analyzing the pros and cons of each of these topics, we want to remind you that the real topic of all of the essay questions is YOU. No matter what the stated topic is, it is nothing more than a prompt to get you to write about the real topic, which is YOU.

Since your goal in your application is to “tell your story," your story is your guide for choosing which topic is best for you. Referring back and forth between your story and your choices for topics, choose the topic that will allow you to speak to your most essential qualities or your most formative experiences. That’s the best topic for you.

Once you’ve completed this week’s to-dos, you can consider yourself officially launched! And if you’ve been dawdling, we hope you’ll be encouraged to get caught up before you find yourself way behind.

  • Just write. Stephen King, a prolific writer, is noted for saying that when it comes to writing, “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” Getting started on your college application essays can be quite scary, but the only way to alleviate your fear is to start writing. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing at this point. You are in the drafting phase right now, so just start writing. If you are following the 26 Weeks plan, you have time to revise and polish. But if you let the fear get the best of you, you’ll find yourself at your deadline without having written anything. That is a much scarier place to be! Start, and as Stephen King promises, it will get better.
  • Structure your essay as a story. Most of you have learned to structure an essay with an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. That organization works great for an academic essay, but it makes for a deathly dull personal essay. So ditch it and structure your essay as a story instead. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can and should use the first person as needed (I, me, etc.) That structure grabs the reader and keeps them interested until it releases them at the end. Capturing and keeping the attention of your reader – the admissions officer – is the name of the game. Structuring your essay as a story is the way to do it.
  • Show, don’t tell. What is the one essential element that all great essays share? They show, rather than tell. When you show the admissions officer something about yourself, the admissions officer actually has a direct experience of it. Not only that, but if you show, then the admissions officer also gets evidence that what you are saying about yourself is true. Direct experiences are far more memorable, and evidence is far more convincing. That’s why showing is the best way to influence an admissions officer in your favor, and why all great essays show rather than tell.

Sit down now and try your hand at drafting an essay that is structured as a story and shows the admissions officer something important about you. If you do that, you are on your way to a standout application!

Use your prior test score reports to make your test prep more efficient and effective.

If you have already taken any of the standardized tests (SAT, ACT, SAT Subjects), you have one or more test score reports. If you are like most applicants, you zeroed in on your test scores and ignored everything else contained within the reports.

Now is the time to pay attention to all that information you ignored earlier. That information shows which questions you got right, which questions you skipped, and which questions you got wrong on each section of the test. It also shows the relative level of difficulty for each question and the general topic area for the question. In other words, if you are retaking the test, it lays out your personalized test prep plan for you!

Analyze the report to find out where you need to improve and then concentrate your test preparation there. Let’s say you want to improve your Critical Reading score and you discover that the Sentence Completion questions were your big downfall on your prior tests, but that you did really well on Passage Based Reading questions. How should you spend your time preparing? By focusing on Sentence Completion questions – not the Passage Based Reading questions or the Critical Reading section in general.

What you need to know about scholarship searches.

There's good news and bad news when it comes to scholarship searches. The bad news is that scholarship scams abound, and every year thousands of hopeful college applicants and their families get duped by them. It is so tempting to sign up for a service that "guarantees" you'll get a scholarship, but the only guarantee is that you'll never see the money you paid to this service again. Before you pay a single dollar to a scholarship search service, use this checklist to evaluate whether you are about to become a victim of a scam rather than the recipient of legitimate assistance.

The good news is that there are scholarships out there and that it is relatively easy for you to identify them for FREE thanks to the internet. You can use a tool like Fastweb or FinAid and the College Board’s Scholarship Search.

One note about "free" scholarship search services: They are free to you, but many of them are for-profit enterprises. So who pays? For the most part, these sites are supported by colleges, scholarship organizations, and financial aid related companies (such as lenders). They pay these sites so that they can have access to you! They want to sell you on themselves. So once you sign up for these services, you will likely become a target of a lot of marketing including internet advertisements, e-mails, and snail mail. Our advice? Just deal with the hassle factor of all this extra stuff coming your way. It is worth it to get the information you need about scholarships for free.

In other words, the easiest way to avoid being the victim of a scam is simply to do your research.

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