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Countdown to August 1 for College Admissions Applicants: Common App Essays and Supplements Go Live

07/19/2013 04:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2013

The Fourth of July and Labor Day used to be the only two dates in summer that most of us paid attention to, but August 1 is fast becoming a summer landmark for rising high school seniors and their often frantic families. As all of them know, it's the day that the Common Application goes live, and students can start filling out applications to the 488 colleges that participate in the program -- from Harvard (Cambridge, MA) to Transylvania University (Lexington, KY) and Franklin College Switzerland (Lugano, Switzerland).

More important, at least in the early days of August, students will be able to click through an individual school's application and learn what, if any, supplementary essays are required -- and know how much more work lies ahead. This year, with the big changes to the Common Application essay, many schools have revamped their supplementary questions.

A good number of schools have already posted theirs for the upcoming year -- and Tufts even made national news with its essay supplement prompt, "What does #YOLO mean to you?" (YOLO = you only live once, a 21st century translation of carpe diem, popularized in Drake's 2011 song "The Motto") -- but many schools are keeping mum on the additional essay questions until August 1.

The schools that have already spilled the beans include Yale, which merely asks students to "reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application," and the University of Chicago, which is famous for its eccentric essay questions. This year Option No. 1 could send admissions officers into gales of laughter. Or not. "Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it." (What joke would you choose?)

Boston College takes a more solemn tone in its extra essay questions, including, "Tell us about a time you had all the facts but missed the meaning," and "Tell us about something you heard or experienced for the first time and how the years since have affected your perception of that moment." Princeton and Columbia haven't yet posted their additional essays. Harvard, for the record, doesn't require a single one, but most people submit something extra, whether it's a video of a concert, a short story, or articles written for the school newspaper.

With Tufts' catchy, cutting-edge question, and the news coverage it got last week, come August 1, I'm hoping we'll see a few more schools opting for colorful supplements. Mostly, I'm hoping we'll see schools asking as few additional questions as possible, for the sake of student sanity.

Regardless of the number and character of questions to come, rising seniors could profitably spend their time in the upcoming days and weeks working on their primary Common App essay (for pointers check out my post earlier this summer) and maybe even getting it done by early August. At the very least, as they refine the list of schools they're interested in, they can check to see if the supplementary essays are posted yet on the individual school's website (look on the Admissions page, and look for links that say APPLY, ADMISSIONS, or refer to "Supplements").

While making a list of schools and their essay requirements, be sure to note that not all schools are members of the Common App. MIT is not a member, nor are leading conservatories (Juilliard, New England Conservatory). A number of state school systems don't participate, notably the University of California schools (UCLA, Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara, etc.), the University of Wisconsin, Florida State, and the University of Florida. These schools have their own essay questions that can't merely be cribbed from the Common App. From the California system's choices: "Describe the world you come from -- for example, your family, community or school -- and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations."

A common question, whether a school is or isn't a Common App member, asks why a students is applying to that particular school. Schools usually want a short answer -- 100 or 150 words, though some want 300 words or more.

Even when the answer must be short, it's important that it be thorough and informed. Study the website, become familiar with the school's mission, philosophy, or any special attributes of the institution (i.e., its size, religious affiliation, location, emphasis on independent study, strength of particular departments, research and internship opportunities) and how these mesh with your background, interests, and ambitions.

In recent years, applying to college has become almost as daunting as going to college -- and maybe even more so. The pressure to write essay after essay can be stifling. It can be downright overwhelming. In that spirit, four more pieces of advice:

1. Start early.
2. Pace yourself.
3. Use the essays to learn more about whether the schools to which you're applying are places where you will feel comfortable. If you're stumped by the essays, it could be that the school isn't the best one for you. Don't worry, if that's what you decide. There are hundreds more schools to choose from.
4. Between now and August 1, spend some time kicking back and doing absolutely nothing.

For occasional advice and college news, please visit my blog

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist and editor who taught writing in Ivy League colleges and universities for many years and now runs Don't Sweat the Essay, an international company helping those applying to college and graduate schools with their essays, personal statements, and applications. She is the author of many books, including the bestselling novel Almost, and editor of two anthologies, including the recent New York Times bestseller, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.