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Juniors and Common App Essays: Wait to Write Them

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Juniors got a huge head start with their college applications when Common Application announced their 2013-14 essay topics last week. All of the topics are here, and are part of a number of changes in Common App's essay section:

  • Common App has done away with the short essay that was required for all applicants.
  • These essay topics are for the first part of the Common Application. If an individual college wants students to write additional essays, those will be found in the Supplement section of Common App.
  • The word limit for the new essays has been raised to 650 words, and the essay instructions make it clear that students don't have to write 650 words -- it's fine if their essay is complete in less than 650 words, as long as it's at least 250 words long.
  • At the same time, the new maximum of 650 words will be strictly enforced. In the past, some students have written well past the maximum; that won't be allowed next year.

The new offerings leave out what's been the most popular topic among students: "Write an essay on the topic of your choice." Students were extremely unhappy when this omission was announced in the fall, but the Common Application committee charged with developing the new essay topics made sure the choices would be very broad, allowing students ample opportunity to tell their individual stories. (Full disclosure: I was on the selection committee.)

Common Application decided to release the new topics at this time to make sure everyone understood a change was coming -- one change of many, as Common App prepares to roll out a new version of the entire application, CA4, on August 1. The essay topics now give students something to think about when it comes time to start writing college essays...

... and that time is not now. Knowing some juniors may decide this is the time to start applying, Common Application posted this notice on their Facebook page:

JUNIORS: Just because you know what our colleges will ask you to write about doesn't mean you should start writing. It's February 6. You have more pressing things to do. You'll have plenty of time to be a college applicant. For now, just be a student.

Truer words were never spoken. The essays and assignments teachers give juniors are designed to develop the skills colleges want to see in college essays -- skills like analysis, critical thinking, and evaluation. If students can hone those skills now with a lab report, a History paper, or an English essay, they will surely apply them later with a Common App prompt like "describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?"

You want to make sure your essays are engaging, and nothing kills inviting writing like too many rewrites. Several college admissions officers say students are writing essays that are "safe," writing that has good structure, but doesn't really tell the reader much about the student. This lack of color will only go up if you agonize over a small essay for up to 10 months -- make sure you tell your parents that when they suggest you spend this weekend cranking out a first draft.

College essays are part of an exciting process, but the glory of the Super Bowl comes only to those who master the nuances of training camp. Common Application has shown you the goal line, but now it's time for more training; hit the books, write for your classes, and put the college essays on hold.