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Robert S. Schwartz

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The Last And Definitive Word On Writing The Common Application Essay

Posted: 10/04/11 10:30 PM ET

As you read this, your browser is exploding with the search results of Googling, "help with my college essay," or "college application essay help." or, "OMG! Help me with my college essay!" And after reading what everyone and their college application consultant brother have to say on the subject -- you're more confused than ever.

This time of year, my phone rings off the hook with distressed, frantic parents trying to figure out how to help their kid write these things. And the first thing I tell them to do is what I am telling you to do -- sit back, take a deep breath, don't over-think it, and always, always, always remember -- a simple story, well told, will get an applicant further than a complicated one that a college or university admissions person has read a million times before.

So here are a few, no-nonsense, guaranteed steps to make the writing process easier for both overwhelmed applicant and anxious parent alike.

1) Let's set aside the supplemental essay's ("Why Harvard... " or, "What do you bring to Stanford... ") and focus only on the Common Application essay, which offers 6 essay choices. The first 5 are fairly middle-of-the road queries, a one-size-fits-all, if you will. If they truly speak to you and your experiences, these topics -- "Significant relationships," "An issue of personal or social significance," "Describe how you would bring diversity to your college or university" -- will serve you well. The only problem is that an admissions officer has read all of these stories before a million and one times. It's difficult to convince them your "bullying brother story" is any more interesting or unique than "the bullying brother story" they read before yours -- or even the next "bullying brother story" they will read after yours.

So if one of those first 5 choices doesn't get you excited, I often suggest to my students that they go with choice #6 -- "topic of your choice." Sure, it might be a scary proposition to fly without a net, but your odds of telling them a unique story is significantly greater. This is where you can shine.

2) If you don't have access to a college application essay consultant, choose one smart, trusted friend (and not your parent) to be your editor. This is vital, because an interested and inquisitive outsider can get to the heart of you, the subject, faster and easier than someone who sees you simply as their child. Objectivity is tantamount! Once you have chosen someone -- outline your story. Even though the common application essay may be as short as 250 words, I highly recommend using all 500. Break up your story into four paragraphs of 125 words (or 5 paragraphs of 100 words) using bullet points.

Write down what you wish to accomplish in each paragraph. It's so much easier to build a house with blueprints than to start pouring a foundation, building walls, and putting up a roof without one. Once that's done, go ahead and start writing a draft. Don't worry about going over the word count, because you will have plenty of opportunities to edit with later drafts.

3) Once a first draft is complete, give it to that trusted friend and be open to their suggestions and comments. Take the comments you agree with, ignore the ones you do not. This is where your convictions take over. Before you start another draft, set your essay aside for a day or so and let it breathe. Better to come back to it with a clear head and a fresh set of eyes than to rush through a rewrite you might not be ready to tackle.

4) Once a second draft is complete, give it back to that trusted friend, then sit back and wait for the inevitable good news/bad news. As with the first draft, he or she will like some of what you wrote but might also have more notes or comments. Again, you might not agree with what they think, but you are now knee deep into the process and keeping an objective eye will get increasingly difficult.

5) Finally, take that last pass. This is perhaps your final chance to elevate it from very good to really incredible. When you think you have done the best job you can, hand it off to your friend and let them tell you how great it is, or where they think the problems still exist. Again, put the essay down for a day or so and give yourself some more distance from it. Once you're ready to come back to it, now it's time to do a line edit, correcting for punctuation, grammar and spelling.

The college application essay is really your last and best chance to show a college admissions officer who you really are. Some think of the essay as a "tie breaker," something they use when they want to see beyond grades or test scores, which will push an applicant "over the top." Tell a great story. Tell it very, very well. Enjoy the process of edifying the reader. Be smart, be interesting, be yourself. And in the words of Steve Martin -- "be so good they can't ignore you."