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Do-It-Yourself College Applications: 10 Steps to the Common App Essay

08/29/2013 11:42 am ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

Don't have money for a private admissions counselor?

Fear not, neither do most students. You might also be relieved to know that as "complex" and "confusing" as the college application process may sound, putting together your own application and writing your essay without paid advice may, in fact, give you better results. Recently, one former applications counselor commented:

At the very moment when teenagers are invited to offer what they've learned and who they've become, their voices are hijacked by well-meaning adults who think kids can't possibly be allowed to risk answering these questions on their own.

A do-it-yourself approach doesn't mean going it alone. On the contrary. Summon the proofreading skills and counsel of peers, teachers, family members and friends. Carefully and critically read your peers' successful applications. Make use of the many pages of good, free advice online about the Common Application 2013. Check out some of these:

You also want to check your individual university choices as many have smaller supplementary essays, which allow you to add additional information, or explain transcripts and test scores.

Here are the five Common App questions for 2013:

1. Some students have a background or a story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.

All of the questions allow you to show how you could "help build a college class," and demonstrate what is special about the place you live, your community, your challenges and how you will succeed in college. For an insight into the reading process at one elite university, see my Confessions of a College Application Reader from Aug 1, in the New York Times

The Writing Process

1. Find a quiet place to write. Turn off your phone and logout of social media at least until you write 500 words.

2. Pick the question you feel you can answer most fully. Can you best articulate a challenge? Or describe your community? Or both? Imagine a short version of the traditional five paragraph essay scrunched into three or four with an introduction and main theme or thesis, one or two paragraphs of development, and a conclusion.

3. The first introductory paragraph should provide a tangible image of yourself in action. Remember, college application readers will spend about eight minutes reading your application. Avoid telling your story in real-time with its many triumphs and tragedies. Instead, offer a snapshot of a single moment or event that describes you: a connection with others, a personal achievement or the overcoming of a challenge. Students with successful applications have used a variety of images and themes such as: A hospital volunteer described holding the hands of a terminally ill patient. Another student captured the moment of reconciliation with an estranged sibling. Sometimes an object in the household that is dear to you says a lot: the grandfather clock that stood in the hallway of a Chinese-American student's home and represented to him his hybrid culture.

4. In your development paragraph(s) make sure to describe yourself and your passions vividly, in clear, emotionally moving language of your own. You don't need to tell a heartbreaking story, just one that rings true about a person of your age on the verge of going away from home.

5. College applications that are considered "helpful" are ones that depict you in your personal cultural, socio-economic world. Since many colleges, especially ones in California since Proposition 209 are no longer allowed to ask these questions, application readers are nevertheless still instructed to seek out students, who come from populations underrepresented in higher education. Write about your background. This especially important if you are a first generation college student who will be the first in your family to attend college.

6. Neither first generation nor from an underrepresented group? No great social or economic "stressors" in your life? Remember that your family, like just about every American family will be struggling to pay for college. So, don't apologize for your comparative lack of social suffering. Rather, elaborate on your gifts and describe them positively, especially when articulating a challenge. Here are two examples, one negative, written with many negative grammatical constructions ("had not," "would not," etc.) that could detract from your image; one more positive, more specific and concrete which clearly demonstrates how you can master your challenges:
a. Had my family not moved across the country while I was in my sophomore year of high school, and had I not been forced out of my comfort zone into a new and frightening place away from my beloved home, I would not have had the opportunity to broaden my horizons.
b. Moving from New York to El Paso and changing high schools in my sophomore year challenged me to discover a new environment and culture, where I also encountered some surprising connections between my old and new homes.

7. After you have positively described your challenges and world, you also have an opportunity to explain missteps on your transcript and/or standardized tests. Many schools have a separate short essay where you can explain these. If not, a short, direct explanation will do. Here's a chance to show both how you can shine, accept responsibility and also let your readers know how well you coped with the situation. Again, avoid negative language and describe how you've learned to cope and succeed.

8. Conclude with a snapshot of you, as you hope to be, with the benefit of a college education. Sometimes a quote from a text you read in school can help. Sometimes you just want to show how you can positively contribute to the next year's class, and one day to public life. Here are two endings from successful applicants, which both communicate a good message for a conclusion.

a. With the benefit of a college education I hope to do what Ralph Ellison's invisible man could not: Be public, visible, audible so I can take in new worlds and write about them to promote a better quality of life for all.
b. I am eager to join the class of 2014-15 and engage in all the conversations and work that make college a place for greater understanding between people.

9. Get a friend, teacher or family member with good grammar and vocabulary to proofread and comment on your essay. Then edit again yourself for style, organization and concision. Find at least one other reader to make sure you have not introduced new errors. Versions three and up should look completely different from the first couple of drafts.

10. Once you have finished your own essay, see what other application writers are writing. Offer to proofread and comment on a peer's work. Check social media. It's both enlightening and reassuring to hear the larger conversation about college applications and know you're in the same boat with others. Just a few minutes of social media research here will suffice. Remember, you need to get ready to write the shorter essays that follow.