12/14/2012 09:23 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

The Common App Lowdown

This is part of our monthly series 'Mission: Accepted,' in partnership with Minds Matter, which chronicles the lives of four students as they apply for college in their senior year.

Most colleges accept the common application, which, in my opinion, is the greatest thing ever to happen to the college process. Before this gift came into being, college hopefuls had to fill out separate applications for every school. So most people were banished to their rooms, pen in hand, to labor over a pile of applications while watching the clock move ever so slowly.

Alas, the college gods threw us a bone, and now we can use the common app -- the majority of schools accept it, and it can be completed online. No more licking stamps or making multiple trips to the nearest post office. Yes, the common app is the best -- but that doesn't mean it's easy. It's still pretty long and takes several hours to fill out. There is a ton of information to enter, and you may not know all of it off the top of your head (like exactly how many hours of community service you do a year, or what awards you won back in your freshman year). Luckily, I started early. In my junior year, the college counselors made us fill out a practice copy of the common app. This was a great exercise because when senior year came around, the application was only a matter of transferring information. This made things a lot easier, and I would recommend it to all applicants. Thank you, Mr. George and Mr. Clark!

After I filled out all the basic information, it really came down to the essay portion -- the biggest challenge. The main essay is the 500-word one I've been working on since last year. As a junior mentee in Minds Matter, I had to write a few personal statements for practice. I remember giggling with my mentors as they pitched me funny topics and I wondered how I could bring my personality to them and craft my entire story in two pages. After going through this process, I had two essays in my arsenal, but they didn't meet my expectations. Both did a good job of describing my experiences, but they focused too much on events and not enough on me. They didn't show off my great sense of humor or my desire to be the first in my family to go to college or why I would be a good fit for a particular school. They didn't talk about my family and my interests. When my senior fall started, I felt that I was back at square one. Would I ever find a way to convey the whole me?

I haven't had the smoothest ride on the roller coaster that is my life. I turned back the clock and thought about some of the darker times, because it is during these moments of adversity that you often discover more about yourself. What I learned about myself is that I have yet to find the one place where I truly feel comfortable, and so I chose to write about my desire to find a home in college. I sat in front of my laptop and the words just flowed. I wrote everything that came to my mind. I wrote about my experiences growing up, my strained relationship with my parents and the challenges I have overcome. The essay ended up being more than 500 words, but I didn't worry too much because I knew I could revise later -- the information was all there; I just had to trim the essay to perfection. (This is why you have to write essays ahead of time and not a few hours before you submit them!) After a couple more drafts, I was done!

My advice: Write a few different essays about a range of topics, making sure to always connect them back to yourself and how you've grown. Believe me, starting early and having several essays will save you a lot of time and stress.