THE BLOG
07/07/2015 10:04 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2016

10 Simple Tips for Staying Sane While Writing College Application Essays

David Letterman's top ten lists will never lose their appeal. It's as though all the wisdom on any subject can be contained in these simple, breezy lines -- and who knows, maybe they can be. These are general guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Not every applicant will be able to do these in this order and some may be more relevant than others.

1. No magic bullet.

There's no getting around it. The essays are a slog, and if you're applying to schools with many supplements or several schools not on the Common Application, it's a lot of work. But -- the good news! -- doing the work is a way to focus your experience, your perceptions, your goals, and your sense of yourself as a soon-to-be college student, especially during interviews. Finding your voice and your story will help you make that transition.

2. Ask for help -- from people and online.

Writers (and doctors and engineers and parents) ask for help all the time. Just because writing is a solitary activity doesn't mean you shouldn't seek advice and reactions from teachers, guidance counselors, family friends, parents, or the abundant information online. Ask for help brainstorming. Read online posts about how to tackle various questions. Check out college app essays that are posted, but don't be discouraged by them. You're looking at final drafts, not early drafts. Ask for help from teachers, guidance counselors, family friends who are writers or educators -- and/or your parents. And be prepared to rewrite. And rewrite.

3. There are no right answers.

Students often say: What does the school want me to write? The school wants to know what you think and what your experience is. The essay is a kind of interview. Reveal yourself. Make sure you essay tells us what it is that you want the colleges to know about you: Your passions, your talents, your ambitions, the qualities that make you who you are.

4. Choose colleges before you begin writing.

Make a chart of what essays are required for each college:

  1. The topic.
  2. The length.
  3. The due dates.

Have a sense in advance how many essays you might have to do -- whether it's three or 15 or even 20. Some colleges/universities have two, three, four or even more essays. Though the essays may only be 100, 250 or 500 words, they must be well-considered words. Some of the essays are creative ("What makes you happy?"), others are more straightforward (why this college/why your major).

5. If you are applying mostly to schools using the Common Application, it's almost always best to start writing that essay first.

It's critical to know which universities use which essays or groups of essays. 500-plus colleges use the Common Application and many have supplements in addition to the core Common App essay (one essay chosen from five prompts, 650 words). Other universities have their own essays entirely, among them: MIT, Georgetown, Universities of Wisconsin, Texas and California (one application for all nine branches). If you are doing Common App schools, plus MIT, plus Georgetown and U. California schools, that is about 15 essays (from 100 to 500 or 650 words) right there. Once you see the essay requirements all together -- whether they are core essays or supplements -- you might change your mind about your college selections.

6. Recycle essays or passages where you can.

Once you have your list with all the topics and lengths, you can start to see what topics and pieces of essays you might be able to "recycle" and use multiple times. It is not cheating to use the same passages in multiple essays. What you do not want to do is write a generic "Why I Want to Go to X College." If your "Why This College" can be used multiple places, it needs work: specificity, detail, and homework. Study the college, the curriculum and what makes it stand out to you.

7. Which essay should you do next?

It depends on deadlines, recycling, and other factors, such as where you might be applying early action/decision (usually Nov. 1 deadlines). There are no hard and fast rules. If you're applying to the University of California system, you must submit applications during the month of November -- and that's it. A number of big universities are not Common Application schools. If these are top choice universities, you might want to do these first -- even before the Common App essay, as long as you're not applying early elsewhere.

8. Getting down to it.

There are dozens of websites that give advice about the nitty gritty of writing the essays. There are also many sites that publish college essays. DO take a look at these if you need help getting started or getting ideas, but don't feel you must write essays like the ones you're reading. There is a huge variety in college application essays. And keep in mind that the essays you're reading online have been through many drafts. You are not going to turn out a terrific essay in one or two sittings. Don't be discouraged! Prepare to do three or four or more drafts.

9. The writing and language, in a nutshell -- or two:

Much of the advice comes down to: write in your own voice, as though you are talking more than writing an academic paper. The tone should be more informal than the stiff, academic language you would use when writing a history paper. It's sometimes helpful to write the essay as though you're writing a letter to someone -- a friend or mentor.

SS language, word choices and other writing tips:

The essay is not a place to show off your SAT vocabulary or your love of writing poetry. Use SS language: simple and straightforward. But though it's SS, it must be precise, detailed, and specific. For instance: "My parents are in the military and we moved a lot" vs: "My parents are medics in the Army, and we've lived in five countries since I was born, including Poland, Germany, and Botswana." Specific details are always more memorable, and forcing yourself to focus on detail focuses your brain and your powers of perception.

10. It's often great to start an essay with an active example of what you'll be writing about. Put us in the middle of the action and then step back and explain how you got there and how it relates to the essay prompt.

"The conductor pointed his baton to the string section, and we began the fugue that ends the second movement of Brahms' Requiem. My fingers responded to the building excitement of the rapid tempo, and I was enveloped in the sweep of sound. I fell in love with the viola when I was four, and music has been the center of my life since then. I felt joy every Saturday morning when I began my weekly lesson with Mrs. Jones and later that day when I played in our town's youth orchestra."

Or tell a very different sort of story:

"The policeman grabbed me by the arm and demanded I show him my ID. I had no idea what I had done wrong, and I didn't have my wallet with me. I was just riding my bike in San Diego. I didn't think it was a crime to ride on the sidewalk. This was my first experience of discrimination in the United States, where we moved from Algeria when I was 10 years old. It would be the first of many times that I would encounter."

What's the story about yourself that you need to tell?

Elizabeth Benedict writes the popular blog for Don't Sweat the Essay.