Help! Myths and Mysteries: Q & A with Common Application Essay Tutor

I recently had the pleasure of talking to a group of high school students in a summer writing program about college application essays.

Instead of asking me to give a talk, the director of the program invited the students to ask me whatever was on their minds. We had a lively conversation, covered the most pressing issues around the Common App essay, the personal statement, and the supplements, and I was reminded of how many myths and mysteries there are for applicants every year. Here's a handful of their questions.

1. What essay topics will hurt my application?

The key to a terrific essay is finding a topic that makes you feel energized and ready to write - the one that feels natural, and will therefore make the essay fun to tackle, and something of a personal exploration. But if the topic you hit on is on this taboo list, well, time to do some more soul-searching and brainstorming. You've probably heard some of these prohibitions, but there may be a few here you haven't heard:

Avoid mentioning sex and drugs. (Oldest advice there is.)

Avoid writing about the books that every high school student has to read or probably has read, including Harry Potter in all his incarnations, Twilight, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Game of Thrones, or whatever new sensation has gripped the imagination of millions. It's not at all that colleges frown on these books or frown on your enthusiasm for them. Don't stop reading! It's that calling attention to these blockbuster books - or books on every high school syllabus - won't make your essay stand out. You're looking for material that's uniquely yours.

Skip speeches and academic papers. The essays are personal statements about what matters to you. If you're crazy about ancient history or mitochondria, it can be great to write about your enthusiasm for the topic and why it makes you feel like dancing - but that's quite different from a piece called "Babylonian Religious Artifacts" or "The First Amendment and the Origins of Democracy." Remember, make in personal.

Skip failure, if possible. Prompt Number Two asks students about a failure and what they have learned from it. While I think there is value in each of the Common App essay prompts, if a student has a strong record, ardent passions and an accomplishment or two, I steer them away from writing about failure. The idea of the essays is - in the words of song from the 1940s - to accentuate the positive.

The death of a grandparent. This seems like a heartless prohibition, so let me explain. The admissions folks sympathize with you and your loss. Quite often, a grandparent's death is a young person's first exposure to death. The problem with making it the subject of an essay is that it's too familiar and the emotions around it are predictable. Again, as with Harry Potter and Jay Gatsby, you're going in search of your uniqueness - your fingerprint - in your essay.

Avoid short. The Common App essay can be no longer than 650 words and no shorter than 250 words. The students I work with rarely, if ever, go under 600 words. When you really sit down and do this, 650 words isn't all that many, and most students bemoan the limitations. If your essay is 250 words, 300, or even 400, what message are sending along with those words? To me, the message is: I couldn't be bothered saying more. And the underlying message is: I do the minimum that's required. If that's you and you're comfortable projecting that information, that's your choice. But if you're going to submit 300 or 400 words, especially to highly selective colleges, it's important to understand how they might be received.

Avoid typos and sloppiness. If yoU cant fighr out whut I'm tryingh to sau, how do you thimk collehe admissionz ppl will?!

2. Had I heard about the girl who got into 5 Ivies writing about shopping at Costco?

Yes, I had heard about Brittany Stinson, but I explained to the group that although news headlines made it seem as though it was the essay that had done all the work, it wasn't. "This essay got a high-school senior into 5 Ivy League schools and Stanford," blared Business Insider.

Her essay may have stood out for its originality, but without her stellar high school record, it couldn't have gotten her through these ivy-covered doors. The essay was the icing on a very impressive cake - but the icing alone isn't enough to catapult you into highly selective schools. Grades and the rigor of your high school courses are among the primary criteria that colleges consider. Brittany graduated first in her class for four years, speaks Portuguese and Spanish, took eight Advanced Placement classes, was the vice president of the Science Honors Society and the president of her school's National Honors Society, and did research with a genetics professor.

3. Does the topic of the essay have to relate to what you plan to do in college?

A resounding No! Absolutely not! Think of your essay as an interview, when you've got a brief chance to make an impression on an admissions officer. Talk about a special moment or a special passion - something you can't do without - and why it matters so much to you. You're not auditioning for your major. In fact, in most colleges, you don't declare your major until the end of sophomore year.

4. How do I write about a deep feeling without sounding trite?

This is the challenge of writing for all of us, especially when exploring intense emotion.

I cried my eyes out. I was so upset, I couldn't see straight. It was the worst moment of my life. All of these statements do convey feeling - and serious distress. It's fine to have these clichés and easy responses in your first - and maybe second - draft, but be sure to show your essay to a teacher, counselor or family friend who has a way with words, to make sure someone takes a red pencil to them. Once others scribble "cliché" in the margin, you'll spot them more easily yourself.

What then? How to make your prose original? Read, read, read. I encourage students to develop a New Yorker habit - - and make sure to read a few articles in this first-rate magazine every week, and try some of the novels beyond those that are assigned in class.

Got a question I haven't answered? Please post below, and I'll try my best.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist, editor, and journalist, and founder of the college counseling service, Don't Sweat the Essay.